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Gender roles and relationships in Islamic societies are best understood through historical and religious context. This is because social norms and customs that regulate the behaviours of Muslim men and women are rooted in sacred texts and pivotal events, that date back to the formative period of the faith. As a result, complex cultural systems have been established with multiple layers of meaning that make it difficult for foreign scholars to study gender in Islamic countries.
Western notions of gender can impede a proper understanding of these societies, even more so if this value system is projected upon Islamic traditions. This why Elizabeth Fernea’s, Guests of the Sheik ‘An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village’, has proven to be a critical resource in the study of gender relations within Islam. Her firsthand observation of a small rural village in Iraq provides unique insights into the personal experiences of local women and the socio-religious principles that frame their daily lives. In describing a society that is very different from her own, Fernea assists readers in discovering the inner operations of a highly-gendered space.
Upon arrival, Fernea struggled with cultural norms that regulated her appearance in public, in addition to her encounters with local men and women. For example, Muslim women wore the traditional abaya and Fernea became self-conscious focused on unwanted stares, due to the reason that she initially refused to wear one. As a non-Muslim, she did not feel the need to dress in the same way as other women and stated “This is ridiculous, I told myself. Why should I have to wear that ugly thing – it’s not my custom.” Here, she was projecting her own values on the gendered dress codes of another culture and had yet to learn that specific clothing was essential for Muslim women, when appearing in public. They abided by this social norm because the Qur’an encouraged them to cover themselves and wearing the abaya helped them avoid any labels of being immoral. Additionally, Fernea would also learn about the strict gender roles that shape domestic life, when Mohammed, a servant of the Sheik and the only male she was permitted to interact with, asked her not to tell anyone that he helped wash dishes. This was because “…he would be shamed among men for doing women’s work.” Islamic societies like Iraq for instance, differentiated between men and women’s appearance, behaviour and duties at home and in the public. Therefore, Fernea soon realized that fear of shame, damaging one’s reputation, or violating religious rules, was of paramount importance in her new society.
For non-Muslims, finding meaning in a complex cultural system that dates back in time to ancient and medieval societies, can be difficult. With gender roles recently codified by the emerging Islamic nation states of the twentieth century, it has become especially challenging to understand how Muslim women represent themselves and assert various forms of agency. Yet, having gradually submerged herself within this system, Elizabeth Fernea’s ethnographic study revealed social dynamics of gender, that are often misunderstood by the West. Even though they are profoundly patriarchal and patrilineal societies, women attach significant meaning to the family unit and form strong bonds within them.
Fernea describes the shock of local women when they find out that her mother was still in the United States. They felt sorry for her as, “To be alone without any of one’s womenfolk was clearly the greatest disaster which could befall any girl.” They were also surprised that elders did not live with families, while Fernea herself was impressed at the willingness of local women to marry or not marry, based on the interest of their family. As a result, she could uncover how honor not only shapes gender identity and relationship, but serves as a source of self-worth and belonging. Since the actions of individuals reflect the integrity of the entire family, the Qur’an provides Islamic societies with gendered codes of conduct, that help maintain these certain ethics. Consequently, adherence to these rules is adherence to God, or in other words Allah, which in turn provides meaning to the lives of Muslim women, in what can be described as predominately patriarchal communities.
Furthermore, the modern country of Iraq is also part of the historical schisms and sectism that has come to shape Islamic history, since the time of the prophet Muhammad and his family. Even though she was in a small rural village, the experiences of local women were still interrelated with the Sunni-Shia divide, the heritage of the Caliphates and Sultans, along with the histories of regional tribes and sheiks. Fernea was also able to observe women who had been influenced by the West and the social change occurring in the capital city of Baghdad. In doing so, her ethnography can go beyond stereotypes and prevalent misconceptions about gender in Islamic society. The image of the isolated and alienated stranger is replaced by religious women, moving within the daily rhythms of their faith. Fernea summarized her observations by stating “…I could tell my friends in America again and again that the veiling and seclusion of Eastern women did not mean necessarily that they were forced against their will to live lives of submission and near serfdom.” The West, like Islamic societies, is entrenched into its own culturally relative customs, that can be difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective.
In her case, Fernea could observe the interplay between gender roles, honor and reputation, that is uncommon in places like the United States and Canada for instance, but essential to Islam. The Qur’an provided the image and character traits of the archetypical Muslim man and woman, which gradually evolved into broader societal demands with strong repercussions. Therefore, the women from El Nahra in Iraq, like most Muslim women, are able to find meaning in these well-established traditions and values within their close-knit family relations. This might be tough to observe from a distance, although an ethnographic study like Guests of the Sheik was able to reveal the purpose of a highly-gendered space and the depth that can be extracted from this cultural construct.
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