bedouin songs

I wrote this about Abu-Lughod's book Veiled Sentiments:

The Awlad’ Ali Bedouins Abu-Lughod describes in Veiled Sentiments, live under the strict constructs of an “honor code” that guides most aspects of daily life and social interactions. This “honor code” dictates which characteristics are elevated and which actions are socially acceptable in the community, as the Awlad’ Ali believe that the most honorable are those whose lives most closely embody the rules. The concept of asl, the blood of ancestry, is central to Bedouin life, and to this notion of an “honor code.”

Bloodties and the notion of kinship link Bedouin communities together, and tie them back to the rich history of Western Desert Arabs. To the Awlad’ Ali, this pedigree is the foundation of their identity. They believe that “a person’s nature and worth [is] closely tied to the worthiness of his or her stock,” and that “nobility of origin is believed to confer moral qualities and character” (45). This is viewed through the Awlad’ Ali’s disdain for Egyptians. In their minds, when Moses parted the Red Sea, escaping through the waters that would later kill Pharoah’s men, the only males left in Egypt were servants. These servants, the Bedouins claim, are the ancestors of the Egyptians; lower ancestry, or the “absence of genealogy implies lesser moral worth” (87). Thus, asl is at the root of the community, socializing notions of shame and honor based on family ties.

The Awlad’ Ali people believe in both a basic value of equality and in a hierarchical system for living. The blood of ancestry supports this dichotomy. Because all members of a family share the same basic blood and genealogy, they are hypothetically considered equal. Man, woman, or child, they share the same nobility of pedigree, and the same claim to protection and support from their family line. At the same time, the Bedouins live under the constraints of a hierarchical system. While all members of the Awlad’ Ali are considered equal in an overarching sense, there is a natural understanding of authority. Bedouin young men defer to older, more established men, and women and children defer to the male heads of their households. Still, the system seems to maintain itself without trouble, due to the recognition that social position is not fixed.

Members of the Awlad’ Ali are respected and socially elevated as they put their lives in accordance with the honor code, the system of morals and values strictly adhered to within the confines of the community (78-79). Born into lower positions than those of Bedouin men, women seem naturally disadvantaged. Still, women are able to up their position through natural deference to their fathers, brothers, and other male superiors. Likewise, respected men may fall from grace through unacceptable social behavior. Thus, lower level Awlad’ Ali maintain the unequal system because it supports them and provides the opportunity for advancement. Higher ranking Awlad’ Ali do not abuse their positions of power, because in doing so, they run the healthy risk of losing them. Abu-Lughod writes, “persons in such positions have a greater responsibility to uphold the cultural ideals, and it is their embodiment of the ideals that justifies their responsibility for, and control over, others….It is perhaps ironic that greater control entails more stringent requirements of conformity, rather than license to break the social rules” (97).

But why are female Awlad’ Ali subordinate to their male kin? Abu-Lughod argues that within the Awlad’ Ali community, females are naturally lower than men based on the notions of dependency and moral inferiority. Self-sufficiency, self-mastery, and independence, are highly prized in the community. Women’s natural dependence on men, whether husbands, fathers, or brothers, within the economic system, subjugates them to a lower level than their male providers. Despite this inequality, traditionally gendered roles only serve to maintain the system and ensure that women will never be completely autonomous. In addition to their predisposed dependence on men, women are naturally subjugated thanks to traditional stigmas about the female person.

Bedouin men are thought to be strong, honest, and straightforward, while women are viewed as weak, fearful, and devilish (124). In Awlad’ Ali ideology, women are morally inferior to men due to the association of the female body with reproduction, which, “although positive in itself, is tainted by its concomitants: menstruation and sexuality” (119). This culturally negative identification of women prevents them from achieving the same standard of moral virtue as Bedouin men. Abu-Lughod notes that menstruation undermines a woman’s piety because it is a natural force over which she has no control, representing her “inescapable weakness and lack of…independence” (129). The natural “pollution” of menstruation leaves a woman unclean, unable to pray or participate in religious activity. Men, associated with purity, “face no ‘natural’ restrictions on the performance of their religious duties” (130). For males in Awlad’ Ali there appears to be a natural basis for domination, just as there remains a natural basis for female inferiority. This natural dominance of men creeps over into the discussion of sexuality.

Sexuality undermines the position of women because it threatens the androcentric social system. Pregnancy, or fertility, is inescapable evidence of a woman’s sexual activity. When a woman becomes pregnant due to her natural passions, she loses control of herself, acting as nothing more than the channel or vehicle through which men are able to perpetuate their lineages. Ironically, even the children born to her, who will later secure her position among her husband’s kin, “initially make her more dependent on her husband,” thus, increasing his control, and decreasing her ability to attain the cultural ideal of self-mastery (133). Furthermore, women’s association with sexuality drives them further from the Bedouin notion of ‘agl, or social sense, which relates to the importance of embodying the ideals of the social system. Sexuality’s negative stigma in the social system, and women’s unwitting link to it, relegates them to receiving “less of the honor which accrues from greater ‘agl” (134). Finally, sexuality harms women by “threatening the solidarity of the agnatic kin group itself” (145). Sexual bonds between husband and wife compete against kinship bonds. When a woman marries, and leaves her kinsmen for those of her husband, her posterity becomes inherently linked to her husband’s line, instead of her own. This fact alone attests to the high number of first-cousin marriages among the Awlad’ Ali. By inter-marrying, the community is able to increase its prosperity, and aid in preserving the purity of the bloodline.

In spite of women’s naturally inferior position, they are not without methods to maintain their honor. Hasham, the honor of the weak, plays a key role in women’s day-to-day lives. Voluntary action is a sign of independence, thus, within the Bedouin community, “voluntary deference [to authority] is…the honorable mode of dependency” (104). In addition to voluntary deference, hasham encompasses notions of shame. Women defer to higher authorities out of respect; they feel shame in a higher person’s presence over their own subordinate positions. Abu-Lughod notes that the Bedouins “do not attribute the separation of the women and the young from the adult male world to the men’s wish to exclude the others; rather, they understand it as the response of the weak to their discomfort in the presence of the more powerful” (116). Women, being lower than men, are almost expected to feel shamed more often, and “tahasham” away from male authority more regularly. Along those lines, while willfulness is a respectable quality in any Bedouin, male or female, it is more highly nurtured among males, who will naturally defer less than their female counterparts.

Probing farther than the idea of shame, the concept of hasham is also deeply wedded in Bedouin ideas of modesty. Bedouin women’s attire bespeaks their social position. The two distinctive items of women’s clothing are red belts and black veils. These articles symbolize the sexuality and shame of the female gender. Red belts, worn by married women, symbolize the woman’s fertility and association with life (136). They are inherently linked to a woman’s sexuality as the only time a married woman removes her belt is to sleep with her husband. To go without a belt is to scandalize the community. Abu-Lughod relates the sentiments of a man who explained that “for an adult woman to go without a belt signaled that she was ‘ready for anything,’ again implying sexuality” (136). Black veils, the other item of female dress, can also be linked to sexuality.

Veils literally “blacken the face; thus, they symbolize shame, particularly sexual shame” (138). Abu-Lughod conveys an Awlad’ Ali myth describing where black veils originated. The myth details the story of an ideal Bedouin woman (chaste, with no inclination toward men) who is tricked into marrying, and then blindly cast off by her evil mother in law, who engages in an incestuous relationship with her son. The story ends with the explanation that all women’s veils are black because of the shameful actions of the man’s mother. This association of women’s black veils with the act of incest links females with a “negatively valued sexuality” (142). Despite veiling’s negative connotations, it can endow women with some measure of power.

Women veil in compliance with the codes of modesty, to show their deference towards authority figures. Yet, they have some degree of liberty in their decisions concerning who to veil for and who not to. By not veiling for a particular man, a woman exerts that she feels equal or superior to him in social status. Still, women veil more often than not. The concept of “veiling, and hasham generally, indicate a woman’s recognition of sexuality’s place in the social system and her wish to distance herself from it, thus asserting her possession of ‘agl, or the social sense to conform to the system’s ideals” (162). In veiling, women show their respect for the system, and gain the honor open to the “weak and morally inferior” (162).

As seen through the concepts of modesty and hasham, the Bedouin honor code does more than dictate how it is appropriate for one to act in specific situations, it goes further to dictate how one is supposed to feel. Not only are women supposed to veil, they are supposed to feel shame in the presence of their betters. Such behavior is honorable and respectable. But what happens if an Awlad’ Ali does not feel the way he or she traditionally should? The ghinnawas, or little songs, of the Bedouins attest to vulnerable sentiments within the community. The discourse of poetry, or discourse of “anti-Structure,” as Abu-Lughod calls it, refers to the intimate poetry of the Bedouins. This poetry is a culturally-avowed art form that ironically conveys sentiments that are not culturally acceptable. For example, when an older woman is abandoned by her husband, the honorable reaction she must convey is one of disdain, indifference, or anger. A woman would be scolded for expressions of hurt, pain, or longing for her lost husband; yet, these exact sentiments are empathized with and allowed when channeled through the medium of ghinnawas. Thus, a dichotomy of sentiments is allowed among the Bedouin Alwad’ Ali.

This discourse of “anti-Structure,” though seemingly in opposition to the community’s standards, helps to preserve, rather than threaten the honor code, because it “acts as a corrective [to the society’s] obsession with morality and…overzealous adherence to the ideology of honor” (259). Without such a standardized template for the expression of wayward, human sentiments, Abu-Lughod exerts that the honor ideology “would foster defensive and belligerent attitudes and make nearly impossible many forms of human intimacy” (259). Thus, the poetry of the Bedouin Awlad’ Ali, instead of exerting enough dissent to tear the fabric of society, merely serves as an outlet to release societal strain and keep the community together.

Abu-Lughod’s discussion of the Bedouin community of the Awlad’ Ali displays a deep understanding of the community’s gender relations with regard to honor, shame, and the divisive contradictions of the social system.

No comments: