Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 519-530
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Beyond Honor and Shame:
Performing Gender in the Mediterranean
George Washington University
In Veiled Sentiments, her now classic ethnography of the Bedouin Awlad 'Ali, Lila Abu-Lughod shows how a culturally sanctioned poetic form can enable critique of and maneuver within a society which defines morality in terms of adherence to the principles of honor and modesty. Awlad 'Ali recite ghinnawas, a form of traditional oral poetry characterized by the creative use of formulaic phrases and a set of common themes and metaphors, in the course of conversations; these ghinnawas often present a state of mind that is strikingly different from those conveyed in mundane conversation and public discourse. In a society where "honor" is associated with independence, autonomy, and stoic acceptance of hardship, and "modesty" or "shame" with masking one's sexuality and romantic attachments, ghinnawas present a world of sentiment, of attachment and vulnerability. In effect, they provide the Awlad 'Ali—both men and women—with a second culturally constituted and sanctioned discourse for expressing interpersonal experiences, one in which they are able to express sentiments that would otherwise violate the codes of honor and modesty. Thus, when the wife of a man from an important family runs away, he speaks in mundane conversation about finding who is to blame for "ruining" her; her flight is viewed as an insult to his lineage. Yet in private, he [End Page 519] recites several ghinnawas that convey his grief and pain at this loss, and his desire to see his wife again:
Cooking with the liquid of tears
at a funeral done for the beloved...
Her bad deeds were wrongs that hurt
yet I won't repay them, still dear the beloved... (1986: 189).
Through its examination of this poetic genre, Veiled Sentiments presents a cogent elaboration and critique of the most pervasive paradigm of Mediterranean anthropology, what is often referred to as the honor/shame syndrome. Indeed, "honor" and "shame" have become so canonical in the study of Mediterranean societies that it is hard to escape them. In the same way that "hierarchy" and "caste" became, in the 1950s and 60s, the primary lens through which many social scientists studied South Asia, and "filial piety" and "social face" came to be seen as the driving forces of traditional East Asian cultures, "honor" and "shame" became the anthropological buzzwords for a cultural "syndrome" that was thought to characterize Mediterranean societies. The foundational publication in this regard came from a group of anthropologists associated with the Oxford school of social anthropology, led by John Peristiany and Julian Pitt-Rivers. Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (1966), edited by Peristiany, argued that "there exists a sex-linked, binary opposition in which honor is associated with men and shame with women" (quoted in Magrini 2003: 12). Throughout the anthropological literature on Mediterranean societies, men were portrayed as obsessed by maintaining honor and upholding the family name at all costs, while women were represented as "silent, passive, and marginal figures who were secluded in their houses, modestly covered head to toe in order to exorcise the potential sensuality of their bodies, and removed from any outside activity or role" (Magrini 2003: 13). This stereotype spread from anthropology to the popular press, so that honor/shame became a way of explaining the history of Mediterranean societies in terms of a cultural essence, an intractable and problematic "syndrome." If in anthropological literature this powerful mode of representation served to deny individuals (and especially women) any sense of agency, in the journalistic press, it was used effectively to deny the existence of legitimate politics in these societies, to label them as "premodern." Even in the late 1990s, during the Balkan crisis, the honor/shame complex was repeatedly invoked to explain the "ancient hatreds" that supposedly accounted for the political conflicts of the region. [End Page 520]
Abu-Lughod's book challenges this totalizing vision by showing that among the Awlad 'Ali...