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Gender can be defined as a set of characteristics that are perceived to distinguish between male and female in the society. With regard to the relevant context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to gender identity to social role. In the book by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea titled Guests of the Sheik: an Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, she accompanies her husband to an Iraqi village where she describes her experiences regarding gender in that society. Women even in this age continue to be oppressed at the hands of men due to cultural reasons. The book points out from the beginning her misgivings about being an outsider. Throughout many societies and in this case, the middle east, women appear to have no significant role in the society, the role that could influence things in the day to day happenings of the society. Elizabeth gives us an insight into the traditions of an Iraqi village in her book where she explores the element of gender deeply and the significance on the role of women in Iraq in present day.
Elizabeth Fernea who the women in the village call Beeja puts across experiential information about the life of both men and women and their different roles in the society. She also goes further exploring her role within her husband’s life as it shows upon the alien eastern culture. Elizabeth stays with her husband Bob on the outskirts of the Iraqi village as she writes this narrative of her experiences. The role of women in this Iraqi community would require of her to conform to gender0based norms that exist in their traditions. She experiences this first hand when in their first meeting with the sheik for lunch, her husband Bob was to eat with men in the Sheik’s mudhif also known as guest house and herself in the Harem which is the women’s quarters. She is also forced to abide by the dress code known as abayahs that is considered appropriate for a woman in this culture. Without this dress, she risks being insulted since here they believe that an uncovered woman is an immoral woman.
It is clear from the onset that women in these communities have traditional norms that they have to abide by not because they are right but because they are so weak to even think of challenging these norms. Some of them are ridiculous as Elizabeth noticed where women were not allowed to mix with men. Role of women is tightly attached to rearing of children. Sheik has different types of wives of different ages though they all have the role of upbringing children. The sheik has the several wives some of whom he does not love so much to the current who is also the most favorite. This fact almost surely brings about jealousy among the wives because some are favored by the Sheik than the rest. These women though recognize and respect the sheik as the authority and wouldn’t forego his orders. Fernea learns that not only the sheik that the women share in this society bit also their responsibility of bringing up their children. Therefore raising up children is a very important aspect of women in this Iraqi village, which is why Fadhila who is a commoner’s wife is unable to bear children thus her role in the society, is questionable because of the childlessness. All the fingers are pointed at her and not the husband. This is the kind of oppression women have to endure even in this generation, almost an exact opposite to what the western world is experience.
Ethnography in the city, Bourgois brings out the many reasons and the complex roles that the cities perform. Bourgiois who moved with his wife and son to East Harlem also known as EL Barrio came to terms with the harsh realities that exist in the ghetto life that communities in that society experienced. He did this in his bid to find out more about the Puerto Rican crack dealers who existed in the neighborhood. In his first person point of view, he aims to veer away from ethnographic presentations of social oppression. He observes that the dealers in crack in this neighborhood who form a huge pert oh his social network are the main perpetrators of violence. The incidences of rape that are on the increase squarely underscores the manner in which women are oppressed and relegated to mere sexual objects in this society (Bourgois 1995). Female in this society who mostly head families must supplement their meager earnings to be able to fend for their children thus they succumb to the lures of the illegal economy where selling crack is involved. Prostitution also provides women with an opportunity to supplement their daily earning so as to keep afloat in life. This factor puts the women in the dangers of diseases and ultimate risk of the law as in the case of selling crack. This set up shows clearly what women mean and how disregarded they are by the men who don’t really matter about their families.
Women in El Nahra as shown by Fernea are oppressed on different ground especially for those who try to question the tradition. Fadhila who is infertile is at risk of divorce because the husband does not see her worth in the society. She is a reject whereas no one sees the possibility of man being the infertile one. Women in El Nahra are communal as they share a lot in the daily lives including the experiences they come across. They come together to celebrate the birth of a child. It is important that they see the significance of children in this society though they do not really care when they die, they term it as a process that might occur during the upbringing. Women are in this case squarely responsible for the well being of their children and men do not care of what might occur to them because it is women who are in charge. This shows how men like escaping societal responsibilities leaving all the hard work to women and then demanding explanation from their wives whenever anything goes on. Household chores and other homely activities purely rest on the shoulders of women.
Virginity in this society is highly regarded but it is interesting that it is only the women who have to be virgins before marriage. Men are not vetted before the wedding thus creating the imbalance and unfair playing ground for the females. The blood stained sheets is the indicator whether the woman is a virgin as the community waits outside so as t celebrate. The groom could decide to ask one of his relatives to kill the bride on the spot if she wasn’t a virgin. It is sad that this community was so intolerant towards women that even led to death. With these norms, women have no power at all and are left with nothing but to abide by the oppressive tradition. Subjugation of women is unacceptable since no determinations are made of the man’s virginity at all.
Women are not even allowed to have eye contact with the men. They do not matter in this community and all they can give to a man is near reverence in return of nothing but compliance t the societal oppressive trends that cannot be challenged whatsoever. They are advised to avoid eye contact with the men by using the abayahs whenever men passed near, surely, how unfair can it get. Fernea is not allowed to feat with the sheik and her husband even in her own home. She learns to respect the complex culture by conforming as she tries to understand what these women in this Iraqi village go through (Fernea 137). Compared to the western culture that Fernea Is used to, this is unheard of and adapting to this lifestyle proves to be quit an uphill task. After the meal, Fernea is now allowed to come from the kitchen to introduce herself to the sheik, a thing that sheik does not even recognize as he concentrates more on her father and family, something many will regard as disrespect but funnily in this society is the law. So unlucky for the women. Compliments for the women here is unheard of, it is believed that women are supposed to do things the right way therefore no compliments because it was supposed to be so. Fernea prepares an excellent dish for the sheik but he did not even mention it because he believes it was supposed to be excellent, poor Fernea has to notice this by the empty dishes that the food was enjoyed.
Being seen in public with a man could mean great danger for women in this culture as in the instance where Fernea tell of a Friend Laila who had accompanied her to a late night outing was in great danger because she went out with an unmarried man without men from her family she could be killed. The reason behind killing of women is such situation is simply for the men to save their social status and the honor of other women within that family. Lack of liberation exists chronically in these societies. Stronger women exist though in this society, those who are strong enough to try and reject the norms. They do not do it casually by just ignoring the social rules, but accept their own norms regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. Some women opt not to marry thus have very few opportunities in this society. Widows and young girls who do not expect to marry resort to becoming Mullah, a respectable and profitable profession. Being a mullah, one has economic and individual depth since she can perform religious ceremonies and be paid. This profession is available the whole year round thus a woman can support her entire family with proceeds from this profession. (Fernea 17). But this is only for the strong women who have the courage enough to pull it off, the weak ones always resort to marriage for in marriage, all you have to do is adhere to the norms and be taken care of by the man.
Philip Bourgois interviews drug dealers in East Harlem to try and figure out what really is wrong and to get the first hand perspectives and here we realize that it is survival for the fittest even for women. Given their soft nature, women find it hard here because the competition is stiff and it being a ragged atmosphere, they end up giving their bodies in exchange for favors. Prejudice and racism also play a major role in the existent of this society. Primo who is Spanish and Caesar too find it impossible to find a job in what could be attributed to their race; they hence turn to drug business. Women who need jobs are asked for sexual favors without which they cannot get a job thus turning to selling crack. The insecurity that cripples this neighborhood exposes women to serious risks such as rape and violence thus relegating them to mere victims of circumstances. Inequity in the United States is something not many people talk about yet it is the reason why many ghetto communities wallow in poverty, Bourgois argues that this vicious cycle exists because of the blind eye that the US government has turned to these small communities.
The tremendous social suffering that faces the Pueto rican settlers in East Harlem is an eye opener that not only should be looked into form a gender perspective but on all fronts. Chronic poverty that cripples this community is the advent of all their problems propagate moral decadence thus include prostitution, drugs, rape etc. they blame themselves for the problems facing them and not the economic and he social system of the United states thus taking into their own hands the initiative to take things right. Embedding themselves into the street culture, they view it as lucrative yet it is a self-destructive means of acquiring income and respect from the society you are in constant fight with. Bourgois discovers that his friends are gang rapists, a thing that appalls him especially since he finds out after three years. He writes two hundred pages without noticing it; this shows clearly that it is not a big thing, something they do just to satisfy their needs. The hard work that exists in this society is n no way less than that work those middle class families do to earn a living, it this hard work could be channeled towards legal activities, the American dream could be something more than just a fuss. Bourgois clearly indicates that these people thriving in the drug business and social rot are so much part of the American dream.
Fernea in the Iraqi village acted respectfully to them as a guest in the alien community and accepted the constructs of their culture. All the practices in this community have the highest level of subjugation of female. In her account, she demonstrates the way in which ancient cultures have supported this subjugation of women and the unbelievable differences noticed when juxtaposing these cultures against the western culture. A single woman is considered to be impressive in the Muslim for women. In this society space is gendered in that women are no allowed to be walking anywhere especially beyond some given time, it shows that their movements are even restricted thus forgoing that mean s disrespect to the norms that could lead to severe punishment. Time also is gendered clearly when women are restricted not to be moving out especially a night.
Women in both the traditional and the modern world’s try to become respectable members of the society. Fernea mentions that all girls’ schools try to impress the young female minds with memorizations from the Quran and in English language as well. In today’s world, women have tried and there more jobs for women that the preceding centuries where women only had to be wives or scholars of Hadith. Women are lucky in the modern world to have the opportunity to pursue professional careers unlike it used to be before. As free as it may be turning to, one profession is prohibited completely for women, that of a politician. As much as there are being allowed to venture into careers that were previously known to be the reserves of the male in the society, politics is something a woman is forbidden to try in the Muslim world. Politics is the fundamental element of legislation thus women are not given a chance to equally participate in the formulation of these legislations, most of which affect them directly; they end up in the periphery of important issues in the community.
In East Harlem though the situation is different. The oppression towards women is mostly circumstantial since it is driven majorly by poverty. This leads the residents to risky behaviors and the mostly affected are the female. Incidences of rape and sexual violence against women underscore this fact. In this society women are left on their own for survival in that no protection is provided as opposed to the Iraqi Village where women are though oppressed, they are within the safe confines of families and marriages. They are not exposed to the vices such as teenage pregnancies and moral decadence that is ripe and thriving in the East Harlem society. Bourgois who moved into this community to write about poverty could not help but shift his focus on the ills of street life that majorly involved crack selling, a thing that put the residents here on the wrong side of the law. Not only does he speak about poverty here but several aspects of poverty such as racism, prejudice, sexual discrimination. The impacts of these factors hugely fall on women who have been considered weaker and confirmed by the situations here.
Bourgois in his book’s introduction tells of his rationality of the reason behind the glorification of the negative and celebrated imagery of the underground economy. The anthropologic study of Bourgois of the American underground economy that has perpetuated poverty in Barrio is a glaring flaws of the Western culture that instigate subjugation of its own weakest subject of the society, these subjects being the poor and the women. The roughest street life that East Harlem experiences is a show of concealed rot that exists but hidden that people do not realize, people who live in their comfort in the other side of America thus questioning the responsibility of the united states to help arrest the situation.
Another lesson learnt for the Iraqi village by Fernea is that men as much as they are oppressive, they can allow a small amount of their boundary be pushed but not so much. Women who try to push their freedom to greater heights will be punished. Women who are aiming for the progressive modernity should therefore aim for baby steps so that their rise to the top is not so significant for noticing. Revolution when it comes to ender is something that cannot happen; old ways of thinking will surely be replaced by the new ways of thinking but not instantly. It is also important to notice that the Islamic societies in the mediaeval societies and even in the modern ones men still hold the power.
In both ethnographies, oppression exists prominently and it goes unattended to since it is the tradition. Whoever thinks of changing a thing is considered to be against the societal norms. This could lead to serious punishment and disregard for your own community. The type of oppression varies slightly from the Middle Eastern culture to the East Harlem American one. In The former, it is a society deep rooted in tradition that even a visitor (Fernea) is not exempted. It shows that for them, a woman is a woman whether form the western culture or not. It is a good thing that Fernea conforms to the norms, this way she is able to learn a lot of things going on in this society. On the other hand, in East Harlem, women are left at the mercy of sex pests out there and opportunists but they have no choice because they have bills to pay and children to take care of. Urban areas especially the Ghettoes as it is put here are plagued by widespread poverty that is mixed with illegal wealth.
Cultural anthropology as put forward by Conrad Philip is the study of various ways of living and thinking in communities by using fieldwork and comparative analysis. Gender is a major component of cultural anthropology in that it is almost universally accepted that women and men do not share the same platform when it comes to some issues in many of the communities. The variation in culture over gender issues is clear since communities have different ways of dealing with gender related issues (Kottak, 2006). How a community responds to gender in the Islamic world is almost totally different from how gender is viewed in most of the modern western communities and even variably distinct from how Africans treat the gender topic. Division of labor is common when it comes to gender thus making the whole issue a complex one, one that would need the likes of Fernea and Bourgois to understand since they chose to go right in the midst of the problem to be able to decipher the reasons behind some actions and the social norms that tied up each sex to a certain gender role.
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