4.2 – Lila Abu-Lughod – Writing Women’s Worlds, Intro

How does the introduction to this book reframe questions in anthropology about studies of the Mediterranean, honor and shame, and women in general?

2 thoughts on “4.2 – Lila Abu-Lughod – Writing Women’s Worlds, Intro

  1. Lila Abu-Lughod begins her introduction to “Writing Women’s Worlds” as a set up to show how she writes the rest of the book- through storytelling. One of the main ways she reframes these questions about studies of the Mediterranean, honor and shame, and women in general is that she focuses on individuals instead of describing a culture as a whole. In fact, this focus is on “writing against culture”, which seems counterintuitive to a normal ethnography. She stresses that while culture is a real set of customs and institutions that we all live by, as individuals we do not go about our daily lives thinking about these invisible “rules”, and in writing about individual experiences of women in Egypt, Westerners who read her book are more likely to relate to and understand her subjects. She doesn’t write just about individual experiences either, she records them, transcribing interviews, stories, poems, etc. that these Egyptian women relay to her. In her introduction she takes typical anthropological/ethnographical questions like “why do people practice what they practice” and instead makes it about the individual thought and how individuals make mistakes, endure loss, and laugh in the same way we all do. While (I believe) this book was written in the 80s-90s, I often feel a similar disconnect when reading about history. Of course it’s difficult to rewrite history books so that they have more personal accounts, but I find that history likes to compress people into a simple definition of their culture, and we forget that even centuries ago people still thought about and felt all the same things that we do. Abu-Lughod addresses things that are difficult for Westerners to understand such as the cousin marriages and the seemingly harsh concepts of honor and shame and uses these individual accounts to make them seem far less barbaric than our limited view makes them out to be. And even if they are outrageous or oppressive, she shows that Egypt isn’t simply a group of sheeple blindly following the rules of their culture, but they think and progress and discuss them. She writes: “Educated daughters argue with their mothers about traditional practices, backing their positions by referring to Egyptian orderliness and employing knowledge of religion”. Abu-Lughod’s approach in this ethnography seems very effective in that instead of trying to capture a culture, she shows the reader the singular people within that culture, which makes it much more personal, relatable, understandable, and probably more respectful to those in her book.

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  2. So far the introduction of the book has tried to reframe some of the questions in the anthropology of the Mediterranean and the beliefs of the cultures that inhabit the region by trying not to make over generalizations. I think even using the phrase “the Mediterranean” can sometime lead people to think of particular, popular and dominate characteristics of some of the many different cultures like Greece and Italy. As mentioned, the author stresses the importance of not overgeneralizing for a couple of reasons. One of these being so that anthropologists can maintain professional objectivity and expertise. It is also stressed in the introduction that we need to be open minded when exploring the systems of honor and shame and the roles of women in these cultures because what they believe, what they are taught is right and wrong and what is expected of them is bound to be different than people from a more Western background. The author even admits to some of her own feminist biases but reiterates the purpose of her writing this book, that this is meant to give voice to theses women in their own voice and not through the filter of someone foreign to their way of life.

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