Guests of the Sheik by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Fernea’s work in Guests of the Sheik is a critical representation of the gender roles of the Muslim society in the conservative cultural construct in the rural setting. In fact, this ethnographic narrative offers an intriguing exposure of what the life of a female Shiite Muslim is like in most rural and part of urban areas in the larger Middle East. However, further reading of the work explores the way women still feel recognized and influential in some aspects of this society. Although the decision of men in this rural community is paramount, women are satisfied by the aspects of derived authority, among other rights within the conservative Shiite Muslim society (Fernea, 1989). The overriding observation in Fernea’s work is that Women in El Nahra derive their satisfaction, security, authority, power, and autonomy through their Work, Leisure and rituals, and Marriage.

In El Nahra, there is a clear-cut gender role differences between men and women. Fernea is emphatic on the place of women in this society. Relative to a free society in the western world where there is declared gender equality, in the El Nahra, women are represented as subordinate to the men. Actions of women are subject to the decisions of men. While men have autonomy of decision making, women must bow to the whims of their husbands and parents. While this lifestyle may sound strange to a person from western world, Fernea attests to the fact that womenfolk in El Nahra community seem satisfied and exhibit contented in the way they obtain some power and authority within the social construct (Fernea, 1989).

For a foreigner from the western world, a Muslim Shiite woman in El Nahra may look a suffering lot. However, from the narrative of Fernea after firsthand experience, coping and assimilating with the women, it can be noted that work is source of pride, authority and power among El Nahre women. In El Nahre, girls and women work is confined within the house, women have lived to embrace their duty of home making and caring. Cleaning the house, taking care of the children and ensuring they take up desirable social norms, cooking among other activities form the core duties of women. Besides, women are commonly in charge of hospitality towards special guests through proper cooking (Fernea, 1989).  It can be noted that while Fernea interact with women, their interest is to show her how to manage household tasks, wash the husband’s clothes and in that regard gain considerable control, power and authority within the society at household level. The unanimous conformity to such work related satisfaction reveals the strength of the culture and is likely representative of most Muslim communities in the Middle East. In fact, the happiness and peace associated with a responsible woman in line with house work needs is a source of pride and satisfaction. Critical evaluation of the Shiite women’s sexual freedom shows some aspect of stigmas, rules, and regulations tied to the sex (Fernea, 1989).Men decide who to marry, number of women to marry and enjoy absolute control over conjugal relations while women remain completely submissive to the demands of men. All women carried a considerable load with the combination of tradition and work as a reputation of them.

While some cultural aspects deprive women of their rights, they are still compensated and feel satisfied from the existing social interaction frameworks .Leisure and rituals that define the social norms of the Muslim Shiite women is a source of satisfaction that overriding the stigma they experience in the society. The Kraya is one such an important ceremony they do in every important festival like Muharram and Ramadan(Fernea, 1989). It is noted that every woman in El Nahra will hold one at least. During such events, they visit their relatives and share meals together. This offers opportunities for socialization and get-together and promotes cohesion in the community. Therefore, some of the traditional rites in El Nahra community deprive women of their autonomy, power, and satisfaction in sexual issues, while other traditions give them freedom to derive a lot of satisfaction from spending their free time with relatives and friends. The leisure derived from such cultural rites and events is a satisfaction to the Muslim Shiite woman, gives them a sense of belonging and hope for prosperous co-existence with men.

Marriage is an honor among the women in El Narha. The patriarchal system gives men right to be polygamous. Women are to be married to designated husbands most probably cousins. Failure to secure a prospective suitor of such socially constructed requirements means the girl may remain unmarried (Fernea, 1989). However, marriage ceremony constitutes showering the woman with gift, transition from childhood to a responsible person and carries the prospect of parenthood. The sanctity of marriage and the immediate shift of dress code, limits of interpersonal interactions in Harem and teach young girls on cultural norms are all sources of satisfaction, authority and power for married women.

The life of women in this traditional El Nahra society is clouded by male dominance. However, women feel contented and completely absorbed into their position and roles in the society. It is worth to note that the observed skewed cultural construct of Shiite women in this community is a result of Islamic fundamentals in the Quran about marriage blended with conservative social norms. Despite the limited freedom of Muslim women as portrayed by Fernea, they enjoy certain freedoms amiss among the North American women (Fernea, 1989). While women from the west are entitled to work in offices and other previously male dominated careers, the responsibility to provide for the family is a burden. On the contrary, Muslim women have their responsibility limited to caring, cooking and cleaning the house without the burden to provide as they are not allowed to take up employment. The veil and abaya are physical deterrence against sexual harassment, vulnerability to lust and symbol of modesty that attracts more respect to womanhood. From this perspective, Muslim women are in a safer social environment than their western counterparts that are exposed to daily sexual harassment in public places owing to diverse and extreme dressing codes.

It is worth to conclude that Fernea’s research and findings presents a male-dominated Muslim Shiite society that has historically characterized the Middle East. Comparative analysis of the social structure of the El Nahra society explores a mixed feeling of women towards existing gender role boundaries and freedom. Consistence and conservative strategy of passing such social norms to successive generations and brainwashing from infancy has ensured perpetual belief and alternative source of satisfaction among women. Despite rigid, patrilineal society, women derive their security, authority, power and other privileges from marriage, ritual and rites and work.

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