An Enchanted Modern: Lara Deeb’s Anthropologic Study

It is very rare to find a book that deals predominantly with Muslim women that does not have the words, “women”, “Muslim”, and most significantly “veil” in the title, especially when hijab is a recurring topic in the book. An Enchanted Modern by Lara Deeb immediately gets 10 points from me, for breaking the “behind/beyond/under/inside/uncovering the veil” title cliché.

k8211The subjects of the book (whom Deeb refers to as the “pious modern”) give the reader an insider’s perspective into their lives as Lebanese Shi’a Muslims who consider themselves at once pious and modern—contrary to popular belief, which holds that Islam and modernity are incompatible. One of the book’s aims is to dislodge that notion, and the other is to show that political Islam is not static, as it is often portrayed when Western media lumps different movements and groups together (like the Taliban in Afghanistan with the Hezbollah in Lebanon). Deeb effectively critiques these stereotypes using dialogues and narratives of the women she meets, creating an engaging and lively discussion. For example, in the book’s introduction, Deeb quotes one women affiliated with Hezbollah as saying, “I can’t believe this, what is this backwardness!” in response to live television images of the Taliban destroying the Buddha statues.

Although Deeb says she did not intend to focus primarily on the lives of women, they became a central focus because

the status and image of Muslim women was one of the most consistently arising and contentious issues that emerged during my field research, in people’s passionate and often unsolicited responses to western discourses about Muslim women. Women’s lives are critical because of both local and international concern, as well as local concern about international concern.”

The women of Deeb’s research are particularly confused as to the above-mentioned “international concern”, as one woman expressed:

all these Westerners come to interview us because they are looking to see if Islam is modern, and “how women are treated” or “what the women do” has become the sign of which cultures are modern.

Deeb seeks to move away from this universal standard of measure, based upon a particular liberal feminist notion of emancipation and liberation. Instead, she seeks to give voice to an emerging “pious modern” class of Muslim women who intertwine spiritual and material progress to form a new alternative model for ideal womanhood.

After setting the scene of her field work, which was done in Al-Dahiyya, the book moves on to trace the path of Shi’a revival in Lebanon, providing relevant background information to the situation of religious Lebanese Shi’as today, who have come from being a severely marginalized sector of society into a fully institutionalized one. One particular scholar, Ayatollah Fadlullah, a senior Shi’a cleric and marja’, who is considered one of the highest religious authorities worldwide, is quoted throughout the book as the epitome of the pious modern for his practicality, appeal to logic, and especially, his egalitarian views.

Fadlullah’s followers also appreciate his reformist views on Shi’a religious history and on gender. With regard to gender, as we will see, Fadlullah emphasizes the necessity of women participating actively in their community. He has also stated that women may become mujtahidas (a Muslim who makes up his/her own ruling on the permissibility of an Islamic law) and even marjas.

Deeb characterizes veiling as a symbol of public piety, for obvious reasons, but sets the record straight: not all religious women cover, and not all covered women are necessarily religious. She categorizes the many different dress codes found in Al-Dahiyya, subtly pointing to the plurality of Muslim women. Deeb notes that veiling paralleled the mobilization of Shi’a society, and that “women’s increased veiling has been accompanied by a similar increase in women’s public participation”. In the same breath, Deeb argues that women do not veil to facilitate their participation, but rather, that veiling and participation simultaneously symbolize spiritual progress.

Deeb also looks at the role of Zaynab , the sister of Imam Hussein and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H), and points to her legacy as the reason for women’s public participation and community service in Al-Dahiyya. Public participation is seen as a religious duty for the pious modern. Deeb describes the time she spent with women volunteers and women-run social organizations and gives testimonies of many women and their reasons for their involvement in the social sector.

Women combat external stereotypes about themselves as nonmodern in the same ways that they confronted patriarchal norms in their community. They drew upon women’s jam’iyyas (organizations) as examples, emphasized interpretations of Islamic texts that highlight gender equity, and highlighted Zaynab’s model.

I thought it best to let the book speak for itself on this, in the form of one of Deeb’s interlocutors, Hajjeh Amal, a prominent member of a social organization,

And this fight is not only an internal one. We are also fighting the outside image of Muslim women. We admit that there are some bad images out there, of very oppressed Islamic women, but this is not the authentic/true Islam. We want to represent authentic Islam and to show that iltizam (commitment) goes along with being cultures and educated. We have no examples, because the examples are either oppressed women or of western women who are equal to men in everything… our goals as women are to improve these images of Muslim women within our society that thinks that women are less than men, and to change the image of the oppressed Muslim women that exists outside our society. This work is part of our religious duty, because woman is the example of everything. A culture is judged by the level of its women.

A personal favourite of mine, which may seem rather amusing to non-Muslims, is the issue of handshaking with members of the opposite gender. I especially could relate to this, me being the “non-shaking” type. Ridiculous as it may seem, I appreciated the way Deeb did not trivialize the matter, but gave it due respect and seriousness.

On the whole, this book is a milestone in the genre of Muslim women. Deeb manages to present the lives of Muslim women in Beirut’s southern suburbs with honesty and sincerity. She does not once display a “saviour” mentality, or claim to be an authority on the lives of Muslim women. She also does not export her findings to the rest of the Muslim women in the world, and avoids over-obsession with veiling, so common amongst non-Muslim writers. She takes the views of her interlocutors seriously, and does not impose her own standards on them. I only wish she had focused on some other aspects of Al-Dahiyya’s women’s lives, such as their role in the workplace, politics and public gender relations.

This book, thankfully, did not pretend to be a study of all Muslim women, everywhere, but a look into the lives of one Muslim community, a particularly neglected one—that of Beirut’s southern suburbs. The lives of these Muslim women might not be perfect, but the voicing of their achievements are equally as important as the voicing of the suffering of other Muslim women, elsewhere.

  • Joseph Shahadi

    Thank you for reviewing this–I wasn’t yet aware of this book but I will definitely look for it. It’s interesting to me that, like Saba Mahmood (whose Politics of Piety is excellent) Deeb didn’t set out to focus on women but allowed her focus to evolve in response to her experience… As opposed to the inverse, which seems to be standard procedure when writing about Muslim/Arab word(s). There is something politically significant in Deeb and Mahmood’s approaches, which were informed by actually listening to Arab and Muslim women talk about themselves.

  • malaysianfeminism

    Good review! The book sounds enticing .. will see if I can get a copy of it. Thanks for the review! ;)

  • Nadia

    Thanks for this-I’ve heard about those two books but never got around to them, though I’ve read some papers by her. It doesn’t surprise me too much that Deeb skipped the cliches/generalizing since she’s writing for an academic audience, or at least I hope she would do that.
    Zeina Zaatari and Nadje Al-Ali use similar methods for research on women in Lebanon and Iraq, respectively, if anyone’s interested, I recommend both of them.

  • Yasmine

    Hi. sorry I posted on the wrong story and didn’t know. I wanted to know if this book was available online? And also I wanted to know based upon your knowledge and your study of this book whether or not relations has improved much in the last couple of years and our understanding of the culture in the last couple of years based on recent events post 9/11? ANd also I wanted to know if you think that people’s ideas of what they know about the religion is based moreso on television (Not Without My Daughter) rather than reality? Do you think that men in AMerica don’t quite understand what it is to be a woman in islam and do you think that we have any hope for better relations in the future.