Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen by Susanne Dahlgren (Gender, Culture, and Politics in the Middle East Series: Syracuse University Press)
Aden, the former capital of the only Marxist republic in the Arab world, has returned to the headlines as the scene of a popular uprising against the tribal-military rule of present-day Yemen. Susanne Dahlgren in Contesting Realities traces the social and political history of Aden from the late British colonial era, exploring the evolving ways in which the society has been established in a tension between contesting normative orders. Dahlgren, academy of Finland research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, offers a complex picture of Adeni society in which norms for propriety vary according to the contexts of social space. She stresses individual agency and power to maneuver within a traditional patriarchal Muslim community.
As a resident of Aden for more than three years spanning the late years of Marxist South Yemen, Dahlgren in Contesting Realities presents readers with an intimate portrait of Yemeni men and women in the home, in the factory, in the office, and in the street, demonstrating that Islamic societies must be understood through a multiplicity of social spheres and morality orders. Within each space, she examines the range of legal, political, religious, and social regulations that frame agency and social dynamics. Highlighting the diversity of women's and men's positions as a continuum rather than distinct areas, Dahlgren presents a vivid picture of this dynamic society, providing an in-depth background to today's political upheavals in Yemen.
Contesting Realities is based on Dahlgrens ethnographic interest in Aden, Yemen, during the period spanning the years from 1988 to 2001. This era in Adeni history witnessed the final years of what was the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the only Marxist regime in the Middle East ever to be followed by unification, in this case of the two Yemens in 1990. The difficult period of the Republic of Yemen's early years that culminated in a civil war in 1994 was followed by years of rebuilding after the war.
In the summer of 1982, as a young student,`Dahlgren headed to Aden to participate in an international student camp in the countryside of Abyan, some thirteen miles northeast of Aden. The camp was organized by the Yemeni youth organization ASHEED in the spirit of international solidarity after the devastating floods earlier that spring that had affected the countryside outside Aden. Upon Dahlgrens arrival, she became aware that the camp was an all-male affair and that the youth organization was little more than a boys' organization. This period, however, was one in which the South Yemeni government was making a sincere attempt to introduce to the remotest countryside a policy called tahrir al-rnar'a, women's emancipation. The organizers were happy to see her arriving, the only girl in the twenty or so foreign participants and about a hundred Yemeni boys. Her presence provided them with an excuse to invite local young women to the camp, an impossibility had the camp been all male.
This area was untouched either by the modernizing politics of British colonialism or by the government that had taken over with independence some fifteen years earlier, in 1967. In gatherings organized locally and in Aden to celebrate the international camp, she was asked to make speeches on women's role in society.
Her experiences in South Yemen in 1982 inspired her to return to this country that she found so fascinating yet so little studied. In the autumn of 1988, she arrived in Aden with the intention of carrying out anthropological fieldwork. She was given the chance to do so in the capacity of coordinator for a small Finnish health project carried out in the al-ivlahra governorate, some six hundred miles east of Aden.
For her anthropological work, Dahlgren decided that she wanted to obtain the cooperation of the General Union of Yemeni Women. It was the official women's association that at the end of 1980s was struggling to promote women's liberation in a declining atmosphere for anything of that kind. Because she did not have a formal research permit, the Women's Union issued her a letter so that she could visit workplaces without interference by the security forces. In entering homes, she did not need a permit or official letter; people were simply interested in letting her in and talking to her.
Her interests in Contesting Realities are morality and propriety and how they affect social dynamics in this town. She focuses in particular on how the principal relations of society, gender and family relations, have historically been regulated and how they are constituted in everyday practice and discourse.
When observing everyday life, she noticed how positive morality stood at the center of all action, deeds were evaluated from the point of view of propriety, and, in speech, distinct formulas of propriety informed statements on practice. This practice was quite contrary to what she has read in Middle Eastern studies literature, which was saturated at that time with the honor/shame approach. Her interest in morality as a target of making was sparked also by the scarcity of anthropological literature on morality.
In chapter 2, Dahlgren outlines a social history of Aden, from the late colonial period to the early twenty-first century. She suggests a continuity rather than a disruption between the different regimes. By applying an intersectional approach, she draws a line on how different social groups, divided by ethnic and religious background, social origin, race, and gender have accessed modernization and the public sphere. In chapters 3 and 4, she scrutinizes how gender relations have been regulated in law as part of state politics and how the legal discourse has participated in the construction of public argument during the three regimes. In chapter 4, the topic is also the historical formation of a civil society and public media in the form of newspapers, associations, and clubs. At issue is the emergence of women into public space. This analysis of the structural prerequisites of the society forms the background to the examination of how various normative representations come up in everyday discussions and how they are discursively linked to institutionalized forms. She then focuses on how people in their everyday agency observe contesting normative ideas and how they move from one set of norms to another, paying attention to available resources and limitations. In chapter 7, she discusses the theoretical problems that have come up in preceding chapters, such as different notions of traditional and modern, as well as the questions of the public sphere and varying notions of Islam. She further contrasts notions of propriety to ideas regarding a pariah type of social category, the akhdam (literally servants). All these studies lead her to approach the public sphere both in its historical formation (the coming of newspapers and civil societies and the emergence of women to public space) and from a pragmatic viewpoint that is, as lived and commented reality.
Although it has been suggested that most Muslims share inherited conceptions of ideas of the common good, in Contesting Realities she argues that Adeni social reality and the notion of the common good are constituted in a tension between contesting representations of propriety and morality. The parallel prevalence of competing normative representations does not manifest as chaos or as an anomaly, but instead in social dynamics where people have to consider the contextual nature of public propriety. This complexity challenges agency; it is not a matter of manipulating situations and stakes within them, but of learning to manage in diverse situations. It is a matter of making proper comportment an art in everyday life.
Contesting Realities outlines three main normative representations that in local terms are called: our customs and traditions, our religion, and our revolution. The people of Aden discuss such basic elements of culture as social order, the family, gender roles, and religion in different ways in all three representations. That Islam receives diverse interpretations is a reflection of the plurality of local religious manifestations and points to the complex relationship between Islam and society.
Rapid economic, political, and social changes are sweeping over the Middle East. Within the past fifteen years, Yemen has stepped into a multiparty parliamentary democracy. It has received hundreds of thousands of returnees and refugees from abroad, and its economy has collapsed, impoverishing even what might be called the middle classes. In Aden, the former PDRY capital, these changes have meant marginalization, the polarization of society, and the loss of many rights that women had gained during the earlier rule. To understand what has happened in Aden, according to Dahlgren, it is not enough to refer to such political and economic changes.
Contesting Realities's argument can be summarized in the following way: social interaction takes place in a tension between mutually contrasting normative frameworks that do not`determine practice as such, but encode a certain cultural understanding. People act in reference to these normative frameworks, but practice is never imposed by rules. Focusing simply on norms would give an inadequate view of social practice because events do not follow a rule, and particular ideals seldom become targets of self-discipline. Even though the three normative frameworks customs, religion, and revolution are hegemonic in the sense that they dominate talk, few people are proponents or opponents of any, a fact that speaks for more complex situations rather than for one that can be reduced simply to a question of dominance and resistance. Contesting Realities is about what lies in between submission and defiance.
Dahlgren goes beyond the usual study of a group of people to research first-hand the lives of women and men in the home, in the work place, and in the streets, which is central to her finding that Islamic societies must be seen through a multiplicity of spatial areas. Amira Sonbol, editor of Beyond the Exotic: Women's Histories in Islamic Societies
Rich with detail and beautifully written. The book speaks directly to debates within anthropology. Janine A. Clark, author of Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen
Contesting Realities focuses on the positive driving forces behind people's actions. Dahlgren's original research and engaging narratives of everyday Adeni people document a nuanced social flexibility in this vivid and in-depth study. Considered by the author preliminary, it provides a tool for understanding the social dynamics and how ideological conjunctures play an important role in what happens in one complex Arabic society.
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