Bedouin Women in Egypt Lila Abu Lughod

A highly influential argument concerning modesty and sexual restraint is that women's adherence to the code of modesty is a means of obtaining honor (Abu-Lughod, 1986). Based on fieldwork with a group of Bedouins in the Egyptian desert (1978-1980), Abu-Lughod argues that, for Bedouin women in Egypt, demonstrating modesty and denying sexuality are key ways to obtain honor. While men obtain honor through demonstrating their autonomy, women obtain honor through voluntarily adhering to the modesty code. Hasham refers to a voluntary grouping of behaviors, including veiling, modest dress (dress which covers the hair, arms, legs, and curves of the body), downcast eyes, and demonstrated restraint when eating, smoking, talking, and laughing (Abu-Lughod, 1986, p. 108). Thus, while Bedouins idealize the qualities of autonomy and equality—qualities women are largely unable to achieve as men can—women, by demonstrating their voluntary adherence to the modesty code, display their independence and thus gain honor. The modesty code further demands that women deny their sexuality before others; this voluntary denial is a further way for women to obtain honor.

Although clearly concerned with issues of honor and shame, Abu-Lughod avoids the simplicity of structuralist arguments that associate men with honor and women with shame. Along the lines of the personhood and self approach, Abu-Lughod demonstrates how women strategically use the resources available to them, such as variably positioning their veil to cover more or less of their faces to reflect appropriate degrees of deference to others, to earn honor in the eyes of others and themselves.

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