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CAROL McALLISTER

ON TRADITION AS A FORCE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE



Many people see religious belief systems and cultural systems as determining what people do. It's common to say that certain women do something because they are Islamic or Catholic or Japanese. I prefer to view religious and cultural systems as being in dynamic interaction with other aspects of society.

There are many examples of religion as a force for social control of women's actions. Yet there are also counterexamples, often in exactly the same setting, where the belief system becomes a force for social change. Often, women use traditional religious and cultural elements to respond to changes in other aspects of their lives, such as their work roles.

Many women in Cairo, Egypt, for example, have chosen to return to the tradition of veiling. These are women who have moved to the city fairly recently. They're struggling to retain their toehold in an increasingly modern economy but are often moving down the social ladder. Just to maintain their families' economic security and status, the women must go out to work.

They run into several problems--a feeling that they're not being good wives and mothers, for instance, that even if they can't be at home, they really should be. They also encounter sexual harassment on the job and on the streets. Scholar Arlene MacLeod suggests that one way they respond is by readopting the Islamic veil, which protects them from the harassment and also asserts their own feeling that they are good Muslim women, good wives and mothers. It emphasizes that they are moral and pure and should be treated that way.

MacLeod argues that reveiling is a form of protest, but also an accommodation to certain kinds of restrictions society puts on them. Reveiling protests the devaluation of women who go out to work, but doesn't challenge the social problem of harassment. It also doesn't deal with the underlying transformation in the Egyptian economy that leads to a falling standard of living for many families.

A slightly different example comes from another group in Egypt. Lila Abu-Lughod has studied the phenomenon of veiling in certain Bedouin women. This is not a return to tradition, because Bedouin women were never veiled. Rather, it's an adoption of a new practice and a new, fairly fundamentalist conception of Islam. The young women are veiling themselves as a reaction to an earlier rebellion against their traditional culture.

In traditional Bedouin society, the elders dominated the younger and men dominated women to a certain extent, yet there was a fair amount of economic, social, and political equality. Women also had traditional mechanisms to assert their autonomy--a very strong women's community and the use of poetry and song to articulate complaints, reverse traditional gender imagery, and poke fun at men.

As Egypt became more and more a part of the world market economy, changes took place. Land that used to be owned collectively was now owned privately. People became more dependent on cash. Some individuals--men in particular, especially older men--gained more power. Some families became wealthy while others became poor. The women's community began to disintegrate. The songs and poems were co-opted by young men, who made cassettes from them and sold them commercially. To assert their own freedom, young women took on a sexualized femininity.

They rebelled by buying things in the market to decorate themselves, such as makeup and lingerie--creating a more feminized and sexualized image of women than was the norm in traditional Bedouin society. However, several problems arose. The women began to be treated as sex objects. They became dependent on men for money and focused on relationships with individual men instead of being part of a larger community of support. The women experienced these problems as uncomfortable contradictions and, in some ways, as oppression or exploitation. Their reaction to these problems, argues Abu-Lughod, is the dramatic decision to veil themselves.

Abu-Lughod believes that some forms of women's resistance or protest catch them up in other forms of repression or exploitation, for which they need to find other forms of protest. Both MacLeod, and, to a lesser extent, Abu-Lughod argue that the contradictions they describe are particular to women's forms of resistance, but I question that. They write that women find themselves caught in crosscutting loyalties. On one hand, they're being oppressed by men of their own society or ethnic group, but, on the other, they're allies with the same men in resisting other things happening to them as a group. I don't think that this is specific to women. Rather it is common to both men and women who are caught in the cross currents of gender, racial/ethnic, and class identities. MacLeod and Abu-Lughod imply that these contradictions are inevitable: The attempt to change always has an accommodating aspect.

IN THE PAST 25 YEARS, MALAYsia has undergone intense industrialization, promoted by the government but controlled by multinational companies. The work force in the factories, many producing electronics components, is made up predominantly of women from rural areas.

The region of Malaysia where I did my work has a matrilineal culture. Property is owned collectively and passed down through women. People live in extended families centered around women. What was striking was that so many young women from this area became involved in militant Islamic movements. It seems to me they were protesting what was happening to them.

I think they were feeling two stresses. One was the shift in the basic economy that left them in more precarious economic circumstances than in the rural villages because they now depended on the decisions of multinational corporations. Another stress was the sense of cultural disintegration. These young women moved from a situation where women's roles were central and celebrated into one where they were operators on a factory assembly line and where the dominant images of women came from romance magazines, soap operas, and popular music.

The move toward a more fundamentalist form of Islam in Malaysia was partly an attempt to find a personal alternative, to assert, as the Cairo women did, "I am a worthwhile person, a moral person, a good upstanding Muslim woman." It was also an attempt to find a new community of women who worked together, who studied, talked, and fervently believed together. And for some women, although not the majority, militant Islam was a form of explicit political protest against the economic policies of the Malaysian government.

At the same time, the Islamic revival also brought new constraints on the women, on their sexuality and on other aspects of their lives, discouraging them from engaging in certain kinds of work and public participation and undermining some aspects of the matrilineal system, such as women's property ownership.

So there's a contradictory dynamic in which resistance also has elements of accommodation or enmeshes you in new dilemmas. Then is it really resistance? Is there any way out of this? I don't have answers, but I think one element that's missing in the discussion is the question of learning. What we need to look at next is what people learn when they confront the contradictions that these forms of protest raise and whether that kind of learning lets people move beyond this dynamic.

Learning probably happens more efficiently if these acts of resistance become part of a more conscious process of social change. Without that process women will not be able to make the kind of changes that they want in their own lives and in their own societies. On the other hand, it's also very important that social or political movements incorporate and build from these women's everyday forms of resistance and protest, which draw on tradition instead of shunting it aside.


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