Book reviews of Nikki Keddie's Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran, Edward Said's Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the World, Paula Rayman's The Kibbutz Community and Nation Building, and Unni Wikan's Life among the Poor in Cairo.
Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. With a section by Yann Richard. Yale University Press. 321 pages. HC £21.00, PB £4.15.
Since 1979, books on Iran have been coming out thick and fast. As the course of events in that country seemed to show a consistent tendency to contradict and baffle even expert commentators, an increasing body of literature on Iran has flooded the market, ranging from hastily put together journalistic accounts to very valuable historical works. Nikkie Keddie's recent book Roots of Revolution, is a singularly useful and welcome addition.
As a historian of modern Iran, with her particular interest in the role of the 'ulama' in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she was in a unique position to bring her historical insights to bear in understanding the present. The book offers a concise, rather brief and largely descriptive history of Iran over the past two centuries. Although some of the material in the early chapters is covered by a number of existing books and articles on Iran, it is still very valuable to have a source book that covers this whole period in its historical continuity. More significantly, the book is unique, amongst similar histories of Iran, in its systematic treatment of two topics. One concerns the situation of women in Iran, a topic absent from most other accounts and covered for each period in this book. The second concerns the Babi/Baha'i movement. Iranian historians, under the ideological pressure (as well as potential physical threat) of the Islamic clergy who consider the Babis and Baha'is as heretics, often make the most pejorative references to this movement, or ignore it altogether. This is particularly true of works printed in Persian in Iran. To this day a comprehensive account of this movement and its place in the nineteenth-century history of Iran is missing. Nikki Keddie's account offers an initial assessment. That a disproportionately large number of orators and political thinkers of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution came from Azali and Babi backgrounds should provide the Iranian historians of that period with a phenomenon to be explained rather than avoided or denied.
The various chapters in this book are somewhat uneven in presentation. The earlier ones are much richer in analytical and interpretive insights. The chapters covering the Pahlavi period become more narrative. This is not surprising, considering Keddie's previous works on late-nineteenth century Iran and the Constitutional Revolution.
The most novel and currently topical chapter is Chapter 8, 'Modern Iranian Political Thought'. It covers the history of political thought in Iran in its tortuous evolution from what Keddie refers to as 'the concern of many Iranian leaders and thinkers. . . [about] catching up with the West' (P186) to the current preoccupation with rejection of the West. Simplistic though it may seem, I would argue that the contrast is a useful one in placing various 'historical controversies' in context and for an overall evaluation of the contributions of a number of contemporary literary and political thinkers of Iran.
One such controversy concerns the respective role of the 'ulama' and secular intellectuals in the Constitutional Revolution. This question is raised and discussed in another work by Nikkie Keddie.1 However, the problem is too often posed by one side in terms of the importance of the clergy in backing the Constitutional Movement, and on the other side much effort is put into demonstrating that there were also significant anti-constitutionalist currents amongst the clergy. This is not very fruitful. Clearly both tendencies existed. It is also undeniable that the clergy had vast influence both on the mass of the population as well as on the political atmosphere of the time. The extent of such influence is partially reflected in the fact that even secular intellectuals and political thinkers often felt obliged to present their politics in Islamicised language. Despite this, what is striking in the constitutional period is the ideological predominance of secular political ideas. Even the 'ulama' were giving their backing not to an Islamic political order but to a constitutional regime whose ideas had clearly and admittedly originated from Europe.2
This predominance of secularism in politics is symbolically reflected in the rejection of the original farman of the shah, declaring a constitutional regime in which the parliament was referred to as an 'Islamic Assembly'. The Constitutionalists returned thefarman, asking for this to be changed to a 'National Assembly, as we do not see ourselves involved in a matter of religion'.3 Seventy odd years later, the exact opposite took place. Although the new Iranian constitution referred to the parliament as the 'National Consultative Assembly' , in the first session of the Assembly this was changed by an overwhelming vote to 'Islamic Consultative Assembly' .
More significantly, the constitution of 1906 was modelled after European (in particular the Belgian) constitutions. The whole direction of administrative and political reforms was towards setting up a largely secular state; although Islamic law was retained, it was integrated into the civil and criminal codes. Again, today the direction of change has been reversed. State institutions such as the judiciary are being dismantled to be replaced by religious courts, the criminal code is replaced by the Bill of Retribution etc.
This contrast is brought out clearly in Chapter 8 of the book. Even the pan-Islamic currents of the nineteenth century shared the same goal; that is, they saw return to Islam not as a means of rejecting the West but of catching up with it. As Keddie notes, 'With Jamal ad-Din [aI-Afghani] and his followers. . . this reinterpretation had a modernist and reformist bent: Western-style law and science, sometimes constitutions, and other reforms were found in the Quran. Today, however, the movement in Iran is only in part reformist; it is carried out more by ulama than by independent intellectuals and stresses the literal following of many Quranic rules. This greater conservatism after a century may most briefly be explained by saying that Jamal ad-Din and his Iranian followers were reacting against a traditional, scarcely reformed governmental and religious structure and naturally thought that Iran's problems might be solved by interpreting Islam in ways to bring it closer to the more successful, stronger, and better functioning West. Khomeini and his followers, however, reacted to a situation where Iran was felt to be a junior partner or puppet of the West, particularly of the United States, and in which cultural and economic Westernisation of a certain type was occurring at breakneck speed with little regard for human consequences. When no traditional or Islamic government had existed for a long time and the formal power of the ulâma had been curbed, it was easy to imagine that a return to an idealised Islam, so far past that no one remembered, it, could solve Iran's problems. . . ' (ppI88-89).
During the Constitutional period, there were even important antireligious anti-Islamic (partially anti-Arab) currents amongst the nationalists and constitutionalists. For those political leaders and thinkers who paid lip-service to religion, the reference to Islam was purely utilitarian: they saw it as a necessary concession to avoid the obvious clash between their ideas of a secular state with the Islamic institutions.
In this context, it is possible, and politically necessary, to characterise the intellectual and political evolution of the post-1960s, represented by such figures as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, 'Ali Shari'ati and Khomeini, as wholly regressive. It is not clear why Nikki Keddie, who more than anyone else had been drawing our attention to the role of the clergy and Islam in Iranian history and in the recent anti-Shah movement, is reluctant to draw this conclusion. She says, 'As on many questions in many periods, it is wrong to characterise the outlook of the ulama leadership at this time either as purely "reactionary", as did the regime and most of the foreign press, or as "progressive" , as did some Iranian students abroad.' (p 157) Further on in the same paragraph she seems to imply that Khomeini's opposition 'to dictatorship and to Iranian dependence on the US', in itself was necessarily progressive.
Others would also put his opposition to Israel on the credit side. But as the experience of Iran has shown, not any opposition to something bad is necessarily good. To oppose a military dictatorship in order to put in its place a clerical dictatorship, to oppose dependence on the US in order to replace it with retrogressive national isolation that destroys the existing socio-economic fabric of the country, to oppose Israel from an anti-semitic standpoint - how could any of these stands be construed as somehow 'progressive'?
Similarly, an evaluation of the intellectual contribution of Al-e Ahmad can only be done in a historical perspective. As is noted in the book, 'Al-e Ahmad was, in the 1960s, the intellectual leader of a new generation of Iranian thinkers.' (P203). In fact from a secular intellectual direction he represented what Shar'ati represented from a religious direction. His essay on rejection of the West, Westoxication, became the intellectual bible of a generation. In this rejection, Al-e Ahmad turned against the revolutionaries and reformers of the Constitutional . period and defended the most reactionary currents, as noted in the book, when summarising Al-e Ahmad views: 'Islam, weakned by divisions betwen Sunnis and Shi'is, by mystical groups, and by BabismBahaism, was vulnerable to imperialism. Iranians succumbed to the images of "progress" and played the game of the West. Al-e Ahmad attacks nineteenth-century Westernisers like Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, Malkom Khan, and Talebzadeh, and defends the anticonstitutional Shaikh Fazlollah Nuri for upholding the integrity of Iran and Islam in the face of the invading West.' (P204).4
The author (Yann Richard), quite accurately in my opinion, characterises the evolution of Al-e Ahmad as an evolution from socialism (he was in the Tudeh Party for a time) to a political Islam (P205); yet he insists that, 'this does not mean that Al-e Ahmad was reactionary'.
Provided that one is not throwing around the word 'reactionary' as an insult but as a historical characterisation, I fail to see how else such an evolution could be characterised. Significantly, this was not just Al-e Ahmad's individual evolution, but that of a whole generation. It was this layer of the intellectuals who paved the path for the ideological hegemony of Khomeini's Islamic government. In this, they played the reverse of the role that the pro-constitutionalist clergy (like Na'ini) had played seventy years earlier. The whole book, particularly Chapter 8, stands as a testimony to and history of this reversal. Nikki Keddie has provided us with a valuable book tracing this political trajectory in modern Iranian history - even though she seems unwilling to draw such conclusions openly.
Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the World, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Covering Islam is a particularly topical book. It deals with the role of some Western news media, experts and intellectuals (especially in the USA) in shaping public perceptions of what is happening in the Middle East.
Said's book is linked both in its themes and in its theoretical conception to his earlier studies Orientalism and The Question of Palestine. 'Orientalism' is for him the flaw which disfigures Western perceptions of 'Islamic' societies. 'Islam' is placed in quotation marks for it does not really exist, out there, ready to be discovered. Rather, according to Said, the very notion of 'Islam' is 'in part fiction, part ideological label, part minimal description of a religion called Islam' (px). 'Islam' he argues has in the West a wholly negative image of 'punishment, autocracy, mediaeval modes of logic, theocracy' (PM).
Said follows Maxime Rodinson in suggesting what a more 'responsible' view of 'Islam' might look like. Briefly, this would distinguish between Muslim religious teachings embodied in the Koran, the conflicting interpretations of those teachings, and the complex shifting relations between orthodoxy and heresy (pp53-55). As a general position, this insistence upon the specifics of history as against the timeless essences Said attributes to Orientalism is unexceptionable.
Why is the present image of Islam so negative? In part, as readers of Said's other studies will know, this is held to have its roots in a fundamental attitude underpinning Western culture. However, as Sadik JalaI al'Azm pointed out in Khamsin 8, because Said's concept of 'Orientalism' is so imprecisely dated it does itself function as a kind of essence, a permanent disabling feature of the Western mind.
But there is a more precise and delimited target too. For Said, the contemporary villain of the piece is the organisation of the intellectual field of Middle East studies and reportage. This field is basically constructed, he argues, in terms of an opposition between Orient and Occident, and the Orient emerges as a 'malevolent and unthinking essence' (p8).
During the 1970s a number of crucial changes have propelled 'Islam' to increased prominence. The oil crisis of the mid-1970s fuelled a particular kind of interventionist strategic thinking in the West. The crisis in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the unresolved question of the Palestinians' future all combined to place the Middle East in the centre of the 'arc of crisis'. Reportage flourished, and so did scholarship - of a kind which Said finds seriously misleading. Its limits lie in the fact that 'discourse on Islam is, if not absolutely vitiated, then certainly coloured by the political, economic and intellectual situation in which it arises' (pxvii). But then, as Said himselfrecognises, albeit in passing, exactly this point could be made about the dominant interpretations of Communism in the West. And what would a discourse free of such determinations look like? How is it to be achieved? There is an - unsatisfactory - answer to these questions, as we shall see.
At root, what Said calls 'orthodox' knowledge about islam stems, he argues, less from intellectual curiosity than from the needs of Western power. Hence, he is highly dismissive of a great deal of US scholarly research which he sees as either an instrument of government policy or as suspect because of its sources of finance (such as the Pahlevi Foundation). The lack of a widespread popular knowledge about Islamic societies, the absence of outstanding interpreters able to popularise against the conventional wisdom and the ignorance of media personnel puts the intellectuals and geo-political strategists into a commanding position. They provide for the mass media, and therefore for the widest audiences, 'what is most easily compressed into images' (P32). Thus, in this determinstic picture, the cultural apparatuses intermesh to produce a homogenised, consensual view. The mass media, as creatures 'serving and promoting a corporate identity', cannot escape a 'corporate' (i.e. capitalistic?) logic. Said supports his argument with case studies of, for example, the media coverage of the Iran crisis and of the Death of a Princess controversy.
However, counterposed to this picture of inevitability, there is another. Some of us, Said included, must be allowed to escape 'the intellectual regulation of discourse about distant and alien cultures' which 'positively and affirmatively encourages more of itself' (P148). How so?
Here the thrust toward explaining intellectual production in a cultural materialist perspective gives way to a much less satisfactory argument. Said argues that an 'antitbetical knowledge' is possible which is 'produced by people who consider themselves to be writing in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy' (P 149). This opposition includes some younger scholars, some older US scholars (Algar, Keddie), some writers based in Europe (Hourani, Rodinson), and antiwar and anti-imperialist militants (e.g., I.F. Stone). Said also commends the work of Eric Rouleau of Le Monde as a model for US journalism to follow, but he does not classify it.as 'antithetical'.
Those who are exempt from the distortions of Orientalism seem to achieve their glimpse of the truth because special conditions apply. In France, for instance, the burdens of imperialist interventionism are past (so it's argued) and a more enlightened outlook permits the space for Le Monde to be dispassionate. (What about the rest of the French press?). At another level entirely, we seem to be talking about the moral and intellectual qualities of individuals. And, in actuality, Said's ultimate refuge is an individualist and subjectivist justification for the truth. he is a man with a mission who believes that the reform of distorted thinking may be changed by acts of will and consciousness.
What is needed, argues Said, is 'respect for the concrete details of human experience, understanding that arises from viewing the other compassionately'; we should follow the ideal of 'uncoercive contact with an alien culture through real exchange, and self-consciousness about the interpretative project itself' (p 142). This argument recalls strongly the position taken by the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who argues that 'non-distorted communication' is possible where those engaged in discourse operate without the threat of violence or the constraint of power relations in which some dominate others. It is hard to envisage such a world, and even antithetical knowledge may be harnessed to the uses of some power. Moral integrity is no safeguard against the abuses of a propaganda war; nor is self-consciousness a guarantee of truth as it can obviously be mistaken about the springs of action. We are all damned to wander around the perimeters of the hermeneutic circle: the interpreters shall be interpreted, unto the nth generation.
Despite these reservations, Said has written a useful book which has stimulated a lot of interest. Perhaps the construction of 'Islam' is less enduring than he thinks. He says, early on in his text, 'For the right, Islam represents barbarism; for the left medieval theocracy; for the centre a kind of distasteful exoticism' (pxv). At the time of writing, as the events at the Chatilla and Sabra refugee camps are beginning to be assessed, it would seem that the label of 'barbari,sm' has now been affixed to Israel.
Paula Rayman, The Kibbutz Community and Nation Building, Princeton University Press, 1981
Paula Rayman has written an interesting book which, with some reservations, can be added to the growing list of books and articles that are gradually helping to shape an acceptable perspective and analysis regarding Israeli history and social structure. This relatively new corþus of publications challenges the view that used to dominate the socialsciences literature, especially that part of it inspired by the Israeli school led by S.N. Eisenstadt. Her particular contribution is important, since it relates to the heart of the Zionist myth - the kibbutz.
Paula Rayman was led to study the kibbutz in her search for a 'constructive utopian vision' which would aid the struggle for socialist change. In this she is no different from other Westerners who went to Israeli kibbutzim, motivated by such a quest. However, unlike many others, she did not limit her perspective to the internal dynamics of the kibbutz, but studied it in its national and (in the post-1948 period) regional context. As a result, there emerges a picture very different from the popular myth of the kibbutz, even in the latter's early 'utopian' beginnings. The kibbutz can be seen as a commune not so much of utopian socialists as of militants of a colonialist-nationalist movement.
This is a bitter pill to swallow, even for the author herself. Although all the crucial data are presented, she hesitates to follow them to their ultimate conclusion - and this is the book's main weakness. Her assessment of the early period of the kibbutz still defines it, at least in that early phase, as a socialist community; the Zionist movement, described as colonialist, militaristic and nationalist, is seen as external to the kibbutz, although intimately connected with it. But one cannot understand the kibbutz and the dynamics of its development unless. one recognises that it was never an autonomous entity. It was always totally dependent on the Zionist project and formed an integral part of it. It used socialist language but had, at best, a collectivist-voluntaristic ideology, inherent in which was the exclusion and dispossession of others.
The subjective view of the kibbutzniks, who saw themselves as socialists, is totally dependent on blocking (mentally and legally) all non-Jews as potential partners in the 'utopian socialist' vision.
The case study which is the focus of the book can serve as a perfect illustration of this truth. It is the story of Kibbutz Hanita (it is given the fictitious name of Har, but the data in the book makes its identity unmistakable). Hanita was established in 1938, in an area which previously did not have any other Jewish settlement but was densely populated by Palestinian fallahin, tenant-peasants who lived in villages and worked lands belonging to absentee landlords. Hanita's establishment gained a special political importance not only because of its location, which was particularly isolated (although the sites of most kibbutzim were chosen in strategic frontier positions), but also because of the time of its establishment, at the height of the Palestinian Revolt.
Haim Weizmann, the leader of the Jewish Agency, cabled the settlers: 'Go to Hanita, regardless of cost' (P40). Volunteers (men) of the three kibbutz federations manned the initial settlement, which was built using the 'Tower and Stockade' system. Hanita's establishment also became a turning point in Zionist military strategy, as Or de Wingate, the British officer, friend of the Hagana, trained there his Night Unit composed of British soldiers and Hagana members, for offensive rather than defensive tactics.
The local inhabitants who lived in what was designated as the site of the permanent kibbutz settlement refused to move, and were physically evacuated by the settlers. Once this 'trifle' was ov~r, the kibbutzniks could establish their 'socialist utopia', and devoutly work their land. Or rather, not their land, but a land leased to them by the new owner the Jewish National Fund, whose consittution strictly forbids sale or even leasing of any of its lands to non-Jews.
The immediate armed confrontation with the local inhabitants that took place in Hanita may have been more dramatic than in many other kibbutzim, and may be more characteristic of the later period in the establishment of kibbutzim. However, this use of kibbutzim as a military front position has been universal. The level of confrontation with local Palestinian peasants depended on the extent to which the absentee landlords or the Ottoman or British police had already accomplished the task of removing the peasants from the locality before the Zionist colonisation itself took place, as well as on the degree of organistion of the Palestinian resistance.
What is important to emphasise is that the confrontation between the kibbutz and the local Palestinians was not only national but had also a class dimension. Hanita lands were bought from absentee landlords through a secret agent. The secrecy however, was only preserved vis-àvis the local fallahin; information of the sale was given not only to the British but also to Amir 'Abdalla of Transjordan and the Lebanese government, who 'kept the secret' and thus gave their silent consent to the deal.
The national and private capital which bought the kibbutz lands also enabled the kibbutz to continue to survive during all the following years, on a subsidised level-,-until profits from the kibbutz industrieswhich used hired labour, Jewish (Oriental) and Palestinian -made the kibbutz economically 'autonomous' (but still getting preferential taxation treatment from the state).
In view of all this, it is difficult to see how the kibbutz can be described as either autonomous or a socialist unit...
Paula Rayman shows how the various components of early kibbutz 'socialist' ideology - collective ownership, the 'religion' of labour and self-labour - were functional for the pragmatic needs of the settlers, on the level ùf the individual kibbutz, and of the Zionist movement as a whole. (Even the component which she claims did not represent a strictly pragmatic concern, the 'religion' of labour which encouraged a spiritual direct contact with the land, can be said to be functional to the extent that this direct relation hid the other people who existed on this land.)
The changes in the principles which fashioned kibbutz life in its earlier and later stages do not signify transition from socialist to capitalist ideology as Paula Rayman claims, but rather a shift in its pragmatic needs, including the pragmatic need for ideology itself, deliberations and reluctance to shift the ideological discourse notwithstanding. Since its earliest days the kibbutz, like the whole Zionist movement, was eclectic in the means it applied to achieve its nationalcolonial goals.
Deviations from socialist-egalitarian principles existed not only in the relations between the kibbutz community and its social environment, but also internally. Paula Rayman analyses the sexual divisions, which placed women in inferior positions in the kibbutz since its inception. She also describes how other social differentiations develop in the kibbutz and come to compose its internal stratification.
The most important contribution of the book is the detailed description of the kibbutz in its regional context in the post-1948 period. She shows how the raison d'être of the kibbutz as a Zionist frontier post which promotes national and class exclusivity continued, with changes, also after the establishment of the state, and were applied not only to the local Palestinians but also to the Oriental Jews who came to live in development towns and moshavim in the region. The concept of 'region' itself, like many other concepts in the Zionist terminology is 'doublethink'. Not only the catchment area of the 'regional' high school, but even the local municipal council itself excludes the local Palestinian and Oreintal Jewish communities. The 'regional' industries not only exclude them from ownership but have become a class tool for exploiting them as hired labourers.
This form of exclusionary 'doublethink' has not changed much since the time the kibbutz was established. One of the poems (cited at the end of the book) which were composed in honour of the establishment of the kibbutz in a thickly Palestinian populated area declares:
On the border of the north,
In desolate wilderness
We have fixed a habitation. . .
Unni Wikan, Life among the Poor in Cairo, Tavistock 1980, Price .£4.95 (paperback) pp167.
Unni Wikan's book is about the effects of poverty on interpersonal relations among the slumdwellers of Cairo and its specific effects on women. it is based on eight months' fieldwork in one neighbourhood during which the author, an anthropologist, was able to get to know and carefully observe seventeen households linked through ties of community, kinship and reciprocity. The result is a rich fabric of detail about domestic life in a Muslim country which will be of interest to many; but it will disappoint those who argue that a kind of spontaneous feminism characterises the sexually segregated societies of the Middle East, and those who view poverty as a radicalising and equalising force.
The families in Unni Wikan's study are desperately poor although they are not the poorest of Egypt's capital city of eight million, where over a million are homeless. They at least have somewhere to live other than cemeteries and sewers, and they have a wage earner in the family. But they live in cramped and unhygienic conditions, whole families often residing in one room. No family has an income sufficient to meet its needs; people are so poor they are afraid to accept hospitality because they are unable to repay it. Miserable though they are, their dreams are not of radical social change, but of advance within the existing system. In 1972, when the study was completed, the neighbourhood had little good to say about Nasser, the former nationalist leadq-, or for his brand of socialism. His government like all others was regarded as corrupt and bureaucratic and the slum dwellers rarely availed themselves of the benefits of his public welfare programme: nobody believed that anything cheap or free could be trusted. They longed instead for what they saw as the stability and relative prosperity of life under British rule.
But the focus of the book is not upon this - it is upon the lives of the women in these families. The slum areas with their narrow streets and decaying buildings are the women's territory and their flats are their domain. The men keep away, spending their time at work or in the cafes. It is unmanly to sit in the home with the women and children. The women are all, in the conventional sense of the term 'housewives', dependent on a male wage earner and with little or no income generating activity of their own. Their mornings are spent on housework; the rest of the day and much of the evening is taken up with sustaining, forming or breaking the complex web of alliance with other women which is an integral part of the daily struggle to make ends meet.
In most cases the only wage earners are husbands and fathers, as children generally leave home when they begin to work. For women to enter wage work represents a loss of family honour and reflects badly on the men in the household. The women's feelings are ambivalent: they do not want to be seen to be forced into wage work by dilatory husbands, yet many complained of being stopped from earning by family pressure. Yet these families live on the brink; every illness, marriage or religious celebration requires additional expenditure and creates a domestic crisis. While it is the men's responsibility to provide the income, it is the women's to make sure that what they are given for the housekeeping goes far enough to meet even unexpected additional expenditures. Survival in these conditions is only possible through borrowing from friends or through finely tuned relations of reciprocity established between friends and relatives. Women's savings clubs organised by themselves also provide a cushion in situations where the domestic economy is threatened. Most of these arrangements are concealed from the men and the women also try to conceal them from each other; it is shameful to borrow and to have money problems so the women constantly exaggerate the degree to which they are financially secure. But everybody knows, or suspects, the truth because they are all in the same situation.
Yet despite the fact that dire poverty is common to all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and could conceivably draw them together, it produces the opposite effect of petty competition. Degradation and desperation turns every family into a battleground and renders every friendship precarious through instrumental economic calculation, jealousy and mistrust. The cramped conditions of the living quarters and the absence of privacy exacerbates. the situation by creating a paranoid world of door sitters, window peepers and gossips who construct a pervasive system of social control, based on intolerance, suspicion and envy.
If relations between the women are competitive and instrumental, relations between men and women are equally, if not more, fraught. The men are almost guests in their own homes; they often take two jobs to earn enough money for the family's subsistence and will then work a ten hour day. If they have any leisure time they spend it in the cafes or visiting relatives rather than in their cramped and noisy apartments. Husbands and wives fight continuously over money, the wives trying to secure a larger portion of the wage than that which is given to them. Each suspects the other of cheating, the women with some reason; men rarely disclose their earnings and most men keep a sizeable portion for their own personal use. One man spent a third of his total monthly wage on his own consumption, £15 out of £51, while the family of eleven, including himself, had to eat, dress and live on what remained. Another man; one of the poorest, kept a family of eight on £23 per month, taking a good fifth for his own purposes. The money men spend on themselves goes on tobacco, occasionally drink, gambling, and on the cafes. It is not even indirectly spent on the family's behalf. Yet, however much the men and women may fight, they rarely divorce unless the marriage is recent and there are no children. Children provide both men and women with a stake in staying married. Women are often deprived of their children on divorce as well as losing their source of material support. The social sanctions against women taking independent initiatives such as working for a wage are considerable even though they are under extreme financial pressure to do so. Divorced women are the responsibility of their natal families, so great efforts are made by relatives to reconcile warring couples. From the man's point of view, the financial penalties of divorce are considerable if there are children, as he assumes responsibility for them. If he re-marries he not only expects to have more children to support, but he must also find the money to pay for the wedding, and the bridewealth, as well as contribute to the costs of setting up a new home. So men and women tend to stay together and to find some kind of modus vivendi, however unsatisfactory.
Although it is not without sympathy and understanding, this is a harsh and unromantic view of the urban poor. It is, of course, unclear as to how far the sample of seventeen families can be seen as representative of the urban poor in Cairo or even of a particular stratum within it. We know that these were not the poorest families in Cairo but we do not know how they compared for example with others, where women were not dependent on a family wage. The extremes of individualism and competitiveness documented in this book contrast with those accounts of urban slums and shanty towns in parts of Latin America which are characterised by female support groups, communal solidarity, warm interpersonal relations and political radicalism. In most cases communal solidarity of this kind has developed through political struggles, the work of community, religious, or political activists, or through forms of rural solidarity transplanted to the towns. In other words it is not the spontaneous correlate of poverty and deprivation.
The social behaviour described by Unni Wikan is not spontaneously generated either, but why it takes the form it does is not adequately explained in her account. While she sees poverty as the main cause, she acknowledges that 'cultural factors do play a part'; but this observation is not elaborated upon. it would have been interesting to have known more about these cultural and religio-ideological influences as they might help to account for such features as the pronounced gender hierarchy and particular family form characteristic of the households in the study. More intractable, and more worrying for feminists, is the problem of why, in the slums of Cairo, the women are more concerned with defaming each other's morals through the vicious gossip known as 'people's talk' than with how conditions can be improved through greater co-operation and collective action.
- 1See Iran: Religion, Politics and Society, London, 1980, pp6-7.
- 2See F. Adamiyat's discussion of this point in Ideology-e Nehzat-e Mashrutiyat-e Iran (Ideology of the Iranian Constitutional Movement, in Persian), Tehran, 1976, ppI56-173 and pp225-228.
- 3Quoted in Adamiyat, op cit, p171.
- 4This section is by Yann Richards, but it seems to represent an integral part of the book. Nowhere does Keddie contradict these evaluations.