Veiled Sentiments Summary and Study Guide

Lila Abu-Lughod

Veiled Sentiments

  • 54-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 8 chapter summaries and 4 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree
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Veiled Sentiments Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 54-page guide for “Veiled Sentiments” by Lila Abu-Lughod includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 8 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Womanhood and Gender and Storytelling as Cultural Expression.

Plot Summary

Leila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, first published in 1986, is the anthropologist’s first ethnography on the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin peoples of North Africa. Over years of research and ‘ishra (living with) the Awlad ‘Ali, Abu-Lughod, initially interested in women’s experiences in the community, is drawn to poetry, specifically that which women recite in intimate, private settings. As she lives in and learns from the villagers, she explores the purpose of these beautifully performed, emotionally rending poems within a society that holds honor and modesty as its ideals.

Abu-Lughod notes that much of seminomadic Bedouin tradition begins to fade in the years of her research, 1978 to 1980, as tribes abandon yearly migrations and settle in mostly-fixed villages. Still, she notices that the Bedouin people around her see themselves as mostly impervious to the influences of the impure, outside world. Over the first half of the book, Abu-Lughod describes the strong, patrilineal organization of Awlad ‘Ali society. Her interest in women shapes her observations heavily, partly because of the deep sexual segregation that punctuates Awlad ‘Ali villages. She discovers that these social structures are built on a code of honor that determines behavior, marriage, and power distribution among the Awlad ‘Ali.

In a deeply moralistic society like that of the Awlad ‘Ali, Abu-Lughod reminds her reader that honor and respect come to those who uphold prized characteristics. In the case of the Awlad ‘Ali, these characteristics include generosity, stoicism, and fierce autonomy. She notes a deep irony: only some members of the community can demonstrate autonomy and independence, for the Awlad ‘Ali are also a hierarchical people who value masculinity over femininity and age over youth. For women, asham, or modesty, is the ultimate quality that earns respect, but autonomy is impossible.

In the second half of the text, Abu-Lughod asserts that a “poetic discourse” (32) enables women to act autonomously by sharing poems expressing feelings that would not be otherwise thought of as modest. Because poetry, for the Bedouins, is a culturally valued art, poems are sanctioned, even if they express emotions that disrupt or threaten the authority of the patrilineal society. Abu-Lughod explains early in the text that sexuality to the Awlad ‘Ali is both the reason for women’s subjugation and a reality that they (and men) should seek to avoid mentioning at all costs. Nonetheless, the emotional world, so often linked to sexuality, shapes their lives, especially as the needs of a woman’s patrilineal kin demand for frequent divorces, remarriages, and polygyny, or the sharing of a husband. Poetry enriches women’s experiences of their world.

For Abu-Lughod, whose presence as a half-Arab half-American woman lingers on the edges of the ethnography, Bedouin poetry offers another language, or vocabulary, with which disempowered women can navigate its society and act honorably within it. Writing an afterword for the text 30 years later, Abu-Lughod notes that the trappings and conventions of modern society continue to creep into Bedouin villages. However, the tradition of poetry remains captivating within a community that sees material change as just a background to its deeply rooted ideological, familial core.

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