On the Modesty of Women in Arab Muslim Villages: A Study in the Accommodation of Traditions1


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    I wish to thank the Anthropology Department and the Middle East Center of Harvard University, the Social Science Research Council, and The International Affairs Center of Indiana University for providing the funds that allowed me to carry on field work in Jordan. I wish also to thank the Indiana University Foundation for a special grant that allowed me to prepare this article for publication, and the Department of Social Anthropology at Manchester University for their generous aid and criticism during my service there as a research associate. And I would like to thank the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the American University of Beirut for the encouragement given to my research during my service there as a Visiting Lecturer. Although they are in no way responsible for the views herein expressed, my thanks also go to Salih Altoma, Frederick Bailey, Robert Bellah, Jeremy Boissevain, Peter Dodd, Fuad Khuri, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr for reading and commenting on an early draft of this article. Special thanks are due to Nur Yalman whose meticulous reading and commentary were extremely helpful in working out my own argument as the last section of this essay attests.


The modesty code constitutes a fundamental pattern in Middle Eastern culture, found at the level of both its great tradition (Islamic law and Quranic ethics) and its little tradition (village custom and belief). The peculiar conditions of peasant life, however, make conformity to the code difficult and require accommodation at the level of both action and thought. It is the accommodation at the two analytically separate levels of thought and action and the interrelationship between these accommodations, rather than the search for the historical origins of discrete cultural traits, that should constitute the focus for studies relating the great and little traditions. This study demonstrates that accommodation in thought (Redfield's “social organization of tradition”) is intimately related to the success of achieving accommodation in action between particular groups in critical situations (Firth's “social organization” at large). It also demonstrates that the persistence and the pervasiveness of the modesty code in Middle Eastern culture can be explained only by a combination of structural, psychological, and historical factors.