the instability of identity– gendered? and to what extent?

Our readings for the Kinship, Marriage, Sex, and Reproduction thematic cluster provide interesting perspectives on the instability of identity. In this post, I hope to draw attention to a particular moment of identity construction in Abu-Lughod’s Bedouin Stories. 

Abu-Lughod describes an instance in which Gateefa, the chief wife of Haj Sagr, experienced the anxiety of an unstable identity. The third wife of the Haj, Azza, had insulted Gateefa by saying, “You who don’t have any kin” (113). The attack cut deep into Gateefa since it rang as partially true: she had no father and no brothers and was isolated in the women’s community. Abu-Lughod describes the nature of Gateefa’s anxiety as follows:

What had incensed Gateefa was the charge that she had no kin. To have no kin is to be vulnerable and isolated, since the family is such a crucial source of identity and support. For a woman, having brothers allows you to stand tall in the world, and especially in your husband’s community (113).

Here, we learn that Gateefa’s identity is crafted in relation to others– and the others that are particularly important are the brothers and husbands. At this point, I am unsure of whether to describe this unstable identity as intersubjective, mutually constituting, or embedded in a system of subject-object relations.

It is unclear if Abu-Lughod describes this form of identity construction for women in general or Bedouin women in particular, but it seems most likely the latter (as this is an ethnography on the Bedouin population). But this ambiguity raises a question: to what extent can the experience of identity construction as mediated by kinship relations in Bedouin tribes be generalized? Does this form of mediation extend to all women? Can the work of intersubjective identity construction be reconciled with the notion of women as Objects in a Subject-Object relationship between men and women, as DeBeauvoir described? Or, pushing even further, can such claims ring true for identity construction in all individuals, irrespective of gender, as a theorist such as Durkheim may have it?

In the interest of space, I won’t elaborate on examples from other texts– but I will enumerate them here so we can spur discussion via comments or in class discussion, if you are interested. Please forgive the underdevelopment of the following thoughts!

-Pride and Prejudice:  How is Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy’s identity  constituted and reconstituted through the perceptions that others have of Darcy? In what ways is her own identity influenced by her understanding of Darcy?

-Moynihan: Gender as mutually constituting– what does it mean for femininity when the category of male is pathologized?

-Bedouin Stories: Abu-Lughod’s uncertainty about her own identity as a function of positionality (insider/outsider)– “I felt caught in between: i knew how to live in such a house and they did not, but I also knew how to read such a house as the tasteless display…” (120).  Also, what to make of the Haj’s identity as constituted in relation to his wives?



One thought on “the instability of identity– gendered? and to what extent?

  1. This is certainly a culture in which women ground themselves in men who can protect them, since the men are those who have the power. For Azza, she grounds herself in her brothers and her immediate family, for they are there to take her in if the Haj rejects her. The reason why the insult is supposed to sting Gateefa so, is because Gateefa lacks the safety net that Azza has. If the Haj abandons her, she has no place to go. Yet, Gateefa kind of wins because she grounded herself in her relationship with the Haj, so she has no reason to worry about him leaving her. She also makes friends with all of the outsiders. In this way, the difference between Azza and Gateefa and perhaps all of those women who have or lack a family outside of their husband, is that Azza and those with families have had their kind assigned to them, they had no choice in the matter. With Gateefa and those women who lack a family outside of their husband, they made their kin and their support network.

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