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November 15, 2008

My Cousin, My Husband

Clans and Kinship in Mediterranean Societies
Germaine Tillion – ISBN – 9780863566257

Tillion, a legendary French anthropologist, studied Mediterranean societies; largely those in Algeria and North Africa. She died this year, age 100, and I suspect this reissued book was an honorarium of sorts, though the subject is certainly aucourant. She argues that the phenomenon of men killing their daughters, sisters and wives over matters of sexual honor is not an aberration specific to Islam, but part of a pagan legacy of the area which still affects modern societies regardless of religion; more prevalent in Islam, to be sure, but not limited to it.

“My Cousin” was first published in 1963, and of special interest in that close familial marriages are exposed as Mediterranean customs which include virtually all of its cultures--and from prehistoric times. She posits: “Must we then attribute veil and harem to a specific climate, or race? [This is] inconsistent with everything we know from the past. So what is the reason for this stubborn survival, which to this day, wherever it flourishes, constitutes the most serious obstacle to progress?”

Long before Islam and Christianity, incest was a practice which hadn’t the sacrilegious character it carries today. Despite current religious prohibition, cousin marriages occur with regularity, within all religious communities. Endogamy is particularly prominent amongst Zoroastrian Persians.

Virginity is an important matter, but primarily to brothers and fathers. Seven year old boys are required to accompany their sisters about to “protect” them . . . occasionally aunts and even their mothers. Anything with sexual inference is a terrible shame to be protected against. This leads to family besmirchment—and in turn to honor killings--but the “snotty little kids” are honor bound to report what they are taught to be infractions. She eschews discussing the psychological traumas which may attendant this responsibility, but suggests that it authors the sexual obsessions of the men.

She explores Italian Catholicism, in which virginity is also important, noting that there is a sometimes “extreme archaism” when compared to prevailing mores. Contrariwise, Muslim society exhibits mores even more retrograde than their religion. This is the result of tribalism overriding religious dictate. In sophisticated, urban settings (as with original Moorish civilization) there were literates, subjects of compulsory education, who overwhelmed the “old peasant civilizations.” It is sometimes so now in large Muslim cities. Still, tradition prevails, “to the detriment of society.” For example, the veil rarely appears in rural tribes, being a feature of metropolitan living--and another means of separation of women from society. As well, this fosters cousin marriage by preventing the appearance of divergent social arrangements. The burkha is but an expansion on the veil.

Her discussions are replete with facts—some arcane--but she expounds prolifically. I found it very interesting, if a sometimes difficult read. Certainly it requires further reflection before damning Islam alone, and an explanation of the origins of these multiple societal problems assists in interpretation.

“All family situations, at all stages of life, now bristle with thorns, imposing on every man and every woman an obsession with flight, [forward and/or retrograde.] . . . [There is presumed to be a long past] haven of peace, understanding, virtue and happiness: a golden age. [A nice fantasy, that.] But it is not possible to go backward, and all the efforts expended in that direction have only one result: to halt progress, obstruct the future and hold society at the most painful and dangerous stage of its evolution.” This is one of the important dilemmas of “modern” Islam!

Posted by respeto at November 15, 2008 12:14 PM