Gender Studies

An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi`i Lebanon

Lara Deeb, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 263 pages.

In An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi`i Lebanon, cultural anthropologist Lara Deeb writes an ethnography about a group of Shi`i Muslim women in a Beirut community. She follows their religious and social commitments, allows them to express their individual and collective sentiments, and describes their understanding of piety and how they manifest it in their commitment to social activism. She argues that they create a space for Islam within the modern world and that the notions Islam and modernity are not contradictory, but rather complementary. Her subjects practice authenticated Islam, which she defines as an Islam that has a modern interpretation based on knowledge and understanding, in contrast to a traditional, unquestioned Islam that is followed blindly by the older generations. 

Deeb uses interviews and participant observation to ascertain her interlocutors’ multiple discourses. These women, having steadfastly studied their religion, locate themselves as pious women who can construct and define themselves in the modern world without succumbing to the pressures of western standards of modernity. Loosely associated with the Hizbullah political party, her subjects live in al-Dahiyya, an area of southern suburban Beirut (considered a Shi`i ghetto) that houses some 500,000 people.

In the West, these women are seen as religious fundamentalists akin to the Taliban. The goals of Deeb’s book are to dismiss this gross inaccuracy, suggest that Islam is not a static and monolithic religion, and show that Islam and modernity are compatible. She describes how the women she interviewed perceived modernity in the western sense, as well as their own idea of what Deeb calls “enchanted ways of being modern.” This “enchanted modern” form of piety emphasizes the importance of both material and spiritual progress as well as a “new kind of religiosity, one that involves conscious and conscientious commitment.”

The author’s second agenda is to explore publicly performed piety in the personal and communal lives of these women, who express their personal jihad through the public piety of social activism. Research for this book was conducted between 1999-2001 and was published in early 2006. Sadly, in August 2006, Israel bombed and destroyed many of the sites and centers in neighborhoods where she had carried out her research.

Deeb’s term authenticated Islam expresses a new definition of public piety that includes practicing Islam through public visibility. Through social service, such as sacrificing one’s time to help the poor and underprivileged and supporting the resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, they form a strong identity for themselves. Authentication, which depends on textual inquiry and historical research, represents a found truth to oneself as well as a responsibility to the community

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