In 1966 Germaine Tillion, a 59-year-old French structural anthropologist, published a slim volume entitled Le harem et les cousins (English title: The Republic of Cousins). This book, and Tillion herself, are largely unknown in the United States outside academic circles. Yet 40 years after its publication, The Republic of Cousins offers fresh and even -startling insights into the Muslim world.
The "republic" Tillion depicts is a construction based on the seclusion of women, near-incestuous marriages, honor killings, and the obsessive concern of brothers for their sisters' honor. It is common to the Christian northern borders of the Mediterranean as well as the Muslim southern and eastern shores. Many of Tillion's most -startling examples come from southern France--where uncle/niece marriages were still taking place before World War II--and from Christian Lebanon where, she reports, spouses habitually call one another "cousin."
Tillion, who died in April just short of her 101st birthday, was well known in France--but for her courage and political engagement more than her work in anthropology. She was one of 61 people, and only five women, to hold the Grand Cross of the Legion d'Honneur. As a Resistance heroine who survived a concentration camp and went on to play a controversial role in the Algerian war, she was also a quintessential French public intellectual. Tillion was the subject of a 1974 television documentary, Un certain regard, and two books by Jean Lacouture.
Tillion did her research in rural Algeria from 1934 to 1940. But her life then took a drastic turn away from academia: Returning to France, she joined the Resistance, was betrayed by a priest, condemned to death, and interned at Ravensbruck during 1942-45. Her mother, who was also arrested, died there. Tillion spent much of the postwar period documenting the atrocities she witnessed. Her memoir Ravensbruck was published in 1958; she would later rewrite it twice. It made her famous.
Then, already a public figure, she returned to Algeria in 1954 as a government emissary, attempting to improve the situation of women and mitigate the excesses of both sides. Tillion ended up as one of the staunchest opponents of the French use of torture. Although the war in Algeria is mentioned mainly in footnotes in The Republic of Cousins, it shadows every page. And in the context of 1966 France, with the wounds of that savage conflict still fresh, Tillion's matter-of-fact, evenhanded treatment of Christian and Muslim social arrangements is impressive.
Tillion's aim was to demystify the institution of the harem by explaining it--and the explanation turned out to revolve around cousin marriage, or what she called "saving all of the girls of the family for the boys of the family." Her thesis is that in societies where women have inheritance rights (and giving daughters half the portion of sons was one of Mohammed's great breaks with Arab tribal codes), they are married off to paternal first cousins wherever possible. This keeps the family's land in the patrilineage.
It also leads to a number of idiosyncrasies now identified with Muslim societies but formerly found in southern France, Italy, Greece, and Spain. To prevent exogamy, daughters are secluded, and while they may attend school or even work, their social contacts will be limited to men in their immediate family and close cousins.
Forty years later, Tillion's analysis of endogamous marriage and the seclusion of women has still not been assimilated into the common stock of wisdom about the Arab world or ours. One of the shocks of The Republic of Cousins is that it is as much a reaction to Tillion's upbringing in the Auvergne, in southern France, as it is to her experiences among the Berber nomads of Algeria, whom she studied for her fieldwork.
Tillion is undeniably correct in pointing out that close cousin marriage correlates heavily with the Islamic and Mediterranean world: It is well established that between 20 and 60 percent of marriages in most of the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are between first or second cousins. Even in the Western diaspora this tradition persists: 55 percent of British Pakistanis are married to their first cousins, and the number in Bradford may approach 75 percent, as the BBC reported in 2005. Tillion also cites statistics on endogamous marriage in France, which diminished precipitously after 1945.
Tillion's most useful contribution may be looking beyond the abstractions of "Islam" and "the West" or "the Judeo-Christian tradition" to an earlier shared past in which pig bones do not appear in Neolithic remains around the Mediterranean, long before the Judeo-Islamic ban on eating pork. Tillion points out that circumcision of boys predates Islam; it is never mentioned in the Koran, though all male Muslims are circumcised as surely as male Jews. These facts might suggest grounds for understanding and dialogue. Indeed, in January 2004, the Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari proposed a far-reaching way of rethinking Arab identity, suggested by Tillion's thought: "It is possible today for many Arabs to define themselves as Arabs and Mediterraneans, without abandoning their affinities with other non-Mediterranean Arabs."
You might expect that a writer dealing with such au courant subject matter would be widely read in English, but Tillion's reputation has not been helped by the obscurity of her publishers, London-based Al Saqi Books. This small house was started by the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya and some of his friends in 1978 and has published significant Arabic works in English and European language works in Arabic. The Republic of Cousins was last printed by Al Saqi in 2000. The translation, by Quintin Hoare, carries a subtitle that is absent from the original: "Women's Oppression in Mediterranean Society." While this was doubtless well meant at the time, now it suggests a dated feminist tract. It has been out of print for some time, and never sold enough copies in English to have an impact.
In the light of current events, even Tamari's modest goal of a dual identity for Mediterranean Arabs may seem distant. But it is worth thinking about as an alternative to the sterile opposition between "Islam" and "the West," and the bankrupt models for Arab and Muslim identity current on the Arab street. Germaine Tillion's work suggests that there are fresh approaches possible, if only we have the imagination for them.
Ann Marlowe is the author most recently of a memoir, The Book of Trouble, and a frequent visitor to Afghanistan.