“… we respect everyday resistance not just by arguing for the dignity or heroism of the resistors but by letting their practices teach us about the complex interworkings of historically changing systems of power.” (Abu-Lughod, 1990, p.53)

In her paper, ‘The Romance of Resistance: tracing transformation of power through Bedouin Women’ (1990), Lila Abu-Lughod writes that despite numerous studies of both large-scale and everyday forms of resistance, there has been a tendency to romanticise resistance among academic works. She offers the argument instead that resistance should be seen as a “diagnostic of power”(p.41), a distinctive symptom and/or characteristic of power. She interprets this diagnostic of power on two separate but interweaving levels; that resistance and power occur simultaneously at various, if not all, stages of society, and that these relations are historically transformed, particularly through the influence of modern global techniques of power. She also maintains that the existence of everyday forms of resistance do not necessarily point to the failure of systems of oppression. In this essay, I shall be exploring these interpretations and guide them with inputs from Timothy Mitchell’s ‘Everyday Metaphors of Power’ (1990), Susan Gal’s ‘Language and the “Arts of Resistance”’ (1995), and Sherry Ortner’s ‘Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal’ (1995). Additionally, I will also be looking into various ethnographies addressing everyday resistance practices to support Abu-Lughod’s perspectives, such as Veena Oldenburg’s research among Courtesans in Lucknow, India (1990), Catherine Riessman’s ethnography of childless women in South India (2000), Neema Caughran’s ‘Feasts, Fasts and Slovenly Women: Strategies of Resistance in North Indian Potter Women’ (1998), and Harry Sanabria’s work on the limits of resistance practices of Bolivian miners (2000).

Forms of Resistance and Power

Quoting Foucault (1978,p.95-96), Abu-Lughod (1990) says that “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”(p. 42). What I understand from this is that one cannot exist without the other. Indeed, any form of resistance points to a dominating entity, and vice-versa. This, however, does not enable us to distinguish one from the other as positive and negative, or even assume that their existence indicates two separate entities of belief and structure. Both power and resistance are intertwined in complex manners, on various platforms.

Keeping this in mind, we should be aware that in no society is there ever just one dominant group and one subordinate group. In the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin community that Abu-Lughod spent time with, she grew accustomed to finding pistols under her mattress, and attending feasts held for people who had been imprisoned by the Egyptian government. These particular forms of resistance were against specific types of domination that the Egyptian state imposed on the Bedouins to “integrate” them within its domain. Simultaneously, another relationship between power and resistance was existent, that of gender roles. Within this relationship itself, a variety of “sites of struggle” (p.47) exist. One such site of struggle was the control of women’s freedom of movement and everyday actions, to which women responded not by confronting these issues directly but by keeping secrets from men, covering for each other in matters, and using silence to their advantage. Through these actions, Abu-Lughod points out not only that gender roles were a strong site of struggle, but also how Bedouin women simultaneously supported and defied the sex-segregation system in their protection of their “separate sphere” (p.43).

Timothy Mitchell, in ‘Everyday Metaphors of Power’ addresses this very point through the use of the widely accepted notion that the consciousness of individuals is self-formed and autonomous whereas a person’s body can be coerced to behave contrary to his ideals.  In his critique of James Scott’s book, ‘Weapons of the Weak’ (1985), Mitchell analyses Scott’s theory of peasants in Malaysia being able to “penetrate and demystify the prevailing ideology” (Scott 1985, p.317, quoted in Mitchell 1990, p.549). Scott holds that to be effective, power requires an ideological dimension, yet he stresses on the fact that the subordinate are most constrained in their outward behavior, but their consciousness and beliefs are least affected by the dominant power. Mitchell not only points out this contradiction but also indicates that it prevails because of the need to distinguish between behavior and consciousness (p.548-549). Consequently, as a result of attempting to keep this distinction relevant, Scott ignores some of the vital effects of power on peasants’ beliefs by classifying them as “givens” (p.553) rather than forms of domination. One such “given” is that the lack of clear-cut lines of distinction among classes of peasants, owing to ties such as those of kinship, friendship, ritual and even gender, causes a difficulty in organizing collective action, for the rich and poor grow dependent on each other. Although this is a valid component of power, Scott fails to acknowledge it as one, possibly because it causes a hindrance to his clear-cut separation of the fields of power and resistance. In this way, Mitchell criticizes the manner in which the metaphor of distinction between persuasion and coercion, a separation of actions and beliefs, has caused many to apply the dualist theory in places where it may not necessarily exist. Similarly, I hold that the Awlad ‘Ali women, in their moves of both acting against as well as perpetuating sex-segregation, could not have done so if their consciousness was devoid of ideological power.

This observance is parallel to that of Sherry Ortner’s, who, in ‘Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal’ (1995), speaks about subaltern groups being internally divided by factors like age and gender that are all in play within and among individuals at the same time. These factors allow one to have “different, even opposed, but still legitimate perspectives on the situation”(p.175). Related to this, Ortner writes about the importance of acknowledging internal politics among the subordinate, that is, to recognize the factors of age, gender and other differences that exist within dominated groups that could potentially cause them to hold different opinions from one another. She maintains that there is a tendency to “sanitize” (p.176) these internal politics by academia, and a focus largely on a singular relationship of power and resistance (for example, between the colonizers and the colonized), which doesn’t give one the complete picture, and hence, romanticizes resistance.

Along with acknowledging the existence and function of resistance and power on various levels, Abu-Lughod stresses the importance of understanding that resistance forms are not original in source, but in fact they are often embedded in structures of power themselves. As an example of this, Abu-Lughod explains the use of ghinnawas, lyrical poetry, as a form of resistance, particularly narrated amongst Bedouin women. Women generally used this form of poetry to express sentiments that wouldn’t be acceptable within the moral code of their society, such as that of romantic love. However, if in the form of ghinnawas, these expressions were accepted, even cherished in both intimate settings and festivities. What is ironic here is that the very tools that Bedouin women used as resistance towards the moral code belong to the same traditional structure as that of the moral code that they protested against. It is a clear example, as Abu-Lughod says, about Foucault’s argument that resistance is never in an exterior position to power (p.46-47). This also relates to Mitchell’s argument explained before, about the problems of situating power and resistance in two separate realms. The place of ghinnawas in traditional structures of society affirms that everyday resistance practices are not, and might never be completely independent from frameworks of domination, and indeed, even what is expressed through the oral poetry might possibly be a sentiment that is socially constructed.

Susan Gal, whilst critiquing Scott’s ‘Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts’ (1990) makes a similar point when distinguishing between Scott’s notion of hidden transcripts and public transcripts. According to her, Scott believes that hidden transcripts are born when the “rage” (Scott 1990, p.37 quoted in Gal 1995, p.412) that subordinates feel towards actions of the powerful cannot be contained within themselves and therefore must be expressed freely in special sites that only the subordinate have access to. Towards the dominant, then, subordinates put up a front of respect and loyalty, because the price for outright resistance might be too high at that moment. Gal questions Scott’s use of “rage” here, for in the constructionist view, even personal emotions are socially constructed through speech practices and discourses. Thus the assumption that emotions such as rage are present, uniform, and independent fixed responses amongst various cultures is flawed; they are in fact a product of traditional structures of power (p.412).

I believe that Neema Caughran’s ‘Fasts, Feasts and the Slovenly Woman’ (1998) is also an appropriate example of how the subordinate often use practices that are part of dominant structures of society in everyday forms of resistance. Caughran emphasizes the importance of fasting during specific festivities set by the patriarchal Hindu society upon women to ensure the welfare not of the women themselves, but of their families. Even outside of festivals, women in villages across India often eat after the men of the household have eaten, and even then, the youngest daughter-in-law will generally eat leftovers after other female kin have had their fill. However, Caughran is also conscious of the fact that, when need be, women will use the same act of fasting as one of resistance. For instance, when Aarti Devi’s (Caughran’s closest friend in the village) husband was having an affair, he wouldn’t come back home for days at a time. Although she was aware of the affair, she would still serve him food when he came home, which he would refuse saying he had already eaten, indirectly suggesting that another woman had already satisfied him sexually. As a response to this, she would refuse to eat and stay hungry until he had eaten the meal she cooked for him (p.264).

The above illustration relates particularly to Abu-Lughod’s perception that everyday resistance practices both support and defy power structures, and that these forms of resistance are not necessarily external, but actually draw from the dominant system itself. Thus, I feel that in exploring these interweaving complex manners in which power works, Abu-Lughod has shown effective ways in which resistance may be un-romanticized in future academic works.


Transformations in Power and Resistance

Structures of power and resistance, according to Abu-Lughod, are constantly changing and transforming with time and space. Any particular relationship between power and resistance is never stable, but subject to alteration. Historical evolution leads to the influx of new forms of power, and consequently, of resistance, which may alter current sites of struggle significantly. Abu-Lughod believes that the acknowledgment of resistance as a diagnostic of power can help locate and better understand these transformations (p.48). I am also convinced that this theory works in reversal, i.e. that recognizing historical transformations of domination and resistance will help locate resistance as a diagnostic of power, and not as something outside of power structures.

An example of this is the manner in which ghinnawas have changed hands over time. As we have seen, women originally performed ghinnawas to express sentiments that would normally be exempt from other forms of social correspondence. Due to the increasing monetization and privatization of property, power has become concentrated in the hands of older kinsmen, and young Bedouin men have started using these forms of oral poetry to protest against these changes. Among women, on the other hand, recitals of ghinnawas have become less popular as they resort to listening to pre-recorded cassettes of the poetry rather than reciting it themselves.

Abu-Lughod also illustrates another kind of transformation of power and resistance, and this comprises a new site of struggle, between young and old women (p.49-52). This has been produced as a result of the increasing influence of Egyptian capitalist and consumerist culture within Bedouin communities, which has been accepted by youth to a greater extent than by older generations. Young Bedouin girls are now accustomed to watching Egyptian soaps and listening to radio programs that glorify personal beauty and consumerism in a way that older age groups were unexposed to. The decade of the 1980s saw new practices (new to the Awlad ‘Ali, not to Egyptian society) appear, such as young women wearing lingerie, painting their faces, going willingly to have sex with their husbands on their wedding night, and trying to please their husbands specifically to get them to buy household goods and possessions. These individualistic western, consumerist practices go two ways. To more traditional Bedouins, they could be seen as a form of domination that they must resist, but others might welcome these changes, perceiving them as a form of resistance to conservative Bedouin practices (that may not have been viewed as conservative before the introduction of modern types of power).

Abu-Lughod maintains that modern forms of domination within the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouins such as those of the growth of consumerism and “privatization of the individual and family” (p.52) work in indirect ways and offer such positive attractions that people don’t necessarily feel the urge to resist them. Through the acceptance of these practices, though, the Bedouins are now deeper set within a wider set of power structures, and a part of the global economy.  These non-local forms of resistance, however, are also culturally given. Not from the Bedouin community this time but emulated or borrowed (p.50) from Egyptian society. Thus, although they are new forms of resistance and domination for the Awlad ‘Ali, they are internally present within larger, already existing, structures of power.

A similar transformation of power structures can be observed in Oldenburg’s (1990) ethnography of courtesans of Lucknow. In pre-colonial times, courtesans were ‘influential female elite’ (pg.262) who were recognized as preservers of culture. Though they were powerful in their own right, they still represented a form of resistance against conventional notions of modesty expected from a woman. With the advent of colonial power, the once respected profession of courtesans was debased, and as a result of the hypocritical nature of British moral high-handedness, not only was their institution maligned, but the ‘healthy and beautiful “specimens”’ (pg.265) were relocated to cantonments for the benefit of British soldiers. Today, although the British have left India, their notion of morality as a tool of oppression has been imbibed into the Indian sense of righteousness. Conservative Indians often attempt to lash back at the increasing ‘Western’ influence among urban youth by resting on the virtues and principles of so-called Indian culture. For existing courtesans, this has led to a switch in the aim of their target of resistance practices from the British towards modern Indian patriarchal structures of domination.

If we return to Mitchell, we see that he too takes from Foucault and writes that when modes of domination seem to be external to social and economic practices in local communities, in the guise of unchanging, fixed institutions like the Law, that is also the moment that these forms of power are actually internally and continuously at work within these very practices. Just like the establishment of an institution such as the Court of Law, Mitchell speaks about a variety of “innovations” that aid in the creation and perpetuation of new social practices, such as “modern techniques of education, organized religion, government expertise and official ideology”, and distinguishes the two practices by stating that “the new practices, unlike the old, are expressly concerned with programming” (p.571-572). Although Mitchell doesn’t mention it specifically, I believe that the media in its various forms also plays an important role in perpetuating “programmed” practices. Amongst the Awlad ‘Ali women, Abu-Lughod notes that the popularity of Egyptian radio and television soap operas has had a big hand in disseminating notions of personal beauty and attractiveness, as well as the ‘need’ for material wealth in order to own consumer products that are part of the Egyptian, and also global, economy. Thus, in this manner, both Abu-Lughod’s and Mitchell’s opinions about the seemingly external nature of power converge.

In relation to transformations of power and resistance, I believe it is apt to refer to Ortner’s (1995) definition of authenticity. By authenticity, she does not mean “cultural purity” and an “untouched” nature of a society that has somehow had no touch of influence from other cultures, but the manner in which “pieces of reality, however much borrowed from or imposed by others, are woven together through the logic of the group’s own locally and historically evolved bricolage” (p. 176). With this in mind, she looks at the need to keep the authenticity of cultures intact among ethnographic studies of resistance, and deals particularly with the recognition of religion as a container of beliefs and values that are often an important part of resistance movements, but has taken a back seat in ethnographic works such as those of Guha (1988), Scott (1985), Wolf (1982) and Fox (1985)(quoted in Ortner 1985, p. 180-181).

Abu-Lughod also recognizes the role of religion in historical transformations, emphasizing the revival of Islamic movements as a relatively new form of resistance against the infiltration of western influences. This form of resistance, popular among Awlad ‘Ali inhabiting urban spaces, is not an innate expression of their principles but in fact stems from an already operating Islamic movement evolved in Egypt and other places (p.52). Yet I feel it is still, in Ortner’s words, an “authentic” response to forces of domination. It is also interesting to note that this particularly fundamentalist (p.52) approach to dealing with new modes of power might be in complete contrast to other simultaneously existing forms of everyday resistance and perpetuate certain practices of dominance among the Bedouins such as greater control over women’s movement and actions by men.


Implications of Everyday Forms of Resistance

In criticizing romanticized resistance, Lila Abu-Lughod has made a conscious effort to shift academic focus from resisters and resistance practices to the functioning of structures of power as a whole. She believes that in making this shift, it becomes possible for one to gain a larger, more holistic perspective on the role that everyday forms of resistance play in societies, a perspective that indicates resistance as a diagnostic of power itself. In the preceding paragraphs, I have attempted to explain the manner in which resistance and power struggles exist simultaneously on various platforms and are not constant but intertwine, contrast and transform themselves with time and space. Because of these multi-layered and ever-changing dynamics, it is therefore very difficult to assume the romanticized notion that everyday forms of resistance indicate “the failure – or partial failure – of systems of oppression” (p.53).  For instance, when women from the Awlad ‘Ali community would protest against marriages arranged by male kin, it proved that the women were not entirely powerless in these decisions, but at the same time, final decision-making control continued to rest in the hands of men, and did not shift to women.

In other ethnographies too, like Catherine Riessman’s (2000) research of everyday forms of resistance against social stigma towards infertile women (and to a lesser extent, women who voluntarily chose not to have children) in Kerala, Riessman makes it clear that the everyday resistance practices that the women without children partake in do not bring about a change in the established notion that a married couple must bear children, nor does it imply any ideological transformation of structured gender roles in India. In fact, this might not be the outcome that resisting women intend to bring about in the first place; they are working within their own social context where a full-blown resistance movement may not seem a viable or even necessary option, and “constructing their own lives within determinant conditions” (Davis and Fisher 1993 quoted in Reissman 2000, p.131).

The courtesans of Lucknow (Oldernburg 1990), on the other hand, comprises women from all sorts of backgrounds, many of whom have managed to break away (or escape) from their patriarchal households and create an alternate lifestyle for themselves in the kotha(brothel). In the kotha, they ware taught to unlearn patriarchal expectations of women and live and work amongst those they consider their equals. Ironically, as courtesans, Oldenburg mentions that they have complete control over their body and their money, whereas a woman bound to “a sometimes faithless or alcoholic or violent husband” might never have such authority over her body and economic resources (p.273). The everyday resistance practices that go along with this alternate lifestyle, however, are entrenched within patriarchal structures of power, but rather than not acknowledging this, the courtesans are completely aware of it and manipulate these very power structures for their own benefit. Wearing the burqa in public, for instance, is an act widely associated with patriarchal notions of family honour and is seen especially by the West as an inhibition to women’s freedom. The courtesans, though, invert this theory and use the burqa as an extension of the autonomy they enjoyed in their living space and their jism(bodies), keeping their selves away from the eyes of lustful men (p. 273-274). But in the end they share similarities with the Awlad ‘Ali women and childless wives of Kerala in the fact that their forms of resistance do not, and indeed are not intended to amount to a restructuring of gender (and power) dynamics.

Susan Gal (1995) also adds to the criticism of romanticizing resistance from the point of view that everyday resistance practices are not necessarily precursors of large-scale revolts. She writes this in context of Scott’s (1990) stand on hidden transcript being the “silent partner of later public revolt or mobilization” (p.420) in ‘Domination and the Arts of Resistance’, and dismisses this proposition by maintaining that everyday resistance forms could just as easily lead to a reproduction of oppressive systems as to revolution. She refers to Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’ (1977) to support her argument, pointing out that the resistance practices carried out by British working-class school lads led to “cynicism and the reproduction of their powerlessness” along with the strengthening of features embedded in the dominant ideology such as contempt towards women (p.420).

Although I agree with Gal that everyday forms of resistance are not always precursors to larger, more organized revolutions or movements, I hold that such revolutions and social movements, be they successful or in vain, would not be created if everyday resistance practices among their members didn’t exist in the first place. Harry Sanabria (2000), for instance, while demonstrating the growth of Bolivia state miners’ movements and rebellions in second half of the 20th century establishes the existence of the miners’ everyday forms of resistance like “tardiness, absenteeism, ore thefts”, and “heavy drinking” (Tandeter, 1981 quoted in Sanabria 2000, p.59) right from the 1500s when the Spanish colonizers set up silver and tin mines in the country. It is also significant to note that, by showing how Bolivian miners have been unsuccessful in their attempts to confront dominating power structures of the state and its global allies, Sanabria focuses on the “limits of resistance” and illustrates the complex intertwined nature of power structures that Abu-Lughod emphasizes in her criticism of the inclination to romanticize resistance. Furthermore, Sanabria suggests that it is a more useful approach to look at both hegemonic projects and resistance strategies as “temporarily” successful or unsuccessful (p. 72), thereby, in my opinion, corresponding with Abu-Lughod’s theory that power structures are continuously transforming with time.


As I have already discussed, Abu-Lughod, in her criticism of a tendency to “romanticize resistance” in anthropological studies of power, emphasizes the importance of understanding the dynamic nature of power structures en bloc rather than focusing specifically on forms of resistance. Resistance, according to her, is a “diagnostic of power”, and intricate relationships of power and resistance cut both vertically and horizontally through social and cultural divisions. These relationships relentlessly transform and evolve with time, imbibing and reacting against modern forms of authority. The presence of everyday forms of resistance therefore, due to the transformative characteristics of power and resistance, is not always an indicator of the failure of dominating systems, and simultaneously, nor is it an indicator of their success. I hope that through this essay, aided by critical and ethnographic studies of everyday resistance practices, I have been able to adequately explore Abu-Lughod’s propositions on resistance as a “diagnostic of power”.


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