A feminist at home with Muslim women

Elizabeth Fernea, who has died aged 81, became an anthropologist almost by accident.

Elizabeth Fernea started learning about Middle Eastern culture when she accompanied her social anthropologist husband to Iraq and lived as the local women did.
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Elizabeth Fernea, who has died aged 81, became an anthropologist almost by accident. In 1956, newly married to Robert Fernea, an American social anthropologist, she followed her husband to Al Nahra, a remote village in southern Iraq for the sake of his doctoral thesis. Though appalled at the dilapidated accommodations, Mrs Fernea did not act "like the bride arriving in the palazzo and finding the plumbing unsatisfactory" but instead took the abaya, spending two years living among the local women, an experience that ignited her interest in the Middle East.

Her first book, Guests of the Sheikh: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village (1965) was neither a piece of anthropological analysis nor an "orientalist" exercise marvelling at the exoticism of the Other, but communicated vividly Mrs Fernea's observations of the lives of the sequestered women and theirs (often amused, sometimes pitying) of her. It was the first of many highly illustrative books, both autobiographical and scholarly, the latter predominantly exploring the role of women in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. Her 1998 publication, In Search of Feminism, concluded that the feminist movement did exist in the Middle East, but was limited by the laws of Islam.

After a period in Cairo, where the three Fernea children were born, the family settled in the United States. Mrs Fernea joined the University of Texas first as a senior lecturer, and later as chairwoman of the Women's Studies programme (1980-1983). Promoted to a full professorship in 1991, she retired in 1999. Born in Milwaukee, Elizabeth Janet Warnock grew up in the town of Flin Flon, Canada, where her chemical engineer father had been posted. Made painfully conscious of her status as an outsider by fellow pupils at school, Mrs Fernea retrospectively valued the opportunity this gave to identify from a close distance the subtle factors that distinguish discrete societies, which came to be key to her anthropological studies.

Mrs Fernea was born on Oct 21 1927, and died on Dec 2. She is survived by her husband, two daughters and one son. * The National