Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, who died on December 2 aged 81, lived in an Iraqi harem for two years and subsequently devoted her life to studying the roles of women in the Muslim Middle East and north Africa.
She knew nothing about their lives until 1956 when, newly-married and full of Western preconceptions about the inferior position of women in Muslim societies, she accompanied her husband, Robert Fernea, an American social anthropologist, on a two-year field study at El Nahra, a remote village in southern Iraq.
They were there as guests of the local sheikh, a member of a conservative Shia sect. To help her husband gain acceptance and to add to his research, she agreed to live as the local women did – segregated from men and covering her head and body in the long black abayah.
Her preconceptions were challenged from her first day, when she was invited to lunch with the sheikh's harem. Instead of ignorance and repression, she found solidarity, self-confidence and a ribald sense of humour. When she refused a proffered cigarette, one of the women agreed that it was better not to smoke as the sheikh did not like women who smoked, whereupon his favourite wife and several others defiantly lit up. Later, pointing to the sheikh's double bed and giggling, one of the younger women showed her in mime exactly what he did in it.
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea lived for two years with the women who, she discovered, were not only uninterested in Western ideas about women's rights but saw her as less free than themselves.
They adopted her as their protégée: "Get a lot of gold jewellery from your husband while you are still young," she was advised. "You never know what might happen." The village tattooist was sent round to help: Elizabeth Warnock Fernea was so thin, the woman told her, that her husband would soon tire of her; but, she added doubtfully, if she had a tattoo on her backside "perhaps that would amuse him".
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea accompanied the women on a pilgrimage to Karbala and to religious ceremonies such as the kraya, a highly-charged ritual of sorrow centred around the retelling of the story of the death of the Shia martyr Hussein. There she watched as normally dignified women threw aside their veils and beat their bared chests.
On her return to America, her claims that the women she had met felt their lives to be full were met with embarrassed disbelief. "Silenced, I sat down and wrote my first book, Guests of the Sheikh," she recalled later. "Thus began 40 years of writing, teaching, lecturing about and filming Middle Eastern women." Guests of the Sheikh, an Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, was published in 1965 and ran into three editions.
The daughter of a chemical engineer, Elizabeth Janet Warnock was born on October 21 1927 in Milwaukee and grew up in the mining town of Flin Flon in Manitoba, Canada. When she was 14 the family moved to Portland, Oregon. She took a degree in English at Reed College, then did postgraduate research at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and at the University of Chicago. In 1956 she married Robert Fernea, a doctoral student of cultural anthropology at the university. Their honeymoon was two years in Iraq.
After her husband obtained his doctorate, they moved to Cairo, where her three children were born and her husband taught at the American University. In 1966 they relocated to Austin, Texas, where he eventually became director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas.
After a number of staff jobs at the university, in 1975 Elizabeth Warnock Fernea was appointed senior lecturer in the department of English and at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, where she gave a course entitled "Middle Eastern women's feminism?" She served as chairman of the women's studies programme in the early 1980s and as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America in 1985-86. She was promoted to a full professorship in 1990 and retired in 1999.
She wrote several more books, both about her own experiences and studies of the women and culture of the Middle East, and made several films. For In Search of Islamic Feminism (1998) she travelled to nine countries over two years to interview Muslim women about their aspirations. She concluded that there was a strong feminist movement in the Middle East campaigning for equality and political rights, but that it was an "Islamic feminism" based on a feminist reading of Koranic texts.
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea is survived by her husband, their son and two daughters.