Paula Holmes-Eber, Westview Case Studies in Anthropology, 2003
Reviewed by Aysecan Terzioglu, Anthropology Department, CUNY-Graduate Center
In Daughters of Tunis, Paula Holmes-Eber provides insightful comments on the social and economic lives of Muslim women in Tunis. She investigates the socialization patterns of women of Tunis as an important factor in shaping and confirming their identity and social position, as well as providing economic networks useful for survival strategies. Holmes-Eber’s meticulous ethnographic research and the way in which she relates her study to the recent debates in anthropology makes Daughters of Tunis significant not only to Middle Eastern Studies but for social sciences in general.
Through her detailed ethnography, Holmes-Eber enables us to visualize how the two most recent generations of urban Tunisian women live in public and private realms. Her discussions of the Tunisian home as one of the main public places and how the American sense of privacy is an unfamiliar concept in Tunis (15-16) are highly useful in terms of pointing to a different cultural construction of public and private spheres. The author also contrasts the conception of the Tunisian home as a lively political, social and economic domain with the American view of home as a private retreat that is distinctly separate from the public economic and political domain. Holmes-Eber’s discussions as such enable non-Middle Eastern readers to relate to the social lives and concerns of women in Tunis. Her overview of the similarities and differences between Western women and Tunisian women also captures the diversity of the lived experience, while refuting the theory of “the clash of civilizations between East and West.”
Holmes-Eber also successfully challenges the stereotypic view of Muslim women as completely oppressed by the patriarchal social system. She describes the ways in which close human contact with friends and family members in the house plays an important role in shaping the social and economic lives of Tunisian women. Women prepare elaborate meals for their guests, exchange gifts of similar value, talk about the cost of important purchases such as cars, and discuss job opportunities during house visits. They actively participate in social life and live in their own social realm with their own “rules, opportunities and hierarchies.” This realm is parallel to, but distinct from, the social realm of men, as Leila Abu-Lughod has previously pointed out (1985). Although we do not learn much about interactions between men and women in this book, some factors, such as a woman’s need for a male escort when outside the home, also show the distinct separation of men’s and women’s realms. This separation, however, does not necessarily mean that women are powerless.
Rather than being passive and oppressed Middle Eastern women, the women described in this book make important decisions about how and where to live, who to visit, and what to purchase, and actively negotiate their decisions with the help of the information and support they receive from other women.
Through the use of highly detailed and novel-like descriptions of women’s houses and social gatherings, Holmes-Eber successfully captures the dynamic and complex social lives of women in Tunis. Her innovative use of anthropological theory and method, such as inserting herself in her study, makes the book a good example of a possible way to update studies on family and community dynamics. Rather than acting as an invisible ethnographer who claims neutrality, Holmes-Eber talks about her friendly interactions with most of the women she studies. This enables the reader to understand how the women in Tunis integrate the author into their social life, as well as how the author’s perspective influences her interactions with them.
Family and kinship systems and community networks are frequent topics in ethnographic studies. Earlier anthropologists failed to capture how family and community change over time, and how both family and community contain social and cultural conflicts. Despite the critique of anthropological method and theory occurring since the 1970s, this earlier anthropological perspective has remained influential in the study of family and community. Paula Holmes-Eber, however, goes beyond the ahistorical and essentialized character of these studies through the interactionist perspective she uses in studying family and community ties, in which she focuses on how these groups actively participate in social and economic life. Thanks to her culturally sensitive ethnographic approach, she prefers to use terms that the Tunisian women themselves use to describe their relationships, such as “floating widows (96), rather than impose typical kinship terms, such as extended household and fictive kin.
The fact that the author’s ethnographic study lacks sufficient historical and cultural context makes it difficult for the reader to understand certain aspects of Tunisian women’s social life. At the beginning of her book, for example, Holmes-Eber mentions that Tunisia has been rapidly developing in social and economic terms since Bourgiba’s regime. Legal reforms regarding divorce and polygyny have improved women’s economic and social power. However, despite Holmes-Eber’s attempt to complement her study of the “micro-politics of everyday life” of Tunisian women with a quantitative survey, it is hard to build a bridge between women’s lives and what is going on in Tunis as a whole.
Holmes-Eber often states that Tunisian women chose whether to speak Arabic, French, or English during their interviews with her, and she praises their good command of English and French. However, the author does not examine the reasons for the particular language chosen, nor does she relate this choice to the social and economic background of these women or to the crucial issues of post-colonialism and nationalism in Tunisia. The author does not adequately discuss the tensions that have arisen from the growing Islamic movements. She does, however, mention that a university student chose to wear a full veil despite a government ban and despite the fact that this woman’s husband was jailed for his participation in Islamic protests at the university (43). However, Holmes-Eber does not examine how the rest of this woman’s family views the new Islamic movements, nor the ways in which the new Islamic movements influence the social lives of these women.
The author discusses class relations in terms of how class is defined, as well as what kind of social opportunities upper class women experience when choosing a husband and in having access to a larger social group, which includes fewer family members. However, the author describes classes as totally separate from each other, and does not investigate conflicts that may be brought out through the interaction of women of different classes. Another important area of research would be how class formation is affected by internal and international migration, both of which are often mentioned in the study.
Partly due to the problem of contextualization, Holmes-Eber draws a rather rosy picture of these women’s social lives, which include more support and empowerment than conflict and rivalry. Stereotypical phrases, such as “the time-honored Arab custom of hospitality” (122), which are not used in a critical sense, also damage the analytical level of the discussion in this study, which is based on well-done ethnographic research.
I highly recommend Daughters of Tunis to the readers who have a basic knowledge of the recent historical and social changes in the Middle East, because they will be better able to contextualize what is discussed in the book. If readers would like to learn more about the legal, religious debates and social movements in modern Tunisia, I recommend Kevin Dwyer’s Arab Voices: The Human Rights in the Middle East (1991), which is a good complement to the Daughters of Tunis.
Aysecan Terzioglu is a fifth year Ph.D. student in Cultural Anthropology at CUNY- Graduate Center, and received her M. A. in Sociology from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. Her areas of expertise and interest include the Middle East, as well as social theory and illness.
Abu Lughod, Leila. 1985. “A Community of Secrets: The Separate World of Bedouin Women” Signs 10 (4): 637-657.
Dwyer, Kevin. 1991. Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle East. Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies, No. 13. Berkeley: University of California Press.