Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City

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Summary of the Ethnography    

                Daughters of Tunis, written by Paula Holmes-Eber, is an insightful ethnography that depicts the lives of four Tunisian women and their families. The author focuses on the networks that these women have developed and how they are impacted by variables such as education, class, location, and marital status. In addition, Holmes-Eber uses quantitative methods to provide a statistical analysis of the lifestyles of Tunisian women. To understand women’s networks and relationships, she became a participant in seven different communities throughout the greater Tunis area. These areas ranged from apartment buildings in central Tunis, to squatter homes in Hamma, South of the city. She writes about the womens survival strategies and how they cope in the rapidly urbanizing and developing Muslim world.

              The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology is an online journal committed to the promotion of ideas and research findings associated with the two disciplines. In a featured review, author Paul G. Letkemann (2003) praises Holmes-Eber for her ability to capture the reality of Muslim women’s culture. He writes, “common theories about development and globalization/modernization as a movement towards loss of tradition is challenged by the maintenance of kinship ties” (1).

Evaluation of Characteristics 

The goal of ethnography, as discussed in class, is to provide research based on direct interaction with individuals or groups in the context of their lives. In order for this goal to be met, there are steps that the ethnographer must follow. For example, a good ethnography will involve one or all of the following ethnographic methods: participant observation, interviews, and documentary analysis. In Daughters of Tunis, Holmes-Eber uses all three methods. Perhaps the most notable method she uses is interviews. She goes into the homes of Hannan, Nura, Miriam, and Sherifa to not only observe their daily lives, but to also sit down and have discussions over tea or food.

A good ethnography should capture all aspects of a culture so that the reader gets a more complete description. Holmes-Eber achieved this by reaching out to Muslim women of different classes and socioeconomic backgrounds. These women were all married, Muslim and Tunisian, but had very different lifestyles. For example, the network of Nura, a housewife from the old city (medina) of Tunis was very different than that of Miriam, a lower-class maid who lives in the industrial section of Tunis. Since Miriam had a lower income, she was not able to visit family and friends as often and her network was smaller. Nura took pride in being able to make frequent visits to her acquaintances, and to be able to provide food and gifts for her guests during visits.

Finally, a good ethnography should explain how the research was conducted, this helps validate their conclusions and give insights to the culture. Holmes-Eber did not stray away from including herself in her study and she always explained how her research was collected. She writes about her friendly meetings with the women and their exchange of stories. I disagree with the notion that neutrality is a key characteristic of a good ethnography. By inserting herself in the ethnography, Holmes-Eber gives the reader a better understanding of how the women incorporate the ethnographer in their everyday life. This provides a deeper understanding of the daily structure and social lives of Tunisian women.

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Ethnography Contribution 

The author’s clear and decipherable writing style makes Daughters of Tunis an excellent student ethnography. The content is both relevant and interesting and the terminology is appropriate for students. Holmes-Eber’s combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses is helpful for students who are learning about writing ethnographies. I would suggest Daughters of Tunis to students with a basic understanding of the recent historical and social movements in the Middle East. As well, I would recommend this ethnography to student’s who have just been introduced to ethnographic reading and writing. This ethnography has broadened my knowledge of the Middle East and the traditions and norms that occur there.

In addition to students, another audience that could benefit from this ethnography is alternative social scientists. For example, sociologists might be interested in the social behaviour and interactions within the Tunisian society. Economists might be interested in how Muslim women are reacting to the changing economy and the types of careers they are entering. Feminist theorists could use this ethnography to learn about Muslim women and their role in society. Area specialists would not benefit from this ethnography, as Holmes-Eber does not explore the geographical aspect of Tunis as much as the population itself.

A Broader Conversation 

A broader conversation could be developed from the author’s portrayal of gender roles. Holmes-Eber succeeds at challenging the stereotypical view that all Muslim women are forced into a patriarchal society. For example, after graduating from university, Hannan now works at the British Embassy as a multilingual translator. She lives in an apartment building with her husband outside of the capital of Tunisia and entertains University friends on the weekend. Instead of reflecting oppressed Middle Eastern women, the women of Tunis make independent decisions about where they live and work, with whom they interact and visit, and what they purchase. Prior to reading this ethnography I was unaware that Tunisian women have so much choice and freedom in their lives. This ethnography provided me with a deeper understanding of the complexity of Muslim women’s networks.

In her review for the Association for Feminist Anthropology, Aysecan Terzioglu (2011) argues that the author lacks significant historical and cultural background in the ethnography. At the beginning of the book, Holmes-Eber explains how the Bourgiba’s regime has improved women’s social and economic power. This was done, in part, by legal reforms such as those concerning divorce and polygyny. However, the explanation of the past government and economic conditions is limited. Terzioglu says it is difficult to find a link between women’s lives and what is actually occurring in Tunis at that time. I agree with this statement; without background knowledge on the history of Tunisia it is difficult to understand how far these women have come. It is helpful to do your own research prior to reading this ethnography so you can formulate those links independently.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Daughters of Tunis is a detailed ethnography that expands on the socialization patterns of Tunisian women and how they form and maintain networks. Holmes-Eber’s impressive ethnographic research strategies made the ethnography both informative and enjoyable. As well, her immersion in the study and diverse sample fit the criteria for a good ethnography. I would recommend this book to students who are interested in learning more about ethnographic research or to anyone wishing to broaden their knowledge of Muslim women and their families.

Words: 1158

Bibliography

Terzioglu, Aysecan. “Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family and Networks in a Muslim City.           “Association for Feminist Anthropology, August 8, 2011. http://afa.americananthro.org/book-review/daughters-of-tunis-women-family-and-networks-in-a-muslim-city/http://afa.americananthro.org/book-review/daughters-of-tunis-women-family-and-networks-in-a-muslim-city/

Letkemann, Paul G. “Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a MuslimCity.           “The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology40, no. 1 2003, 1.                 http://go.galegroup.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA100734850&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=fulltext&issn=00084948&p=AONE&sw=w&authCount=1&isAnonymousEntry=true

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