Daughters of Tunis – The Backbone of Tunisia

Daughters of Tunis is an ethnography following the daily lives of four Tunisian women; Hannan, Nura, Miriam and Sherifa. This ethnography focuses on the importance of kinship and networks within the Tunisian culture and how without the women in these social groups the kin networks would be significantly different. The emphasis is put on how the networks vary depending on social status, marital status, wealth and education of the women. In Tunisia kinships become extremely important during things like holidays and events, often gifts and meals are shared during these times but again the wealth of those would reflect through what is given and eaten. Often when ethnographies (or most medias) regarding Muslim women are created they dance around this negative life that the women are forced to live rather than the willing, wealthy, and wise women that truly make up Tunisia, “In showing us that there is not one daughter of Tunis but many daughters, the author succeeds in avoiding the orientalist prism of the “Muslim woman.” She is also sensitive to a complexity and diversity that many studies in recent years have failed to convey, focusing as they often have (as has official discourse) on educated, working women of the upper middle class, seeing them as central “westernizing “ figures.” (Labidi, 2003). These are not just women she is doing a study on, these are the women that fill up a household, hold power in their social groups, and make up a bustling and ever growing culture.

This ethnography has a unique way of adhering to a student audience because of how the information is presented and its organization of each chapter. Holmes-Eber takes time to explain things that are typically expected knowledge from ethnographers, such as defining kinship and explaining religious practices (Ramadan). A successful ethnography is one that captures the attention of the reader while still informing them of accurate and interesting information. Holmes-Eber very much realizes where it is appropriate to say “I”, she proves that she was in the field while simultaneously keeping her ethnography very much in the form of third person, this is well explained in a publication from the Association for Feminist Anthropology when it says “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.” (Terziolgu, 2011)

She dedicates a whole section at the end of her book to the native language that the Tunisian women use because of its complexity. She also acknowledges the transliteration she had to use in order to make the ethnography more readable for her target audience, but is not ignorant to how everything is originally spelled and pronounced in the native language. She shows everyday life situations along with highlighting the individuality of each of the women. Not only is it easy to pick out the aspects of Marcus and Cushman’s ideals for a successful ethnography but also abides by Willis & Trondman, particularly with the interest on cultural policies and how Tunisia is a still a “developing” (to western standards) country and how this pertains to the women living there. Something I thought was unique and well done would be the notes section at the end of each chapter that give you facts, anecdotes and just general cultural information so you are not to get confused about something that happened in the chapter you have just read.

A good audience for this ethnography would be students and even a population of those who are just genuinely interested in knowing more about Islamic cultures. Other audiences that may be interested could be those studying social sciences, sociologist who specialize in the Middle East and other ethnographers and anthropologists. Anthropologist studying women in middle eastern countries (or women in general) would also benefit from reading this ethnography because unlike most ethnographies that manage to focus on the male dominant aspects of what make up a culture, Daughters of Tunis is easily a more feminist ethnography that we have seen come out of this field of work. A few others that could benefit from this ethnography would be anthropology professors, they could learn not just from the ethnography but from the book as a whole as what kind of literature they should be using in class to encourage their students with pursuing anthropology as a degree. When students are given things that are at their level of knowledge instead of being forced to read something so dense that they end up tossing it to the side it makes a colossal difference. After reading Daughters of Tunis I realized that my knowledge about Middle Eastern and Muslim women has been gained ignorantly from social media stories written by westerners. Often these medias will portray Muslim women as victims to the culture they are in, this ethnography shows how they have freedom to wear what they choose and do as much as they please, again this can change depending on social status, education and wealth. You are always aware that cultures, especially ones across the globe, are going to be different from yours but as a young woman reading stories of other young women, university educated women, you realize that some struggles are not your own but many others face them and in far more difficult circumstances.

These four women show perseverance and power. These women are showing that women in Muslim countries are a force to be reckoned with because they are only growing. In Holmes-Eber’s conclusion she writes “Sherifa, Miriam, Nura, and Hannan: working women and house-wives, migrants and original inhabitants of Tunis, university graduates and women who can barely read and write. They live with their relatives and far away from their relatives; they have arranged marriages and meet their potential husbands on the bus; they buy new cars and can barely afford the righty-millime bus ride to see their sisters on holidays. Each woman is married, a Muslim, a Tunisian, and in her own way unique, an individual with her own life story, her own personal daily challenges and successes.” (Holmes-Eber) This shows that no matter where the women come from or their current situation they have and always will be the backbone of their culture.

Word Count – 1122


Holmes-Eber, Paula. Daughters of Tunis: women, family, and networks in a Muslim city. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.

Labidi, Lilia. “Labidi on Holmes-Eber, ‘Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City'” Labidi on Holmes-Eber, ‘Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City’ | H-Gender-MidEast | H-Net. Accessed March 28, 2017. https://networks.h-net.org/node/6386/reviews/6601/labidi-holmes-eber-daughters-tunis-women-family-and-networks-muslim-city.

Terzioglu, Aysecan. “Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family and Networks in a Muslim City.” Association for Feminist Anthropology. August 8, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2017. http://afa.americananthro.org/book-review/daughters-of-tunis-women-family-and-networks-in-a-muslim-city/.


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