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

Daughters of Tunis is an ethnography written by Paula Holmes-Eber that depicts experiences of women in Tunisia through a detailed examination of their social lives and networks. The ethnography delves into female Tunisian social interactions that take place within the home through visiting, and examines the reciprocity of returning these visits. Visiting in Tunis is often dependent on money, as this dictates how often the women can afford to host guests. Additionally, the visits are often dependent on the social classification with whom the women choose to spend the most time visiting which is limited to friends, neighbors, or family. Women with more financial resources can afford to journey greater distances for visiting; as these visits often require a bus fair, and women who cannot afford this fare usually limit their regular visits to neighbors only (Holmes-Eber, 2003). In addition to detailing the social gatherings of women in Tunis, the ethnography also outlines other practices in the culture such as arranged marriages, weddings, and religious traditions and beliefs.

I believe this ethnography is a noteworthy source for student readership. The author refrains from the use of professional jargon that would be challenging for a student to decipher. The author also structures the ethnography to be efficiently navigated through the insertion of headings and notes at the conclusion of every section. The notes section clarifies parts of Tunisian culture and history that allow us to have more comprehensive insight into the ethnography as a whole. The ethnography also has clearly incorporated the use of fieldwork by the ethnographer, as well as using the narrative structure of ‘total ethnography’ by describing the culture of Tunisia as it relates to women. The ethnography contributes to a more profound understanding of Muslim religion and culture. Ultimately, the ethnographer’s enlightened perspective validates that—in contrast to analysis through a traditionally western perspectives that present Muslim women in a restrictive and subservient view—these women enjoy a vibrant and gratifying social life.

A broader perspective for consideration that is intertwined with the messages presented in this ethnography, is the oppression of women in the Middle East. More specifically it addresses the ongoing and contentious debate regarding whether or not these women want to remain Muslim, and live under the confines of the religious and cultural norms integral to Islam. While the ethnographer never directly asks the women their views on their role in Islamic culture, the interviews conducted recognize and validate that these women have many interests that are not related to Islam. Every aspect of their lives is not governed by their religion, but rather they relish many activities readily apparent in western cultural norms such as baking, sewing and visiting with friends. This ethnography allows us to diverge from the scrutinizing lens of religious analysis, and compels the reader to address all aspects of these women’s lives in a holistic manner. The ethnography truly mirrors the “total ethnography format because it is a narrative structure that describes a broad range of issues regarding females in Tunisia culture. This ethnography contributes to the broader discussion of gross international economic equality. This is illustrated by the discussion of visiting in the women’s social lives. Many of the women interviewed could not afford to visit family members who lived across the city because the bus fare was too many dinars for them to afford. The example illustrated here is a testament to the economic disparity that is present between developing countries such as Tunisia and western developed countries like Canada. The four dinars needed to facilitate a visit of greater distance would be equivalent to a daily wage. In turn, this puts a strain on relationships as visits are not frequent. In western culture, average economic income would not deter us from taking the bus;

The concept of income and economic disparity in Tunisia—which is further examined through two book reviews of this ethnography—is combined with the importance of visits and exchange “What’s 25 dollars for a bottle of perfume at a birthday when I gave her 200 dinars! It’s nothing, 25 dinars” (Holmes-Eber, 2003). This quote demonstrates that the web of exchange and reciprocity that are both integral parts of any relationship in Tunisia. Holmes-Eber discusses the importance of women in this developing country being thrust forward into development, social and economic change through her collection of quantifiable data gathered in interviews (Webber, 2003). The book review by Webber also notes the importance of the neighbor, kin, and friendship patterns within the women’s social lives; as well as raising the inquiry of how the networks of Tunisian women could potentially improve the vitality of modern houses in western countries (Webber, 2003). Another ethnographic review recognizes the insight that Holmes-Eber reveals on Middle Eastern women whom have been historically cast aside due to stereotypes (Zentella, 2008). This ethnographic review also contributes to the greater conversation regarding our increasing military involvement in Middle Eastern countries which often molds our perceptions of these countries. However, Holmes-Eber’s ethnography allows us to understand a very complex society through the views of four main women that are interviewed during fieldwork data collection (Zentalla, 2008). Both ethnographic reviews are positive in their comments regarding Daughter of Tunis, which reflects the fact that Holmes-Eber’s ethnography encompasses the characteristics of an informative ethnography. The collective opinions of these reviewers—when taken in conjunction with the opinions of the women interviewed by Holmes-Eber—compels us to see the impact of social and economic standing on the networking of women in a rapidly urbanizing nation. Additionally, it initiates a broader international conversation regarding the Middle East. Namely, the ethnography allows us to consider the everyday lives of women in Tunisia, rather than focusing our Middle Eastern knowledge on the Syrian crisis that consumes the media today. Holmes-Eber does not mention war in her ethnography, but instead—using the framework of total ethnography—describes the culture and beliefs of a historically marginalized group of Muslim women, which in turn broadens the Western viewpoint on culture in the Middle East.

Word Count: 1001

Works Cited:

Holmes-Eber, Paula. Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003. Print.

Webber, S. (2003). Daughters of tunis: Women, family, and networks in a muslim city. The Middle East Journal, 57(4), 681-682. Retrieved from http://libproxy.stfx.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/218563419?accountid=13803

Zentella, Y. (2008). Daughters of tunis: Women, family and networks in a muslim city. Journal of Third World Studies, 25(2), 269-270. Retrieved from http://libproxy.stfx.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/233187886?accountid=13803


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