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



In Daughters of Tunis Paula Holmes-Eber follows the lives of four women and their families living in Tunisia. The ethnography focuses specifically on the diversity of the women as well as the people in their circles in a rapidly developing society. Holmes –Eber discusses in detail the impact of social identity, as well as economic networks as a way of survival. She also touches on how the women are segregated into social groups based on location; some women live in more rural areas while others live in the city. This engaging ethnography allows us to visualize the complex lives of women in Tunis by challenging stereotypical views and by establishing an ultimate understanding of the struggles that the women and their families face in the societies that they populate. Reviewer Aysecan Terzioglu gives great insight to the way Holmes-Eber 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.”

Evaluation of Characteristics

A good student ethnography in my mind has one key characteristic: it’s short and to the point. As that may be there are still other important elements. A good ethnography must grab my attention and keep it; in other words it must make me think. However, giant books with hundreds of pages usually turn me off. Having discussed the goals of Marcus & Cushman’s realist ethnography extensively in class I believe that this would be an ethnography they would criticize. A traditional ethnography can be defined as a description of a traditional lifeway of another people that give valuable information about human diversity. The ethnography is written in a very organized easy to read way. Each chapter highlights a different aspect of Tunisian culture. Many paragraphs in the chapters are also subtitled so you know exactly what key points the ethnographer is trying to highlight. In this was Holmes-Eber follows the way Marcus & Cushman describe the parts of a “whole culture” but she does so in a way that flows, giving examples from stories told by the women and weaving it into her description of the culture. One specific example from the text uses a story from a woman named Miriam. The ethnographer is able to convey the importance of kinship networks by emphasizing Miriam’s kin exclusive circle. “Because my brothers wife is family, we are very very close…. All of my husbands family know my older brother much better because his wife is from the family” (Holmes-Eber, 2003) I feel that a solid narrative structure is one of the most important contributors to what makes a good student ethnography.

The next characteristic that is most evidently utilized throughout the text is the use of native concepts and discourses. Holmes-Eber herself used the native language to communicate with the women living in Tunis. This as well as her extensive data she has collected also shows that she has done adequate fieldwork. At the beginning of chapter five she talks about her survey research at Le Marsa beach. “Aslama, n’amal bahath’an elniss’a wa el’aila ettuniseea” (Hi, I am doing a study on Tunisian women and the family.). (Holmes-Eber 2003) Almost all of the women she approached complied with her request. Another example that really caught my attention was the discussion of the hijab. The hijab is worn over the head to prevent unacceptable intrusion into the male domain. It has been a controversial topic as of late, some women have been asked to choose between wearing a hijab and keeping their job. This seems to be somewhat of a “central paradox” for Tunisian women. Increasing education of women versus the continued expectation of virginity. Although the focus of this ethnography is on the women I would have liked to see a male interview to read his opinion on this issue specifically. “Although it is becoming increasingly more difficult, working- and middle- class men in Tunis are still able to strive to maintain the family honor by keeping their wives at home.” (Holmes-Eber 2003)

Contribution and Reviews

I think this ethnography is suitable for a wide variety of audiences. As previously discussed in class Daughters of Tunis was published as a work to be used in the classroom for students. This would also be a good read for anyone looking to enhance his or her worldview. One other readership I think would benefit from reading this ethnography would be anyone studying developing societies. “Tunisia’s independence from the French in 1956 marked the beginning
of a rapid shift from a primarily rural and agriculturally based economy
to the current highly urbanized and industrial society” (Holmes-Eber 2003) The style in which Holmes-Eber writes makes it easy for people to be able to just pick it up and read.

I was very excited when I saw the title of this ethnography as a pick for our book club. I have always enjoyed reading novels where Muslim culture is the focus. It is extremely interesting to me. What I gained from this book was the insight into the everyday life. I have never quite read about it like that before. Something that was very compelling to me was the way space was discussed. “Tunisian women’s homes are noisy, active, busy social centers” (Holmes-Eber 2003) Space was conveyed through the text as a sacred thing. Described very different from men’s spaces, and they rarely crossed paths. I think this ethnography brought light to the larger issue of women’s role in society not just in Tunis. There has been great progression but male dominance in society is still an issue all over the world. “Holmes-Eber also successfully challenges the stereotypic view of Muslim women as completely oppressed by the patriarchal social system.” (Terzioglu 2011) I enjoyed this review of the ethnography because her background in social science gives her a different perspective than a classic anthropologist. I think that Holmes-Eber tried her best to give an accurate depiction of women’s social lives through many examples and stories. “The implications of women’s sociability, where women are agents as both members of a community and as individuals, for questions such as conflict avoidance is not sufficiently emphasized” (Labidi 2006) Labidi works in the department of psychology for the university of Tunis. I found this review to be a bit harsh. Living in Tunis affords her a modern perspective on the impact of societal changes for women.


In conclusion, even though Daughters of Tunis lacks some historical and cultural context it still gives us an accurate picture of what life is like for women in Tunisia. It was an enjoyable read that gave great insight through quantitate and qualitative analysis on women’s networks and everyday life.

Word Count: 1118


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

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/

Labidi, Lilia. “Labidi on Holmes-Eber, ‘Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City’” H-Gender-MidEast, April, 2006.https://networks.h-net.org/node/6386/reviews/6601/labidi-holmes-eber-daughters-tunis-women-family-and-networks-muslim-city


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