Views From Tunis by Scott Ferris

Paula Holmes-Eber’s ethnography “Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City” examines the lives of Muslim women in the predominantly Muslim country of Tunisia. Holmes-Eber specifically tells the stories of women in the city of Tunis and explains in detail the experiences she had while carrying out her research. She focuses much on the individuals and the stories of the women themselves. The way their lives are changing in a rapidly evolving Tunisia due to modernity and the introduction of the global economy is the basis of how each woman’s life is impacted. The ethnography itself is primarily centered upon the changes that the women of Tunis face with a shift within their overall national culture. With the growth of movements such as globalization there are beginning to be visual differences between modern, liberal, and westernized ways of life compared to older more traditional and conservative Muslim lifestyles. The ethnography is told written through this specific lens while keeping in mind other factors that affect the world that Tunisian women live in. What is also interesting throughout the ethnography is how the former control of France and the French language both affect the people and social structure of Tunis in great measure, often leading toward hierarchies between citizens of who can speak languages other than Arabic. Though in every chapter of the ethnography there is one main theme that overrides all others due to its importance within Tunisian culture. The ethnography deeply discusses family, kin, and many varieties of relationships that shape the lives of these Muslim women. Kin networks are embedded in the lives of Muslim women because of their restrictions they have in comparison to their male counterparts in greater society. Family, friends, and neighbors are all written about with great emphasis by Holmes-Eber as the individuals she interviews make it apparent that these networks are essential for everyday life in Tunis.

This specific ethnography is especially good for student readership because it does not use too much professional jargon or require excessive major intellectual capabilities past the ability of listening to a story. Holmes-Eber tends to be quite down to earth when discussing her the material as she records the events and situations she was a part of in Tunis. The book gives details about social classes between people, specifically women in a Muslim setting. It discusses the economic bounds of the Arab culture that is being infiltrated by modern society, more specifically Western culture influences. Moreover, the history of Tunis and the Tunisian people are regarded as the base for the way the country functions throughout daily life. Because of this variety of academic categories throughout the text, students can also use this ethnography for a plethora of different subjects and/or disciplines of study. Holmes-Eber presents her research and relates her work in a way that “makes Daughters of Tunis significant not only to Middle Eastern Studies but for social sciences in general.” (Terzioglu 2011) What is also helpful is that the ethnography is not written in a tone of a critical expert in the field, but rather in the perspective of an average person making observations of what they see. This can contribute to student readership as students will be able to view the situations and scenarios taking place in the recorded ethnography with an unbiased and somewhat relaxed point-of-view. “I lay down my pen to finish the tangerine, which is now stickily dripping onto my field notes, figuring that since the interview is being taped, I can afford to miss a few notes.”(Holmes-Eber 2003) Students can relate to these realities of life for the most part as for many of us, being on our own for the first time can have a strain on our understanding of relationships and where we invest the bulk of our finances. Like students in some cases, most women in Tunis have restricted freedoms but are gradually making their way in the world to access a life with less limitations.

The ethnography also places a great deal of emphasis on how kinship can have a significant role on the economic positioning of an individual. Most especially women in many Muslim societies. Women in Tunis are advantaged and disadvantaged in regard to one another because of their social or family networks. The more economically inclined women within Tunis are able to host visitors at their home, own cars to visit others, and provide meals for their relatives. The way that social kin networks navigate the functions of life in Tunis will typically determine the quality of life for most citizens and especially Tunisian women. Holmes-Eber describes each individual’s story in detail regarding their family background, the friends they have, and how these variables impact their day-to-day lives within Tunis. Holmes-Eber does an excellent job of not placing these women in the category of being victims, but rather more less fortunate that others may be. She uses an anthropological lens to look at things such as job positions, family gatherings, and case study interviews all while maintaining a rather casual tone throughout the text. It can be felt throughout the ethnography that those she interacts with gradually feel more comfortable with her presence, proving that she is not harming or disturbing the culture in any way. “What’s important here is, you know, to be always in the house with friends or the family,” (Holmes-Eber 2003) The answers given to Holmes-Eber while conducting the ethnography match the rather informal characteristics in which she records her data. Individuals and groups from various audiences, specifically students, will be able to appreciate the way that this ethnography is put together.

Holmes-Eber Records and re-tells as much information from the field as possible. This allows the material to be examined by the author to determine how best to relay the information to the reader within ethnography. Her predominantly objective descriptions of a Muslim culture in contrast of modernity allow us to views the content of research from an open mind without judgement or heavy influence of pre-supposed thoughts/opinions. The ethnography covers an array of subjects within the Muslim culture which allows information and events such as spoken word, social situations, and day-to-day functions to flow smoothly with little to no interference. If this were not the case, the ethnography would appear too choppy and edited for the purpose of trying to portray one certain message. Furthermore, the most important thing that Holmes-Eber does, or rather does not do, is put herself above those who she is researching and working with. This is absolutely crucial in any ethnography is to be a legitimate record of objective observation.

This ethnography allows the reader to learn about the real lives of various Muslim women in a growing Muslim society. While reading the ethnography I learned that the country and society is progressing much faster than I had ever thought. The country and city itself is in a bind between those who follow a more conservative and traditional Muslim culture, and those who live a more lenient and liberal Muslim lifestyle. Though the contrast between these two ways of life seem to mix well with one another through efforts to maintain an economic equilibrium throughout Tunisia. “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 and political domain.” (Terzioglu 2011) The book also displays that women in Tunis, like most women around the world, are advantaged and disadvantaged more than others and can be subject to different social classes. Like Ortner recalls in her piece, women can be found to be subordinate to men in every known society around the globe. (1974) Since this was calculated, the severity of subordination varies from culture to culture. Though it is certain in the case of Tunisia that women find themselves in an interesting grey area between strides toward a modernized society, and older Muslim traditions. Labidi puts this interestingly by stating that Holmes-Eber examined how women were able to reinvent certain traditions when given various amounts of power with the new developments taking place in Tunis. (2003) Overall this ethnography shines a positive light on the conditions that women are in to move forward in a city faced with a vast shift in economic and social norms.

 

Sources

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

Labidi, Lilia. 2003. “Review of Holmes-Eber, Paula, Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City.” Review.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1974. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Women, Culture & Society 67-88.

Terzioglu, Aysecan. 2011. Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family and Networks in a Muslim City. Academic Book Review, Association for Feminist Anthropology.

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