The process of creating this book took many people’s support. The dissertation research fellowship awarded to me by the American Institute for Maghrib Studies funded this study. Le Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines à Tunis offered support and practical assistance in the process of obtaining government permissions to conduct research in Binzart’s export processing zone. Kevin Yelvington’s rigorous and caring mentorship throughout my research and writing process is of central importance. Juliet Erazo reviewed and offered detailed comments on this book proposal, and then reviewed and offered invaluable suggestions to this manuscript. Mia Leonin’s support for the creative aspects of ethnographic writing encouraged me to excavate my fieldwork experiences; she also reviewed and offered help with the manuscript. Aslihan Akkaya reviewed the manuscript and provided support and important suggestions. Andrew Porter offered much-needed encouragement. E.J. Ford’s unwavering friendship edified me throughout this writing process. Sarah Tobin’s work in the Middle East continues to be an inspiration. Starting with the weekends we spent together in Binzart in 2008, Heather Jendoubi helped keep me grounded during the fieldwork.
My parents, Suzanne T. Gilliard Porter and Terry E. Porter shaped my ability to think critically and to value the creative writing process. My son Faris’s presence while I conducted this research kept me deeply aware of working motherhood; in the years since 2008, countless conversations with Faris continue to inspire me. Maher Oueslati’s insights and support continue to be precious.
1 The Paradoxes of Tunisian Women’s Liberation 1
2 Fieldwork and Family 15
3 Producing Factory Femininity 41
4 Producing Men and Masculinity in the Factory 63
5 Female Masculinity in the Factory 81
Postscript: Women’s Work and Revolution 105
The Paradoxes of Tunisian Women’s Liberation
Abstract This chapter introduces readers to the research which focuses on gender and work in Tunisia. The author’s own experiences are important to the research. This chapter describes the popular discourse of the already-liberated Tunisian woman and how it depicts women’s rights as stemming from Tunisian legal codes. The introduction introduces skepticism around the ways in which women’s rights can obfuscate the realities faced by many women in the labor force and in the family, the two social institutions that are most closely scrutinized throughout the book. Further, liberated Tunisian women are the subject of societal anxiety about women’s sexuality and power.
Keywords Ethnography • Tunisian women’s liberation • Personal Status Codes • Class
On my first trip from our home in Miami, Florida, to Tunisia in 2006, my Tunisian husband Maher and I and our one-year-old baby Faris stayed with his parents in their apartment in Ezzahra, a suburb of Tunis. My in-laws lived with two of Maher’s unmarried older brothers, and his then- unmarried younger sister, Kalthoum. As we pulled up at their apartment building, my sister-in-law stood in the courtyard performing ululation that was audible through the closed car windows.1 As I exited the car, I remember my father-in-law taking Faris from me. The following days were a blur of visiting relatives coming to the apartment. They doted on baby Faris and had a good look at the American wife.
After being in the apartment for a day and a half, as I watched the sun setting from the rooftop terrace, it dawned on me that I had not left the apartment to go anywhere for a full two days. While Maher left the apartment with his brothers and father just a few hours after our arrival and seemed only to come home for meals and to sleep, his sisters and mother only left the house to do quick errands in neighborhood shops. Being in the apartment with my mother-in-law and Kalthoum as they endlessly cooked fabulous meals, cleaned, and served visitors and family, gave me a very particular first impression about Tunisian gender relations. What I learned did not jibe with the academic and government descriptions of Tunisian women’s liberation.
Both my sisters-in-law had remained unemployed for most of their twenties, despite their college degrees and tenacious job searches. Both spent many years after graduating college living in their parents’ home, earning little or no money and having little autonomy. The fact that they remained unmarried throughout most of their twenties meant that they remained “girls,” in a cultural sense. They spent their days assisting their mother, hosting visitors, and serving their male kin.
My eldest sister-in-law Awatef eventually married and moved into a middle-class neighborhood twelve blocks away from her parents’ apartment. For married women homemakers like her, whose college degrees were supposed to have opened the door to careers, life is marked by frequent frustrations. “Why did I get this college degree? So I can be stuck at home, a housewife?” Awatef repeated these sentiments to me frequently in her perfect British English. She especially liked to speak to me frankly in English because her husband did not speak English. She acknowledged her economic privilege as a woman married to a man with a job at a multinational company, but she lamented that she did not have a chance to leave her beautiful walled villa for up to four days at a time. She was not forbidden from going out by her husband, but she was expected to do the housework and childcare for their two small children. Her husband came home from work long enough to eat her delicious meals and to inspect her housework before heading out to socialize with his men friends in the cafés. Her husband reprimanded her if she failed to clean things properly or make the meals that he desired. When she had to ask him for money, she told me that she felt humiliated.