Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy

By Richard A. Lobban | Go to book overview

9
"Invisible" Work, Work at Home: The Condition of Tunisian Women

Sophie Ferchiou

Many anthropological and sociological studies have shown that in all societies, including the most modern, prevailing standards differentiate more or less clearly between roles to be played by women and by men. In Arab- Muslim societies, this dichotomy takes on an extreme form: hierarchical sexual differentiation, a patrilineal inflection of kinship, and patriarchal and patrilocal organization for the family.

In fact, the sexual order of Arab societies is in no way specifically Muslim but belongs to a social structure extending far beyond the Islamic geocultural sphere. What distinguishes these societies is that the standards of hierarchical sexual differentiation are sanctioned by religious texts. The Quran says, "Men have priority over women because of the preference God has given them over women and because of the expense they incur to support them."1

Of all Arab countries, Tunisia has certainly made the most efforts to improve the condition of women. However, based on an Islamic postulate of economic expense, the marginality of women is perceptible in several domains of social life, particularly in the sphere of work. Economic activity places women at the junction of two contradictory forces: development- driven modernism and identity-based traditionalism.

The problem is how relations of continuity/discontinuity articulate between (1) the traditional work process, conceived as a specifically female task performed within the family framework, and (2) the salaried work process, which is part of a capitalist mode of development or movement toward capitalist intervention.

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