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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2008


Some anthropologists can argue that it is impossible to separate the social organizational (the realm of groups or aggregates—e.g., households, lineages, and farms) from the cultural (e.g., norms, rules, values, ideologies, and the like—hereafter, normative mental representations) and that the distinction between social and cultural anthropology is therefore an artificial one. To the contrary, others can argue that the social organizational (or “groupal”) and cultural perspectives refer to two analytically separate albeit intertwined levels of reality, sometimes shed a different light on a single phenomenon, and have different analytical value. This distinction I show through the study of the notion of “honor” and its relation to the gender division of labor and to the status of women in Tunisia.

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Author's note: The research from which this paper is drawn was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the International Development Research Centre of Canada as well as by the Faculté des études supérieures of the Université de Montréal. I also thank the Tunisian Centre de Recherches, d'Études, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme as well as the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain.

1 For example, Abu-Lughod, Lila, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Antoun, Richard T., “On the Modesty of Women in Arab Muslim Villages: A Study in the Accommodation of Traditions,” American Anthropologist 70 (1968): 671CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gélard, Marie-Luce, Le pilier de la tente. Rituels et représentations de l'honneur chez les Aïts Khebbach (Tafilalt) (Paris: Maison des sciences de l'homme, 2003)Google Scholar; Gilmore, David D., ed., Honor and Shame: The Unity of the Mediterranean (Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1987)Google Scholar; Jamous, Raymond, Honneur et baraka: Les structures sociales traditionnelles dans le Rif (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)Google Scholar; Meeker, Michael, “Meaning and Society in the Near East: Examples from the Black Sea Turks and the Levantine Arabs,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 7 (1976): 243–70, 383–422CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Peristiany, John G., ed., Honor and Shame: The Values of the Mediterranean Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965)Google Scholar; Pitt-Rivers, Julian, The Fate of Shechem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)Google Scholar. For a critique of the concept, see Herzfeld, Michael, “Honor and Shame: Problems in the Comparative Analysis of Moral Systems,” Man (n.s.) 15 (1980): 339–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “‘As in Your Own House’: Hospitality, Ethnography, and the Stereotype of Mediterranean Society,” in Gilmore, Honor and Shame, 75–89; Lindasfarne, Nancy, “Variant Masculinities, Variant Virginities: Rethinking ‘Honour and Shame,’” in Dislocating Masculinity. Comparative Ethnographies, ed. Cornwall, Andrea and Lindisfarne, Nancy (London: Routledge, 1994), 8296Google Scholar; Wikan, Uni, “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair,” Man (n.s.) 19 (1984): 635–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 David D. Gilmore, “The Shame of Dishonor,” in Honor and Shame, 5.

3 Anthropologist Sophie Ferchiou disagrees with the use of the expression “feminization of agriculture,” claiming that despite women's increasing participation in that sector, it remains undervalued and transitory; after men's return from migration, women resume their role of “family helpers.” Ferchiou, Sophie, “‘Invisible Work,’ Work at Home: The Condition of Tunisian Women” in Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy, ed. Lobban, Richard Jr. (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1998), 187–97Google Scholar. In my opinion, the expansion of female labor in agriculture and women's empowerment/disempowerment are intertwined but analytically different issues. I use the expression “feminization of agriculture” in referring strictly to the process of expansion of female labor in agriculture without presuming appreciation of that work or permanence of that process.

4 Abu-Lughod, Lila, “A Community of Secrets: The Separate World of Bedouin Women,” Signs 10 (1985): 637–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dwyer, Daisy H., “Bridging the Gap Between the Sexes in Moroccan Legal Practice,” in Sexual Stratification: A Cross-Cultural View, ed. Schlegel, Alice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 4146Google Scholar; Tapper, Nancy, “The Women's Subsociety Among the Shahsevan Nomads of Iran,” in Women in the Muslim World, ed. Beck, Lois and Keddie, Nikki (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 374–98Google Scholar.

5 Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments.

6 John Davis, “Honour and Politics in Pisticci,” Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1969, 69–82; Hopkins, Nicholas S., “Women, Work and Wages in Two Arab Villages,” Eastern Anthropologist 44 (1991): 103–23Google Scholar.

7 Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem, 1–2.

8 Stewart, Frank H., Honor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

9 See Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments, 97; Bourdieu, Pierre, Masculine Domination (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001), 50Google Scholar; Sweet, Louise E., “In Reality: Some Middle Eastern Women,” in Many Sisters: Women in Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Matthiasson, Carolyn J. (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1974), 393Google Scholar.

10 Herzfeld, “Honor and Shame,” 344.

11 Gana, Alia, Femmes rurales de Tunisie (Tunis: CREDIF, 1996), 74Google Scholar.

12 Valensi, Lucette, Tunisian Peasants in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

13 Duvignaud, Jean, Change at Shebika (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas, 1970)Google Scholar. Labidi's work, about women's situation in the city, similarly evokes the existence of a “wall” or “rampart” between the sexes, that of modesty. Labidi, Lilia, Çabra Hechma. Sexualité et tradition (Tunis: Dar Annawras, 1989), 59Google Scholar.

14 Cuisenier, Jean, Économie et parenté: Leurs affinités de structure dans le domaine turc et dans le domaine arabe (Paris: Mouton, 1975)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Bardin, Pierre, La vie d'un douar: Essai sur la vie rurale dans les grandes plaines de la haute Medjerda, Tunisie (Paris: Mouton & Co, 1965)Google Scholar.

16 Ferchiou, Sophie, “Place de la production féminine dans l'économie familiale du Sud tunisien,” Revue Tiers-Monde 19, no. 76 (1978): 831–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also her Les femmes dans l'agriculture tunisienne (Aix-en-Provence, France: EDISUD, 1985) and “Invisible Work.” A note about transliteration: IJMES transliteration does not perfectly render Tunisian speech. For example, ā is often pronounced ē in Tunisian dialect. In accordance with the IJMES transliteration system, I have translitered Tunisian words but with an ā instead of an ē when applicable. In one case, however, I have kept the sound g instead of q, and in another I have kept the word qdar instead of qadar because it is in a context where I refer to the works of Abu-Zahra, who uses the term qdar.

17 Zussman, Mira, Development and Disenchantment in Rural Tunisia: The Bourguiba Years (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992)Google Scholar; Hopkins, “Women, Work and Wages.”

18 Baduel, Pierre Robert, Société et émigration temporaire au Nefzaoua (Sud-tunisien) (Paris: CNRS, 1980)Google Scholar.

19 Ferchiou, Les femmes; Gana, Femmes rurales; Dorra Mahfoudh-Draoui, Paysannes de Marnissa (Tunis: Chama, 1993).

20 Amri, Laroussi, La femme rurale dans l'exploitation familiale, Nord-Ouest de la Tunisie (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2002)Google Scholar.

21 Tahar Hamrouni, “Les problèmes de la vie rurale dans le pays des Nefza” (diss., Diplome de recherché appliquée [DRA], University of Tunis, 1985).

22 Rondot, Pierre, “Assemblées traditionnelles chez les Nefza,” Cahiers de Tunisie 3, no. 10 (1955), 268Google Scholar.

23 The idea that cultural representations are arbitrary and potentially misleading reasonings about actual practices (and whose role is to perpetuate these practices) goes back to Boas (see his concept of “secondary explanations”). See also Verdon, Michel, Rethinking Households: An Atomistic Perspective on European Living Arrangements (London: Routledge, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Wikan, “Shame and Honour.”

25 Kressel, Gideon, “Shame and Gender,” Anthropological Quarterly 65 (1992):35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 In the Tunisian village of Sidi Ameur, the word qdar is used in the same sense and, as in Rmayniyya, reflects material power and social influence. Abu-Zahra, Nadia, Sidi Ameur: A Tunisian Village (London: Ithaca, 1982)Google Scholar.

27 See also Michel Verdon, Les Rifains de Jamous: une réanalyse (unpublished manuscript).

28 Henia, Abdelhamid, “Les notables dans la Tunisie de l'intérieur (XVIIIième–XIXième siècles),” in Être notable au Maghreb: Dynamique des configurations notabiliaires, ed. Henia, Abdelhamid (Paris: IRMC/Maisonneuve & Larose, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hopkins, Nicholas S., Testour ou la transformation des campagnes maghrébines (Tunis: CÉRÈS, 1983), 2930Google Scholar; Valensi, Tunisian Peasants; Venema, Bernhard, Les Khroumirs: Changements politiques et religieux dans la période 1850–1987 (Amsterdam: Vrije University, 1990)Google Scholar.

29 Pascon, Paul, “Population et développement. Éléments de psychosociologie d'une démographie volontaire au Maroc,” Bulletin économique et social du Maroc 29, no. 104 (1967): 2742Google Scholar.

30 This climate of suspicion did not (and still does not) translate into a withdrawn attitude, unending hostilities, and a morbid paranoia. In the competition for status one needs allies and good relationships with kin, friends, and acquaintances—a circle as wide as possible, hence the apparent contradiction between expressions of distrust and apparently relaxed relationships, a contradiction that seems to express the tensions inherent to this kind of social organization, as David Gilmore argues in his account of Mediterranean societies:

Neighbors are on the one hand perceived as dangerous and rivals, but they are also recognized as sources of economic, social, and sexual needs, and as being necessary for the confirmation of personal status. This ambivalence of dependency vs. opposition sets up an unusually powerful tension in interpersonal relations in Mediterranean communities. This tension is resolved publicly through norms of superficial cordiality and ritualized reciprocity . . . But antagonism remains in repressed form, finding expression in misanthropic perceptions and suspicions, and in other sublimated hostilities for which the models of the image of “the limited good” . . ., “social atomism” . . . and “the agonistic society” . . . seem well suited as frames for analysis. “Anthropology of the Mediterranean Area,” Annual Review of Anthropology 11 (1982): 189.

31 Ibid.; Schneider, Jane, “On Vigilance and Virgins: Honor, Shame, and Access to Resources in Mediterranean Societies,” Ethnology 10 (1971): 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See Banfield, Edward C., The Moral Basis to a Backward Society (New York: Free Press, 1958)Google Scholar; Rubel, Arthur J. and Kupferer, Harriet J., “Perspectives on the Atomistic-Type Society: Introduction,” Human Organization 27 (1968): 189–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.


32 Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments; Lindholm, Charles, The Islamic Middle East: An Historical Anthropology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)Google Scholar.

33 Sweet, “In Reality,” 382.

34 Sciama, Lydia, “The Problem of Privacy in Mediterranean Anthropology,” in Women and Space: Ground Rules and Social Maps, ed. Ardener, Shirley (London: Croom Helm, 1981)Google Scholar.

35 Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jamous, Honneur et baraka; Cuisenier, Économie et parenté.

36 See also Amri, La femme rurale.

37 Hopkins, Testour.

38 Speech of former president Habib Bourguiba, 11 June 1961 (excerpt): “In this republic of four million inhabitants, how can we admit that families which are states in miniature, ruled by autonomous heads, be left to their own fate . . .?” (my translation). Bourguiba, Habib, Discours. Tome IX, 1961–62 (Tunis: Secrétariat d'État à l'Information, 1976), 21Google Scholar.

39 See Abu-Zahra, Sidi Ameur; idem, “Material Power, Honour, Friendship, and the Etiquette of Visiting,” Anthropological Quarterly 47 (1974): 120–38.

40 Labidi, Çabra, 47.

41 Delaney, Carol, The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991)Google Scholar; idem, “Seeds of Honor, Fields of Shame,” in Gilmore, Honor and Shame, 35–48.

42 Delaney, The Seed, 38.

43 Ibid., 38–39.


44 Ibid., 27–28.


45 Ibid., 238ff.


46 Ibid., 40.


47 Agnatic purity and honor are also related in matters of inheritance. Just as a man wishes to have a large number of male offspring in order to increase his social capital and prestige, he also wishes to perpetuate his name by bequeathing his patrimony to his sons upon his death. This is possible if their relationship is attested. The same logic works the other way around: the relationship between a man and his father needs to be acknowledged in order for the former to inherit from the latter.

48 Schneider, “On Vigilance,” 20. Schneider goes on to say that “as with honor, the idea of shame serves both to defend or enhance the patrimonies of families and to define the family as a corporate group,” ibid., 21. The parallel between the household and its social capital brings us to the one Herzfeld makes between honor and hospitality. Hospitality, rightly defined by Herzfeld as “the rendering of comfort to a visitor in one's own territory” (“As in Your Own House,” 77), may be understood as a manifestation of honor meant as the protection (and enhancement) of one's dominion. As Herzfeld writes, hospitality “signifies the moral and conceptual subordination of the guest to the host. In this way, it ‘englobes’ the visitor, to the substituting moral advantage for political subordination,” ibid. Likewise, Schneider states that “the guest is a joint patrimony of the group,” Schneider, “On Vigilance,” 23, n. 3. Put differently, hospitality does not subsume honor but derives from it, underlining the importance of the household and its social capital as the extent of one's honor.

49 Likewise Sweet, also stressing the concern for the legitimacy of paternity in the MENA, writes that “it is precisely the independence of the household unit managing its property for its livelihood and continuity that makes comprehensible the values of modesty, seclusion, and virginity of its females,” “In Reality,” 393.

50 This is to what Michelle Z. Rosaldo refers when she claims that “cultures everywhere have given Man, as a category opposed to Woman, social recognition and moral worth,” although one might qualify the universal and absolute character of this statement. Rosaldo, Michelle Z., “Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” in Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Rosaldo, Michelle Z. and Lamphere, Louise (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974), 22Google Scholar.

51 Triki, Souad, Budget-temps des ménages ruraux et travail invisible des femmes rurales en Tunisie (Tunis: CREDIF, 2000)Google Scholar.

52 ʿAyn al-Arnub is located downstream from Rmayniyya, by the national road. It is a relatively wealthier agglomeration of hamlets where most stores (cafés, restaurants, shops, etc.) and public services (post office, police station, etc.) are found. The well-off families of the former shaykhs and their allies, as well as the nouveaux riches and civil servants, live there. As before, in these upper-class families field work is inappropriate for women. Depending on their level of education and abilities women either stay at home, take care of the house, and visit each other (in the past they also worked wool); work as dressmakers or hairdressers (i.e., in an exclusively female environment); or work as teachers (i.e., with children) or nurses (preferably taking care of women), more prestigious professions that require a certain education (capital of knowledge), which in turn supposes that these women come from wealthy households (material capital). Men working in the spheres of health and education are also generally considered more open-minded and more respectful toward women. In all cases, however, these women live near their workplace (sometimes on the spot, e.g., schoolteachers) and go home directly after work. Of equal importance, they are expected to work for the benefit of their households and not to satisfy their own needs only (e.g., make-up, clothes), or else their reputations will be affected. The situation of women working in shops or restaurants is more variable. There are cases, as discussed, of the woman's reputation being preserved because she is surrounded by kin, does not talk ostensibly to men or make eyes at them, and works for the benefit of her family. The situation is different when the woman works in a shop or restaurant out of necessity (either for herself or, worse, for someone else) or when, uneducated yet not obliged to work because her husband is well off, she works in order to “spice up” her everyday life and talks unreservedly to men.

53 Amri, La femme rurale, 256.

54 See Ferchiou, Les femmes, 21, n. 3.

55 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Logic of Practice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Ferchiou, Les femmes, 21–22.

56 The use of the scythe, called “French sickle,” minjal sūrī (different from the “Arab sickle,” minjal ʿarbī), is exclusive to men; peasants claim that women do not know how to handle it. In Tunisia, sūrī (literally “Syrian”) refers to what is imported from the West and is associated with modernity. See also Zussman, Development.

57 For example, see Kadioglu, Ayse, “The Impact of Migration on Gender Roles: Findings of Field Research in Turkey,” International Migration 32 (1994): 533–60CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Khafagy, Fatma, “Women and Labor Migration: One Village in Egypt,” MERIP Reports 124 (1984): 1721CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hind Abou S. Khattab and Syada G. El-Daeif, “Impact of Male Labor Migration on the Structure of the Family and the Roles of Women” (Giza, Egypt: The Population Council, Regional Paper no. 16, 1982); Keely, Charles B. and Saket, Bassam, “Jordanian Migrant Workers in the Arab Region: A Case Study of the Consequences for Labor-Supplying Countries,” Middle East Journal 38 (1984): 685711Google Scholar.

58 Ferchiou, Les femmes; idem, “Invisible Work.”

59 Although her analysis is not in terms of honor, Weyland makes similar observations in her study of male migration in Egypt (see her definition of the “clever” woman). Weyland, Petra, Inside the Third World Village (London: Routledge, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments, 118, n. 1.

61 For example, Kadioglu, “The Impact of Migration”; Khafagy, “Women and Labor Migration”; Khattab and El-Daeif, “Impact of Male Labor Migration.”

62 See Salem, Lilia Ben and Locoh, Thérèse, “Les transformations du mariage et de la famille,” in Population et développement en Tunisie, ed. Vallin, Jacques and Locoh, Thérèse (Tunis: Cérès, 2001)Google Scholar; Salem, Lilia Ben, “Structures familiales et activités productives des ménages,” in Les mutations socio-démographiques de la famille tunisienne, ed. Hamza, Nabila (Tunis: Office National de la Famille et de la Population, 2006)Google Scholar.

63 Since 1999, the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates and the Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Développement have militated for gender equality in matters of inheritance. They want Tunisia's legal framework to reflect the prevailing conjugal reality and to establish parity between men and women. The government has not yet acceded to their demand.

64 Alia Gana, “Recherche-action sur les activités entrepreneuriales des femmes dans le secteur agricole: Étude de base” (Tunis: CREDIF, 1999, working paper).

65 Institut National de la Statistique, Recensement général de la population et de l'habitat, vol. 4, Caractéristiques démographiques (Tunis: INS, 1984), 50–51.

66 Latreille, Martin and Verdon, Michel, “Wives against Mothers: Women's Power and Household Dynamics in Rural Tunisia,” Journal of Family History 32 (2007): 6689CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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