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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy, Richard A. Lobban, Jr., editor (1998), Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. 303 pp.
Reviewed by Paula Holmes-Eber, Department of Anthropology and Middle East Center University of Washington, Seattle WA.
Lobban's edited volume, Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy,
presents a collection of fourteen articles on a critically important,
yet regrettably, severely neglected topic in gender and Middle Eastern
studies: the role of women in the informal, or invisible, economy. While
studies of women's survival strategies and economic participation outside
of the formal sector have burgeoned in other regions of the world, (see
for example, Beneria and Roldan 1990; Collins and Gimenez 1990; Chant
1991 and Smith, Wallerstein and Evers 1984), research on Middle Eastern
women's formal and informal economic activities has, until recently, been
all but non-existent.
the articles in Lobban's book, split among four separate sections an "Strategies
for survival: women at the marginsä; "Women and work:
the invisible economy of Egyptä; "Methods and measures:
the invisible economy of Tunisiaä; and "Locations and
linkages in the invisible economyä offer a welcome and long overdue
examination of the many creative ways that women in the Middle East earn,
save and dispose of their own incomes, outside of the formal, measurable
economic structure. As Earlyâs, Lobban's, and Berry-Chickhaouiâs
articles illustrate, women often supplement their household's incomes
through petty commodity trading, selling articles at weekly markets and
acting as the middle-woman in transporting goods between rural and urban
areas. Butler, Michael, and Jennings describe the innovative ways that
women create home-based industries including bread baking and cheese-making,
poultry raising, handicrafts production, and hosting tourist visits in
local homes all of which allow Muslim women to earn incomes while remaining
within the domestic domain. Inhorn reveals the important roles that women
play in the informal medical system as midwives and ethnomedical specialists,
providing services that rural and lower class women would prefer not to
receive from men. The chapters by Early, and Singerman demonstrate the
economic power that women with wide networks can wield in linking individuals
to goods and services, speedily and effectively navigating the morass
of political red tape in Egypt. Finally, Middle Eastern women's unpaid
labor in agricultural production, as contributors to household enterprises
(such the preparation of wool for husbands to weave), and as providers
of services which are repaid in goods rather than money example the use
of an oven which is then paid for in bread) is discussed in the articles
by Larson, Ali and Ferchiou.
theme running through many of the essays in the book is women's independent
management and disposal of the income they receive from their work. Savings
groups or clubs which enable women to obtain credit and to save for major
expenses like wedding celebrations and building a house are described
in a number of studies (e.g., Early, Jennings, Singerman). And as Jennings,
Early, Ali and Hoodfar argue, Middle Eastern women often independently
fund major purchases, as well as the education of their children or the
health care of loved ones through the income obtained from their ãinvisible"
include discussions of rural, urban and nomadic women primarily of the
unskilled, lower and working classes. While most of the studies focus
on Muslim women, Joseph's article provides a contrasting view of a Lebanese
Christian woman. Seven of the fourteen articles are based on research
in Egypt; two discuss women in the Sudan; one article describes a Lebanese
woman and a fourth examines the economic roles of Yemeni women. I was
delighted to find that three of the articles were on Tunisian women a
subject that has been almost completely ignored in English language publications,
despite Tunisia's revolutionary laws regarding the status of women and
given the recent spurt of publications on Turkish women's informal and
formal participation in the international garment and handwork industries
(see, for example, White 1994), there are no articles on women's informal
economic activities in Turkey. Not so surprising is the absence of articles
on women in the oil rich countries such as Saudi Arabia Kuwait, and Oman.
While their omission could be taken to indicate that, due to their greater
wealth, women in these areas do not participate in the informal economy,
I suspect that the absence of studies more likely reflects the dwindling
research on women in the Arabian peninsula in the past few years
Lobban's book is an important first step in recognizing and articulating
Middle Eastern women's informal economic activities, and the essays provide
a coherent and provocative description of the heretofore neglected economic
world of these women, Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy is
probably more suitable as an introductory and exploratory text on the
issue, rather than as a definitive scholarly analysis of the question.
Regrettably, with the exception of Hoodfar's chapter, neither the introduction,
nor the subsequent articles make any reference to the rapidly growing
literature on women in the informal economy in other areas of the world,
such as Latin America and the Caribbean, where the topic is much more
developed theoretically and empirically. While the Middle Eastern case
is perhaps unique in certain respects, requiring new definitions and perspectives,
the lack of theoretical grounding leaves a number of the authors grappling
with concepts and terms, description unable to rise above mere description.
credit, several of the book's chapters (for example Inhorn, Early, Berry-Chickhaoui
and Jennings) are excellent micro-ethnographies providing the rich thick
detail upon which later theoretical work can be built. And the articles
by Larson, Hoodfar and Singerman--which contrast women's and men's informal
activities, and examine the relationship between women's participation
in the informal economy and the macro-context of the formal political
and economic spheres--offer the more comparative theoretical analysis
necessary for explanatory rather than merely descriptive research. Middle
Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy is thus an interesting introductory
text to a complex issue; suitable for classroom use and for providing
scholars with a new and more accurate perspective on Middle Eastern women's
economic roles and activities.
Beneria, Lourdes and Martha Roldan.
Chant, Sylvia H.
Collins, Jane L. and Martha Gimenez.
Moghadam, Valentine M.
Smith, Joan, Immanuel Wallerstein and Hans-Dieter Evers.
White, Jenny B.