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  • Investing by Women or Investing in Women?Merchandise, Money, and Marriage and the Formation of a Prenational Bourgeoisie in Damascus
  • Leila Hudson (bio)

Recent historical scholarship on gender and nationalism in the Middle East has tended to use gender as a metaphor to analyze political culture, while social history based on the Islamic Sharia court archives and exploring women's lives in the prenational Ottoman periods has generally not addressed the issue of political culture. What can the Islamic court archives—probate inventories in particular—tell about changing gender roles, meanings, and values on the eve of the national period in Syria? Data from the last available probate inventories of Damascus's Sharia courts indicate that as the overall economy was inflating and expanding at the turn of the twentieth century, women's traditionally limited autonomy within it was in fact contracting. Trends in probate inventory data show that an economy expanding with cash and merchandise was also characterized by declining rates of participation by women in the courts as economic actors; increased marginality of women operating without or outside of families; and increased investment in intermediate and upper-class women through strategic marriage, reflected in a steep upward trend in marriage payments for a few women. The data suggest consolidation of a commercial middle class funded with the new liquidity of the Mediterranean trade, supporting a culture of gendered domesticity and what Benedict Anderson has termed "deep horizontal comradeship" of nation.1 I read this not just as an important shift in women's roles from the Islamic/Ottoman period to the national period but as a crucial pillar of Syrian modernity as it built a new intermediate class in which domestic and national values would flourish.

The most recent work highlighting gender as an indispensable element of the fractious political culture of modernity in the Middle East leans heavily on gender paradigms and primary sources from the West. In Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, Elizabeth Thompson uses gender as the key analytical category for investigating political culture and begins an inquiry into conceptions of citizenship in post-Ottoman Syria with the watershed of World War I and its undeniably devastating effects on the lives of families.2 Her assumption, however, that war, famine, and poverty shattered the cultural continuity of the past (as they shattered so many Syrians' lives) so completely as to make inquiry [End Page 105] into the structures of the prewar Syrian family unnecessary is a little too conveniently tailored to the needs of a historiography that relies on colonial sources and mentalities. She proceeds directly to develop a French-inspired model of gendered citizenship—paternal privilege and republican fraternalism with little interest in the Syrian family except as a vehicle for colonial metaphors.3 Similarly Akram Khater's Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870–1920 posits the mass emigration of the late nineteenth century as the driving cause for the change of the Lebanese family and the emergence of the middle class.4 Even as they creatively use Western sources and determinedly attribute agency to the subaltern classes of women and peasants, these two influential works implicitly locate the motors of change in the outside world, in dramatic upheavals of war and intercontinental migration, and discount the notion that family structure in Syria was always dynamic, flexible, and self-adjusting in response to economic pressures.

In contrast, work based on Sharia court archives hints at far more nuanced and complex relationships among women's lives, family structures, and markets—but rarely extends its analysis to political culture.5 Abraham Marcus as well as Colette Establet and Jean-Paul Pascual compare and draw out the contrasts between men's and women's material lives, establishing women's importance as property owners in the Ottoman period and documenting their distinct consumer profiles respectively.6 In Marcus's succinct expression, "Women participated actively in the pursuit of property; their vulnerable situation was more an incentive than a barrier in the search for security."7 Judith Tucker's work and similar studies revive the contexts in which women whose voices are not preserved in literature...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 105-120
Launched on MUSE
2006-06-08
Open Access
No
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