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Africa Today 47.1 (2000) 147-149

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Lobban, Richard A., Jr., ed. 1998. Middle Eastern Women and the Invisible Economy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. 302 pp. No price given (cloth).

Think of this stimulating and insightful volume as a contribution to the literature of exploration and discovery. The "Middle East" of the title is preponderantly African; it embraces Egypt (seven studies), Tunisia (three), the Sudan (two), Lebanon and the Yemen (one study each). The contribution set in the Yemen, moreover, examines a subordinate status group of real or putative African origin. The "invisible" economy begins where the governmentally documented one ends, a frontier whose portal into the officially unknown lies at no great distance from the doors of the relevant ministries. Those who rule suspect--correctly--that beyond the horizon of official visibility lies untaxed wealth.

The contributors to the present volume are by no means the first to probe the hidden world of informal production, service and exchange; there already exists a significant official literature committed to exposing its concealed resources. Yet many of the pioneering investigators of the informal economy were men, and as the single chapter in this volume by a male contributor eloquently illustrates, the Middle Eastern realities accessible to a male researcher are apt to be overwhelmingly male ones. There remains a very large and highly significant economic realm concealed within the doubly inaccessible subculture of women. It is this level of reality that the present volume seeks to expose.

Each chapter, based largely upon fieldwork conducted about fifteen years ago, introduces the contributions of women to the informal economy in one specific setting. Anne M. Jennings describes the participation by [End Page 147] Nubian women in the Egyptian tourist industry. Barbara J. Michael documents the market mastery of Sudanese Baggara milk sellers. Delores M. Walters visits the social world of ostensibly African Yemeni akhdam in highland and coastal settings. Nada Mustafa M. Ali traces survival strategies in Atbara, Sudan, among urban victims of economic collapse. Marcia C. Inhorn introduces an "informal health care sector" in Cairo that appeals strongly to women. Evelyn A. Early offers four biographies illustrative of diverse economic strategies of "traditional" Egyptian women. Barbara K. Larson analyzes the contributions of women to the rural economy of Beni Suef, Egypt. Marie Butler examines the modernization of chicken farming, a traditionally female contribution to the Egyptian informal economy. Sophie Ferchiou contrasts the fortunes of rural and urban Tunisian women at the hands of economic modernization. Richard A. Lobban, Jr., tests the limits of male observation in an urban Tunisian setting. Isabelle Berry-Chikhaoui traces out the intricate informal networks of economic participation among urban Tunisian women. Suad Joseph introduces a Lebanese woman whose several economic roles engage multiple facets of her mixed social and ethnic heritage. Homa Hoodfar offers an eloquent defense of the utility of traditional values in supporting the economic strivings of urban Egyptian women. Diane Singerman, however, finds significant forms of exploitation, as well as admitted strengths, imbedded within the fabric of the informal Egyptian economy.

While the present volume offers a great richness of empirical nuance, perhaps the single most striking feature of its intellectual physiognomy lies in the very diverse array of conceptual armaments with which the contributors have chosen to plunge into the unknown. Even a brief, provisional and partial list would certainly include feminism, Islam, Marxism, neo-Marxism, formalist and substantivist economics, patriarchy, neopatriarchy, androphobia, American Afrocentrism, gynocentrism, and an endless set of structuralist dualisms between male and female, urban and rural, public and private, formal and informal, traditional and modern, individual and communal, economic and social, traditional and western, and so forth. The contributors themselves are aware of the problem of mutual terminological and conceptual incommensurability, and have mercifully muted potential clashes; rarely, however, have they been able to speak to each other across the differences in perspective that divide them. (Anne Jennings deserves special credit for a meaningful step toward bridging terminological chasms.) Is there a right way of thinking about these matters? The reader is invited to consider how the empirical evidence provided by...


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