- Gendering Political Agency in the Maghreb
If North Africa is understudied by academics of the Middle East, the Maghreb is more so and Maghrebian women even more (Ennaji, Sadiqi, and Vintges 2016; Moghadam 1993; Sadiqi 2016). The four books under review direct attention to this region and link the multifaceted and gendered histories of the Maghreb to its present. Their local, regional, and transregional approaches make a valuable contribution to North African, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean studies. Employing novel approaches and methodologies, new theories, and new sources in the post–Arab Spring moment, the books highlight the role of gender in the making of the historical and contemporary political Maghreb.
Unlike most works on women in Ottoman households that focus on the Middle East, especially Turkey, Amy Aisen Kallander’s Women, Gender, and the Palace Households in Ottoman Tunisia spans the period from the sixteenth-century Ottoman conquest of Tunisia to the early nineteenth century. Starting from the premise that palaces are complex domestic spaces where economic and political [End Page 88] power is engineered, the author situates the family as the locus of such power and highlights the role and agency of women in the making, development, and transition of this power. Women’s economic and political power was facilitated by gender segregation and their will to maintain political power through their sons, their husbands, and other men. The power of palace women was so pervasive that royal families in Europe emulated it (e.g., the Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry in the western Mediterranean). The centrality of the family was reflected in architecture. Government administrations were structured as households where diplomatic transactions, government economics, marriages, and circumcisions took place.
Although the political role of the family vacillated according to the political context, it never disappeared. Relative political stability in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to state consolidation and bureaucratic development that placed family at the center of government. During this period royal and elite women contributed to the prestige of the ruling dynasties. They served as counselors, teachers, and managers. Since political power has always gone hand in hand with religion in the Maghreb and larger North Africa, palace women also contributed to public piety via endowments (waqf), charity, the reception of grievances, the establishment of pious foundations, and the provision of soup kitchens. Through these pious actions, women were part and parcel of the government’s redistribution of wealth contract. Palace women’s political and religious commitments marked stability and grandeur.
The political instability of much of the nineteenth century caused by European imperial projects weakened the Ottoman Empire, including the Tunisian province. Financial difficulties paved the way for reforms, for example, the 1861 constitution, which gave more power to the state. Patronage of education and religious endowments, formerly the responsibility of elite women, became state-provided services. The influence of palace families diminished, and as a result, the household model of government lost its relevance. This situation was complicated by modernization projects. These deep changes impacted the role of the household in politics, and the contributions of palace women to the reform were marginalized as women were transformed into a symbol of modernization.
Kallander’s brilliant link between the decrease in palace women’s political power and the rise of a polity based on the slogan of fraternity resonates well with what happened in Algeria, Egypt, and other countries of the region: women disappeared from the political scene after the revolution. In Tunis the nineteenth-century reforms turned the family, more specifically the inheritance laws, into equality between men. Kallander also makes a powerful link between the status and role of the family...