Diane Singerman, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton, 1995).

The number of works on gender and family in the Middle East has steadily increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, influenced by both an expanding social science literature on gender, resistance, social movements and civil society, and by the growing prevalence of Islamist movements, with the questions they pose regarding the role of women in society. [1] This emerging literature has the potential to significantly reshape Middle East studies, both by critiquing and complicating existing understandings of social interactions in the Middle East, and by helping to link Middle East studies to current concerns in a broader comparative social science literature. Anthropologists and historians have thus far dominated this new literature, with political scientists only recently beginning to add their contributions. Diane Singerman’s Avenues of Participation highlights how much political science and Middle East studies stand to gain by incorporating these theoretical concerns, but also suffers from some shortcomings.

Singerman looks at informal networks in a popular (sha‘bi) quarter in Old Cairo, where she conducted a year’s field research in 1985-1986. She positions her work as a critique of political science biases toward elite-oriented models, the reification of public/private distinctions (and the corresponding depoliticization of the activities of women and lower-class groups with limited access to “public” organized political activities), and models that privilege intentionality and individualism (5-9). While such critiques are not new to comparative political scientists working on other regions, they will be welcomed by anyone who is familiar with much of the “classic” political science literature on the Middle East.

Based on her interactions and interviews with a group of 350 men, women and children, Singerman argues for the existence of a “family ethos” based on mutual reciprocity, trust and shared interest which extends beyond families to incorporate broader informal networks. In a country with a long tradition of formal political exclusion these “informal networks are one of the most important avenues of participation” for popular (sha‘bi) communities (72). In particular, informal networks serve as a primary means to the goal of “reproducing the family,” a goal which Singerman considers to be one of the main shared interests of these communities (75-131). “People use informal networks to gain control over their livelihood, the education system, financial institutions and publicly distributed goods. They create a public resource by their organization of these networks, which fulfill shared needs…. Informal networks articulate and aggregate the interests of their constituents, working to further those interests in legal and illegal, formal and informal, visible and invisible ways” (172). Given the large numbers participating in untaxed savings associations (gam‘iyyat), sending home remittances from migrant labor abroad or building unauthorized communities on state-owned or agricultural lands can lead to impressive economic, social and political outcomes. Singerman concludes by arguing that at the very least the people (sha‘b) must be recognized as an important, albeit not highly visible, actor in Egyptian political life and suggests that the tremendous monetary and organizational resources captured by informal networks may allow the sha‘b to mobilize to gain greater political power in the future.

Most of the book utilizes an ethnographic approach, although one chapter, “Informality: Politics and Economics in Tandem” nicely interweaves ethnography with statistical data from official sources, other studies of the informal sector and Singerman’s own survey work. Also notable are Singerman’s efforts to provide a broader historical context for the phenomenon she is describing, chronicling both long-term trends and the impact of such recent government policies as the economic opening (infitah) under Sadat. To the extent that they fall within her time period, Singerman also discusses the growth of Islamists’ utilization of informal networks and the dilemmas of the Mubarak government as it tries to simultaneously maintain popular support and satisfy international demands for eliminating state subsidies and shrinking the public sector. Further development of this aspect of the book, and of her musings on the future of sha‘bi political participation, would have made for a stronger conclusion, as well as offering an interesting means of engaging many of the current debates in Arabic on gender, participation, informality and Islamic movements.

Despite its strengths, the book tends to over-generalize on the basis of some of its ethnographic data, particularly in discussions of wealthier businessmen and members of Parliament, where Singerman depends on relatively few informants. It also tends to overemphasize the degree to which these coping strategies and networks are particular to sha‘bi groups. Many middle-class and even upper-class individuals participate in similar networks to find employment locally or abroad, save for marriage or for other major expenditures, or gain access to public goods — although in at least some of these instances one might be more likely to term these strategies “corruption” rather than “coping”!

This reader also wishes that Singerman had been able to update her theoretical and empirical material. Thus, the ethnographic section could have incorporated a greater awareness of the impact of the researcher on the kinds of responses elicited from informants, and arguments in other sections could have more explicitly engaged theoretical issues raised by scholars working on popular classes elsewhere. The political science literature on gender, social movements, informality and democratization in Latin America offers the most obvious parallels to the types of social organization Singerman describes. [2]

Similarly, Singerman’s discussion of the ration system (tamwin) could have been updated to reflect the radical economic changes that have taken place since she completed her fieldwork. The shortages and black-marketeering in food that Singerman describes — and thus the importance of networks as a way to gain access to these goods — have been steadily decreasing since the mid- to late 1980s, as access to staple and luxury goods increased. Government food subsidies have also been progressively cut back, so that today only a few food items remain subsidized, and they are readily available in shops for only slightly more than their subsidized prices. Incorporation of these and other developments, most notably the increasing trend toward privatization and the declining opportunities for migrant labor, would have made Singerman’s arguments more current.

Avenues of Participation is indeed an important improvement on much of the existing political science literature on the Middle East, both for its focus on gender and popular classes and for its incorporation of ethnographic materials. In this sense it does do what the series editors claim, “disturb[ing] the customary image of the Muslim masses as a subdued, fatalistic political underclass” (xi). Yet the very fact that we are still struggling to disturb that archaic image is also a reminder of how far Middle East studies still has to go before it can claim parity with other area studies in the social sciences.


[1] To mention only a few, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, ed., Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985); Nikkie Keddie and Beth Baron, eds., Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Arlene MacLeod, Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling and Change in Cairo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); and Judith Tucker, ed., Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993).
[2] See, for example, Georgina Waylen, “Women and Democratization: Conceptualizing Gender Relations in Transition Politics,” World Politics 46 (April 1994); and Arturo Escobar and Sonia E. Alvarez, eds., The Making of Social Movements in Latin America: Identity, Strategy and Democracy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).

How to cite this article:

Clarisa Bencomo "Singerman, Avenues of Participation," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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