ActivismCultureFreedom of SpeechGender EqualityHuman Rights

Feminism In Tunisia

Sorority, self-expression, and the long road ahead

Since the commencement of the Arab Spring in 2011, attention has focused on the different outcomes in the related countries. Peaceful protests turned into bloody conflicts that still rage on today. The restoration of democracy was only momentary, and in most cases new dictators and autocratic regimes simply replaced the old ones.

Tunisia represents an exception: The Jasmine Revolution succeeded in the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, which had lasted since 1987, opening a new phase for the country’s politics and society. Feminist groups largely engaged with the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period in Tunisia, giving a new boost to nation and local women’s activism in the nation.

The involvement of feminists with the political change in Tunisia is new: in 1956 Habiba Bourgiba led the revolution for freedom from the French government and became the first president of the brand-new Tunisian republic. In a famous discourse held in 1956, he introduced a Code of Personal Status (CPS), called ‘majala’ in Arabic.

From a Western perspective, it was a family law considered revolutionary as this code abolished polygamy, forced marriage, introduced free education for both sexes and banned underage marriage against their will. Bourgiba has been considered the saviour of women. Yet, as the blogger and activist Chouaib Elhajjaji commented, no words of gratitude have been spent on Bchira Ben Mrad, Radhia Haddad e Manoubia Ouertani, the female activists who spent years to fight for such achievements. History is no stranger to men taking all the credit for others’ achievements in society.

Fifty-five years later, women were back in the streets side by side with their fellow Tunisians tired of unemployment, poverty, police violence and human rights violations. The democratic election of the current president Béji Caïd Essebsi in 2014, backed up by the support of feminist groups, opened up a new political season for Tunisia. Female participation in the elections yielded significant results and in 2017, the president created the Committee of Individual Liberties and Equality (COLIBE), whose task is to scrutinize and reform laws striving for more equal rights between men and women.

In 2016, the Tunisian parliament had more women (31%) than the French one (26%). However, this victory is soured by another number: only three women are members of the government, demonstrating that the road to a full recognition of women as equal to men in fulfilling political duties is still a long way away.

Gender discrimination is still a big issue in Tunisia. It seems that at the end of every revolutionary cycle, the state forgets the support provided by women. Yet, this time it seems that women’s movements are motivated to continue their battles. The demonstrations of last August in favour of a new law supporting an equal share of inheritance proved their resoluteness. The Tunisian feminist activism surpasses mere protests. Indeed, many groups have been created by international or local NGOs.

Their goals are simple: empower women to express themselves and to be aware of their rights as individuals and as a collective. For instance, a workshop called Notre-Dame-de mots has been launched to give the possibility to women to gather and share their poems or personal texts;  the feminist artistic collective @honna-hñ wishes to combat through their art the misogyny of Tunisian hip-hop music. Since 2013, the CHOUF association has been involved with defending and helping women to defend themselves as well as promoting political and cultural initiatives for breaking down gender discrimination and stereotypes. Together with another association called Chamfl, the Tunisian women conducted symbolic actions with the purpose of claiming back the public space in Tunisian cities, such as those popular cafés always and only attended by men.

Beji Caid Essebsi, President of Tunisia. Image: Flickr

Although Tunisian feminists are in a continuous dialogue with feminist movements from all over the world, their focus is entirely on the national and local interests of Tunisia. Indeed, Tunisian feminists want to break free from Western feminism whose focus on the Arab women had been too focused on the hijab question and a battle for a major secularization of the Arab countries.

In Tunisia, the feminist principles of sorority and economic emancipation do not come untied from the religious faith, yet the activists believe that religion must not be a discriminatory aspect in the battle for gender equality in the country. Their actions, their political commitment and their creation of safe spaces where women can share their stories, are reminiscent of the Second Wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s with its slogan; the “personal is political”.

However, the contemporary feminism still has a long road ahead before reaching their target. One of the critiques is the lack of organisational structure capable of creating a solid network among the old and new feminist movements to find a common strategy for the future battles. Another critique, as with Second Wave of feminism, is that feminism in Tunisia does not include Black and rural women who are left out from the dialogue and initiatives. Last but not least, LGBTQ people have been still encountering huge difficulties in being accepted by Tunisian society, an issue that feminists need to address if their claim of openness and inclusivity holds still.

After eight years of the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisian feminists are more alive and active than ever. A more inclusive strategy and long-term planning might help them in the ongoing battle for gender equality.

Giulia Masciavè

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