Tunisia: Women's winter of discontent

Nine months after the overthrow of the former president, Tunisia has voted in the first open and fair election in the region. In part one of a three part article Kristine Goulding asks: Is a Tunisian feminist fall, driven by local, national and international support, possible? Or will countervailing forces of politics, social pressure and religion prevail?

This is the first part of a three part article. (Read parts two and three.)

Although the gaze of global media has shifted elsewhere –increasingly violent protests in Yemen and Syria, the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia – one cannot forget the revolution that started it all: Tunisia. Tunisians launched the Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers when they toppled president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in January. On 23 October they were the first to hold elections, with over 100 parties contesting seats in parliament.

The election determined the members of the National Constituent Assembly, an organ tasked with re-writing the constitution and determining the selection process of the next president and prime minister. After more than 50 years of political life dominated by sham elections, totalitarian decrees and nepotistic pandering, Tunisian citizens are eager to have their voices heard and counted in a meaningful way. This election should be a lodestar to the rest of the region, an affirmation that an Arab revolution can forge a durable constitutional democracy, despite an oppressive history of autocracy. Yet the road ahead is bumpy, and success is hardly assured.

Scrutiny of the candidates and electoral procedures has intensified on two seemingly contradictory grounds: Islamism and women. On the one hand, the Islamist Hizb al-Nahda (Awakening Movement) has pulled ahead in most polls, and early reports show that they may have won as many as a third of the seats on 23 October. Thanks to the party’s sizable public profile and immense support network, an “Islamist summer” saw the expansion of al-Nahda’s populist message of faith-based development, especially in rural areas. On the other hand, women from all registered parties (al-Nahda included) have been afforded special dispensations, including gender parity on electoral lists to guarantee that at least 50% of those elected to draft the constitution will be women. Islamist and secular parties alike have affirmed a collective belief in women’s capacity to help rebuild the country’s social fabric and economy. But will this support be enough to usher in a new era of women-friendly politics?

As the months have passed, low voter registration, high levels of frustration with the transitional government, and the indefatigability of unemployment and social disenfranchisement have tempered the post-revolution optimism of many Tunisians. Yet as the clock ticked closer to the elections, some scrambled to keep the dream of a transparent and egalitarian democratic transition alive. The government launched a massive nationwide campaign to raise women’s awareness of the election, as both voters and candidates. The minister of women's affairs, Lilia Labidi, worked tirelessly both domestically and internationally to solicit funding and support to increase women’s political participation. And Tunisian women themselves cannot be underestimated in their devotion to democracy. As one woman in Tunis proclaimed, “If we women in Tunisia can write our constitution, who’s to say that Egypt and Libya and Syria and Palestine won’t be next?”

Is a feminist fall, driven by local, national and international support, possible? Can Tunisia become the first in the Arab world to include women meaningfully in the state building process? Or will countervailing forces of politics, social pressure and religion prevail?

Women’s winter of discontent

By now, most are familiar with the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young vegetable vendor from Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010. Reportedly, Bouazizi was protesting the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a female municipal official and her aides. His death became a catalyst for the so-called Jasmine Revolution that spread throughout Tunisia, eventually toppling the 23-year reign of President Ben Ali. The protests against corruption and unemployment that swept the country in January featured women prominently, much to the surprise of many international observers. Female bloggers, journalists, Tweeters and demonstrators flooded the streets of the capital and outlying cities. Yet this sort of public demonstration should not be considered remarkable for Tunisia, a country where women’s rights have been part of the political and social agenda since independence.

Historically, Tunisian women’s citizenship rights have been afforded great rank and accord within the institutional structures of the government. Women’s rights have been expanded at the whim of the state, with the ruling party acting as the chief agent of change in legislation and administration of gender equality. From the promulgation of the family status code following independence, to reforms of political and economic rights during the following decades, state-sponsored feminism tied directly to national political interests has characterized Tunisia for more than 50 years.

President Habib Bourguiba first codified equality between men and women through the establishment of the Code of Personal Status (CPS) in 1956. As a part of modernization campaign following independence, Bourguiba aimed to establish a new and regionally unique role for women in Tunisian society by abolishing polygamy, creating a judicial procedure for divorce, setting a minimum age of marriage for girls and requiring the mutual consent of both parties in marriage. In the years following independence, women obtained the right to work, to move, to open bank accounts and to establish businesses without the permission of their husbands. During the 1960s, therapeutic abortion and contraception were rendered freely accessible throughout the country, and the wearing of hijab in public buildings was banned (although selectively enforced) after 1981. Exceedingly liberal compared to other family codes in North Africa and the Middle East, the CPS and subsequent amendments were promulgated not under domestic feminist pressure (as in Morocco and Algeria), but rather by government initiative.

Bourguiba and his government attempted to promote further social change through the creation of programmes and institutions expressly designed to meet the needs of women. The National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), initially the women’s political organ of Bourguiba’s political party, became a catch-all for women’s interests and the nation’s sole women’s group. Yet despite his seeming commitment to women’s emancipation, Bourguiba restricted the expression of women’s interests to this organization by establishing a firm grip over who and what was permissible—and who and what was strategic for his regime.

Following Bourguiba’s abdication of power following Ben Ali’s constitutional coup in 1987, more space was created for a greater variety of women’s interests and more women’s groups were established – with the caveat that all receive formal recognition and support from the Ministry of Culture. As a result, the new “independent” associations existed not to challenge, but rather to contribute to, government policies. The largest women’s organization in the country (which provided aegis to the majority of other feminist movements), la Union Nationale de la Femme Tunisienne, was headed by the president’s wife Leila Trabelsi. For more than two decades, government policy was to abolish independent women’s associations (where they existed) and in their place set up women’s organizations that were generally docile auxiliaries of the state.

As the global economic crisis worsened in 2007 and 2008 and the state scrambled to bolster economic growth, the “state feminisms” that underwrote the developmental agenda of the regime narrowed around economic development, secularization and regime re-entrenchment. Women who had previously occupied a broad spectrum of political and civil-society positions found themselves operating in an increasingly tethered discursive field, faced with an institutionalized fear of the region-wide rise of conservative Islam. Women’s groups that did not support the government’s agenda, those who leaned too far to the right or left, or those that tackled issues outside the approved reach of the government (too radical, too Islamic, too critical) found themselves tyrannized by the authorities or co-opted into the larger “feminist agenda” through various women’s organizations.

Secular human rights and civil society activists, political opposition members and journalists such as Sihem Bensedrine (detained for six weeks without charges, assaulted and reportedly tortured in prison in 2001 and 2002), Souhayr Belhassen (vice president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, exiled for five years and then attacked by police at the airport upon her return from Europe in 2003) and Maya Jribi (leader of the Progressive Democratic Party, subjected to police harassment, assault and phone tapping from 2006 onward), suffered the state’s increasing paranoia. Additionally, reportedly more than 3,000 “Islamists” were jailed under Ben Ali’s 2003 anti-terrorism law, many of whom had been identified as political opponents to the regime.

In addition to helping control the domestic political scene, women’s rights became an avenue for the regime to find favour with the so-called democratization agenda of the international donor community (especially the US and France). Compliance with gender conditionalities – such as creating dedicated national machineries inside the state to monitor gender equality, or increasing women’s political representation through gender quotas – represented a relatively soft option for President Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, instead of moving towards more genuine democratic participation and a social justice agenda. Progress on women’s rights issues were thus deployed as a democratic façade of a non-democratic regime.

An important but curious note, too, is the increasing religiosity of many younger Tunisian women. In vivid contrast to their hard-line secular mothers and grandmothers, during the last decade scores of young Tunisian women have turned to conservative religious beliefs, evidenced by changes in both dress and self-proclaimed piety. Snowballing numbers of young women adopted the hijab, leading to a prolonged conflict with the government and police – authorities who have historically seen the headscarf as a regressive symbol of oppression tied closely to an Islamist agenda. Many women found an outlet for their political and social beliefs only after emigrating to Europe, where conservative women bloggers and religious schools have abounded. Yet because of the strongly secular nature of the Tunisian state, few women at home had found a political channel for their frustrations – effectively silencing a generation of religiously minded young women.

As Deniz Kandiyoti has written in her article Promise and Peril: women and the 'Arab spring', "Despite the autocratic implementation, women’s juridical rights were expanded and women’s public presence gained greater legitimacy under the banner of national development. Importantly, this process left behind cadres of educated, professional women active in women’s movements alongside older generations of diverse and savvy sisters, both religious and secular". “The men and women marching for democracy [in January] were all the children and grandchildren of women who had grown up with an education and a sense of their rights,” said Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a Tunisian psychiatrist who lives in Paris. “It’s no coincidence that the revolution first started in Tunisia, where we have a high level of education, a sizeable middle class and a greater degree of gender equality,” she said. “We had all the ingredients of democracy but not democracy itself. That just couldn’t last.”

Women were ready for the Arab Spring, but the transition would not prove so easy for them.

This is the first part of a three part article. (Read parts two and three.)


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About the author

Kristine Goulding is a research analyst at the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) working on Gender and Development. A former Fulbright scholar, she writes on gender-egalitarian policy changes, women's political participation and gender politics in North Africa and the Middle East.