Tunisia: Arab Spring, Islamist Summer

Tunisia has voted in the first open and fair election in the region. In part two of a three part article Kristine Goulding warns against framing Islamism in direct opposition to women's rights. The Arab Spring redefined the roles of both women and the Islamist al-Nahda, and the two cannot be seen as mutually exclusive

Kristine Goulding
25 October 2011

This is the second part of a three part article. (Read parts one and three.)

The Arab Spring

As Ben Ali’s regime first teetered and then toppled, women were on the front lines of the struggle as protesters, journalists, Tweeter, bloggers, and workers. Images of women wrapped in the Tunisian flag, women standing face-to-face with armed security forces, and women shouting and singing pro-democracy slogans went viral in the days leading up to Ben Ali’s flight. “This is our country, this is our revolution”, Tweeted one woman in Sfax. As posters of Ben Ali were torn down across the country, so too were the old preconceptions of Arab women as subservient, deferential and subjugated. “Women massively participated in the [Jasmine] uprising to make sure their demands would be taken into account, that they would get to be represented in post-revolutionary political institutions,” says Souhayr Belhassen, former VP of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) and current president of the International Federation for Human Rights. The Arab Spring seemed to hold the key to bringing women’s freedoms to the forefront of a new political agenda.

But as the revolutionary dust cleared, women and their interests were nowhere to be seen. Only two women were appointed to the 19-member interim government, a far smaller percentage than under ex-president Ben Ali. The subsequent reshufflings did nothing to correct this imbalance – two women out of 23 – and the Independent Electoral Commission charged with organizing the 23 October election had only two women out of 12 members. What had happened to the women’s revolution?

Due in part to the government’s historical co-optation of women’s movement, the Jasmine Revolution resulted in a vacuum of female leadership immediately following Ben Ali’s flight on 14 January. The majority of the women in the pre-revolution government were, by necessity, members of the president’s party and therefore tainted with the stain of Ben Ali’s politics. Summarily, large numbers were excluded from early bureaucratic processes. Women’s organizations that had benefited from massive state patronage floundered. When Leila Trabelsi fled, the Union Nationale de la Femme Tunisienne, the “First Lady’s union” and its activities fell into disarray. Restructuring and creating a new leadership base took time, and as a result there were markedly few female candidates appointed to the transitional government.

An early move to assuage doubts about the extent of Tunisians’ devotion to their history of women’s rights was a gender parity law, requiring equal numbers of women and men as candidates in the Constituent Assembly elections, decided on 11 April 2011 by the High Commission for the Realization of Revolutionary Goals, Political Reforms and Democratic Transition. This coalition of more than 150 politicians and civil society actors was tasked with examining the laws related to political organization to keep with the demands of the revolution. The council also provided for the invalidation of the list if parity is not achieved. This radical move in essence guaranteed 50 percent female political participation, a fresh kind of revolution for women in the Arab world.

Granted, electoral gender quotas are hardly a new phenomenon in Tunisia. Ben Ali’s ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party earmarked 38 of the 152 parliament seats (25 percent) for female candidates in the 2004 elections. In 2005, the president increased the quota for women in local councils to 25 percent, and then nationally to 30 percent in 2009. Until 2011, Tunisia topped the Middle East with 27.6 percent female political representation. Only in the Nordic countries and Rwanda (due to radical quotas that have met with varying degrees of success) has such electoral gender parity been approached. While some countries in the region, notably Iraq, Mauritania, Morocco and Sudan have instituted different types of gender quotas, rates of participation have remained between 10 and 25 percent. Consequently, the new electoral quota in Tunisia will be radical not only in the region, but also globally.

Many Tunisian women chalked up the High Commission’s visionary quota system as one more victory of the revolution, and finally a sign that their rights have not been forgotten.

The Islamist Summer

Generally, political Islam and women’s rights have been posited at opposite ends of the compatibility spectrum. The game is zero sum: when Islamists profit, women lose, and vice versa. This mentality was bedrock in ex-president Ben Ali’s rabid rejection of Islamic political parties, and a primary justification for his iron-fisted policies to keep Islam out of politics. Needless to say, rumours of political Islamists returning to Tunisia raised the eyebrows of more than a few secular men and women.

From the early days of the protests, great speculation surrounded the influence that the Islamist party al-Nahda would exert in post-Ben Ali politics. Although the group played a very limited role in the revolution, the movement has gained strength and influence throughout Tunisia following Ben Ali’s flight and the triumphant return of exiled leader Rachid Ghannouchi. The astonishing speed with which the party’s popularity has grown posed a particular challenge to the post-revolutionary state and its women. A recent survey published by the market research firm Sigma Conseil found support for al-Nahda at just below 30 percent, almost three times that of its closest rival. Understandably, these results are frightening to secularists and women alike who fear for their place in the new Tunisia.

Inspired by the influential Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, al-Nahda is a pro-democracy moderate Islamist party. Some observers have compared to the Turkish AKP as an example of a new “soft” Islam, while others have even gone so far as to make comparisons to Christian Democratic parties in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. Al-Nahda historically was persecuted more because of its potential to challenge then-president Ben Ali’s ruling RCD than because of its religiously conservative beliefs (the group carried 17 percent of the votes in the 1989 election, in arguably the last “free” vote held in Tunisia).

This time around, the group is proving that their agenda is quite different and more centrist than other parties that share the branding of Islamist, including the ruling Islamists in Iran or even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Le Temps, reporting on al-Nahda’s politio-religious agenda, quoted Ghannouchi stating that Tunisia’s personal status code is derived from sharia (Islamic law), polygamy has been determined to be illegal, the hijab is a personal choice, and stoning and amputation cannot be carried out as punishments. Further, his party purportedly has no intention of challenging the country’s progressive family laws. Nevertheless, the group was instrumental in revoking the government’s prohibition on wearing headscarves in schools, universities and in national ID photos. Ghannouchi has described his party as “modernist … but with deep roots in its Arab-Islamic identity”, and reiterates that its programme emphasizes individual freedoms, the rule of law, good governance and combating corruption. Importantly, Ghannouchi has repeatedly made the claim that his party would “defend the gains made by Tunisian women” in response to mainstream fears about the compatibility of Islamism and women’s rights.

Yet after decades of harshly enforced political secularism, many Tunisians are understandably gun-shy of including an unknown, potentially unpredictable Islamist party in the upcoming elections. The question of how hard-line – and how trustworthy – al-Nahda will be worries critics, especially women. Feminists and ordinary citizen alike have expressed fear over what they call a “double discourse” – al-Nahda’s leaders saying one thing while the secularists and the West are listening, while imams in the mosques and local-level activists say and do very different things.

Perhaps in some cases this suspicion of al-Nahda is justified. Fringe Islamist groups linked to al-Nahda have expressed far more problematic and strict beliefs, especially the young Salafi group Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly proclaims its primary objective to be the formation of an Islamic Caliphate and the abolishment of political parties. This growth of fundamentalist Salafism puts al-Nahda in an awkward position, especially after the Salafists led demonstrations chanting bigoted and anti-Semitic slogans, and attacked liquor stores and unveiled women. The same Salafi group was linked to a 26 June attack on a cinema in Tunis that had advertised a film publicly titled in French “Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre” (No God, No Master) by Tunisian-French director Nadia El-Fani, an outspoken critic of political Islam. In the week before the election, police used tear gas and arrested dozen of self-proclaimed Islamists who attacked a Tunisian TV station that screened the film “Persepolis”. The day before, Islamist protesters stormed a university in Sousse after the headmaster refused to allow women wearing full-face veils to enrol in classes. The escalating violence is an outlet of frustration in the days leading up to the elections, and a means to bring attention to outlying radical groups whose parties were not legalized. However, even if these actions are not specifically sanctioned by Ghannouchi and his top tiers of leadership, it reflects poorly on the Islamist movement as a whole.

While al-Nahda’s leadership has distanced itself from the attacks, a knee-jerk phobia persists in the West and throughout the Middle East around the idea of an Islamist party campaigning in open and fair elections. Some fear the electoral process, which could rally more middle-ground supporters to the Islamist cause. Others fear the electoral results, in which an Islamist agenda could compromise the advances made in women’s rights. Still others worry that al-Nahda’s leadership, who have postponed internal elections until after the national election, will be replaced by more conservative and polarizing upstarts.

Yet despite the controversy, al-Nahda has what scores of other political parties do not: a post-election plan for Tunisia. In general, the party values pragmatism over ideology, market liberalism over protectionism and democracy over autocracy. Further, one of the reasons why al-Nahda finds such support among ordinary Tunisians is that the party speaks to the real economic problems that people face, such as exploitive or short-term work contracts, or a lack of seed capital to start new businesses. A small business owner in Beja indicated his support for Ghannouchi exclusively because of the pragmatic plans for entrepreneurs that he had heard of from al-Nahda party representatives. “If it’s the Islamists who can help me build up my business after it was burned [by protesters in January], then they are the ones who can help this country out of the bad situation of the moment. What other choice do I see?”

The real problem with the influx of political Islam is the degree to which women will have the power to shape future discussions. Al-Nahda has been tight-lipped regarding their draft constitution and what rights they hope to include – or exclude – and for whom. Combined with highly publicized attacks on female protesters and even guileless students, such behaviour fuels the rumours that once in power al-Nahda will seek to curb, reinterpret or undermine the freedoms of women. And now that the group has pulled so far ahead in the polls, this pressing issue will have to be addressed head-on. To win the hearts and minds of the sceptics, al-Nahda will have to prove that its agenda is more than just empty words thrown into a confused and uncertain arena. If it cannot do so, the party risks further exacerbating pre-existing political polarization and collapsing trust across all political classes, which could cripple both the Tunisian public and the state just as democratic transition is at hand.

This is the second part of a three part article. (Read parts one and three.)

To read related articles in openDemocracy50.50's debates click on Religion Gender Politics - prospects for gender equality and pluralism and Our Africa - a changing continent through women's eyes





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