Feminism in Tunisia: brutal hijacking, elitism and exclusion

The feminist movement in Tunisia has been a victim of brutal hijacking, exploitation, and politicization which has fragmented its foundation.

Chouaib ElHajjaji
14 September 2018
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NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Women’s rights activism in Tunisia have been glorified and portrayed as a success for all the women in the Arab world, however, many observers are intentionally turning a blind eye to what is wrong with feminism and women’s rights activism in Tunisia. Feminism in Tunisia has certain characteristics that shape that activism space. The ruling of elite women activists can be considered one. The exclusion of the majority of women from that space has turned women’s rights activism into a platform for VIP women only to voice their demands while excluding others. Another major characteristic would be the male’s hegemony over the women’s contributions and the neglect of the women’s struggle for their rights, along with many other issues that haven’t been addressed by feminists.  

History repeats itself

On August 13, 1956, the first president of the republic Habib Bourgiba delivered a celebrated speech in which he paid tribute to the effective role of Tunisian women in the Tunisian revolution. He then declared the issuance of The Code of Personal Status (CPS). Many saw Bourgiba’s changes as a mimic act of other liberal political figures such as Tahar Haddad and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk that is not inspired by women’s long- path struggle in Tunisia.

The CPS was celebrated as a Bourgiba’s achievement, ignoring the female activists who fought for these laws. School history books rarely mention names such as Bchira Ben Mrad, Radhia Haddad, and Manoubia Ouertani, but instead, it’s  Bourgiba who is celebrated as the women’s “saviour” and “liberator”.

Ben Ali followed his predecessor’s footsteps and had also a hard stance on Hijab

These Liberal reforms had also created fractions in women’s solidarity in Tunisia. The image of Bourgiba removing the headscarf of a woman to “liberate her” had led to the alienation of a large number of women, who consider the headscarf to be an essential part of their identity from the public sphere.


Bourgiba removing the headscarf of a female citizen. Attribution-NonCommercial.

Ben Ali followed his predecessor’s footsteps and had also a hard stance on Hijab, banning it from all institution to show his western allies his commitment to secularism and democracy, as to many westerners the Hijab was a sign of oppression and radicalism.

In the attempt of creating a legacy, Essebsi had taken a short path through supporting women’s rights. But the same politician who had vowed to protect and respect women’s rights, in an event on 13th of August, had dismissed Meherzia Maïza Labidi (the first Vice-President of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia) for criticizing him. His misogynistic response to her accusation was that “she is just a woman”, what would she know.  However, these are not the only times he had exhibited misogynistic behaviour, he had previously stated that women who wear the Niqab should never leave their homes and compared them to crows.

Hijacking women’s success

Bourgiba, who ceased all the branches of the government under his control expanded his action to merge the three main women’s rights movements into a single entity called the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), which he used to frame his government as a progressive modern one to impress the west. As a result, he killed the grassroots movement and turned it into a government sponsored one.  Ilhem Marzouki, a Tunisian Feminist Activist, commented on this by saying that “the women are being used for aims that are in contradiction with their own interests and those of their female citizens.”

Fast forwards to recent times, 12 June 2018, The Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee created by the president of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi on 13 August 2017, released its report knows as “Le rapport COLIBE”. The report calls for a law granting woman equal heritage rights, and the parliament now has to decide on the future bill.

Beji Caid Essebsi, with the commission he launched, is not looking to abandon this tradition of hijacking. In addition to his hopes of leaving a legacy behind him, the proposition of commission and the idea of equal inheritance, came right before the municipal elections, in the aim for more secular support to his movement to win over their biggest rival the Islamist party (Ennahdha), the latter could lose the votes of its conservative base if it aligns with the new proposition. At the same, if it chooses not approve of the new proposition, the party would lose the backing of the western institution and democracies that regard it as progressive Islamic willing to make changes.

The Erasure of Black Women

The feminist movement in Tunisia has been victim to brutal hijacking, exploitation, and politicization which has fragmented its foundation.

The feminist movement in Tunisia has been a victim of brutal hijacking, exploitation, and politicization which has fragmented its foundation. Indeed, different feminists had to leave or disappear as they no longer felt welcome in a movement that no longer represents them.

Therefore, the platform for “mainstream feminism” in Tunisia has kept this ritual of “elitism” consciously or unconsciously.

It is evident that the “Feminist scene” has been dominated by women with college degrees, aligned with liberal politics and the government’s politics and now following the government’s vision of  what I call “Light Feminism”, where feminism only serves women with specific socio-economic background and education.  This is apparent by looking at the women’s activism scene in Tunisia and the representatives of women in different conferences.  

Black Tunisian Women have been deeply affected by this “selectivity”. Black woman, even if they were able to attain a high socio-economic status, are still excluded from feminist platforms.

Maha Abdelhamid, a Tunisian PhD student and researcher in Social Geography based in France said “We never get invited to conferences or forums on feminism, there’s no representation of us”. However, Black female activists have been vocal regarding this issues and even approached other Tunisian Feminists urging them to address this matter. Unfortunately, their attempts were met with indifference.

Attempting to bring attention to this issue, Abdelhamid, repeatedly posted on social media about the problem of racism and aggression against black females, only to be ignored and dismissed. “We don’t have racism in Tunisia” a counterargument widely used in Tunisia.

Saadia Mosbah, Founder of Mnemty, an association devoted to combating racism in the Tunisian society and a black female activist, recalls when she approached a prominent feminist who is a member of the Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality with the issue of the exclusion of black feminists. The first replied by saying “You [black women] will have your own law”, referring to an anti-discrimination law that is awaiting approval by the parliament.

To address black Tunisian women as “others” who need their “own law” to combat sexism is very problematic. If we look up the word “Black” in this much-celebrated COLIBE report, there is “no matching items”.

Despite the unwelcoming environment, Mosbah, never misses feminist manifestos in Tunisia “We need to remind them of our existence”, she said.

The black people in Tunisia are not just excluded from women’s activism, but also neglected in different areas. This mainly comes from the lack of knowledge on their needs for representation. The National Institute of Statistics (Institut national de la statistique (INS)) stated that numbers of Black Tunisian, regardless of their age, gender and other parameters are not known, but it is estimated that black people represent 10% of the Tunisian society, while other sources indicate 15%.

This glorious manifesto of feminism (COLIBE) supposedly calling for equality for women with men, had dismissed equality of black Tunisian women with their non-black women.

It looks like black feminists have to deal with another form of discrimination based on color and not gender, and this time the discriminators are other Tunisian women.

“It is not for us, rural women”

Sixty-year-old Mariam has lived in Siliana Governorate, an agricultural governorate, most of her life, said that “feminism is not for women like us, the women of rural areas.” Most workers in the agricultural field are women, their percentage surpasses 70% of the total workforce. The majority of women working in fields receive the minimum wages, with no social or health insurances and or a prospect of change in the near future. These women don’t just feel they underrepresented but also feel they’ve been hugely neglected by women activists.

These women face dangers in workplace, ranging from lack of attention to their health to work injuries. Unofficial numbers show that 10% of female workers have been victims of work-related accidents and almost 63% of them are working in very tough conditions. The old and over used vehicles that can easily turn over or break down is an example of dangers at workplace. Some even called it the death vehicles.

And while some demands are voiced by launching initiatives and projects by the Ministry of Women in Tunisia, other substantial needs are ignored. Life is not getting easier for women in rural areas, the lack of sanitary pads for girls and women prevents them from going to schools, they end up dropping out of schools and joining the labor market as either farmers or domestic worker, aged only 10 years in some cases.

Mariam confirmed these living situations and said “women activists remember us only on women’s day, and then they leave us alone to suffer.”

Illusions and fractions

Government sponsored feminism often praises itself for empowering women in education and employment, but the numbers don’t add up. Reports show that 40% of women with a college degree are still unemployed; this figure reaches up to 70% in some regions. Overall female unemployment has reached 22.7%, almost double the figure of male counterparts (12.5%).

This is not due to lack of educational attainment, indeed, in 2014, 67% of college degrees holders were women, while 57% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees are given to women.

But when employed, a woman earns on average 271% less than a man. This is due to the lack of funding that is given to female entrepreneurs, sexist work environment, and other factors, that should have been given attention by feminists in Tunisia.

With accumulating alienation, fractions in the women solidarity scene have become very visible. Nothing shows this more the recent protests in Tunisia, where a numerous women on the 11th of August, protested against “Le rapport COLIBE” calling it an attack on Tunisian values, religious teachings, while others questioned its timing (using it as a distraction as the country is going through economic instability and austerity). While the 13th of August, another group of women went to protest in favor of the report and its fundamental part in the creation of the second Tunisian republic. Both sides used social media to defend their opinions, which represented the perfect opportunity for trolls to spread propaganda and chaos.

With 230 pages report, full of academic language and legal texts, which takes a considerable time to deconstruct and comprehend, the public decided to follow unofficial summaries provided by different parties or shared on social media platforms. As a result, both groups were misguided by fake news about the report.

Feminists in Tunisia have achieved multiple milestones in their path to guarantee full equality between women and men. Nonetheless, the feminist scene should be more examined in depth, with a focus on grassroots approach. At the same time, there should be a call for more intersectionality in order to be inclusive on the one hand and treat women’s critical issues in a more holistic and sustainable way.

It is the time for Tunisian to collaborate and strengthen their movement. Otherwise, the pursuit of equality will reach a dead end road.

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