Features | “They won’t touch our rights”

The intersection of Islam, feminism, and democracy

It’s late afternoon on October 24, 2011, the day after Tunisia’s first ever democratic election, and I’m sitting in the lobby of a swanky German-owned hotel in suburban Tunis, looking out on the Mediterranean with my friend Yasmine.* Preliminary election results are trickling in, and she’s started chain smoking and sending dagger-like stares at everyone in our vicinity. “As I see it, right now I have two choices,” she says. “I can either leave the country, because I am lucky enough to be able to do that, or I can stay here and be one of the first people killed by the new regime. If they win, I will have no choice but to become militant, I will have no choice but to take the streets, I will have to start the second revolution.”

The “they” she is talking about is Ennadha, (“Renaissance” in English), a political party billed by its supporters as moderate Islamists. They gained over 40 percent of the seats in the upcoming National Constitutional Assembly (NCA); the next closest  party won just over 13 percent. Although the NCA is only an interim body, Ennadha’s  grand task is to redesign the Tunisian legal framework. This will demand working alongside others to draft a constitution and a new body of law, and to determine the procedures for choosing a president, prime minister, and subsequent parliaments.

“I will not wear the fucking veil,” Yasmine continues. “I will not be some fatass’s fucking third wife – no one tells me what to do.” I like Yasmine. However, I have to admit, I don’t quite know how to respond.

Yasmine’s choice of words may have been a bit dramatic, but she was not alone in her confusion and disappointment. From the fragile Libyan border to the edge of the Sahara to the Mediterranean port cities, neighbours turned to neighbours to question the election results, and to discuss a shifting Tunisian identity. For many women in Tunisia, Ennadha’s decisive victory has led to fears that their long-protected rights, unique in the Arab world, would be rolled back.

However, based on the political environment that has reigned in the weeks following the election, these concerns appear preemptive, even rather unfounded. On the streets of Tunis, you can easily end up in line with a woman in the full niqab, but you also frequently dodge packs of giggling girls in skinny jeans and mini skirts, or brush past a business woman in a power suit and heels.

While many Tunisians are intrigued by the idea of Islamic politics, it appears that above all they are interested in a Tunisian flavour of Islamic politics. Although what this would look like in practice remains to be seen, the mandate from the street remains clear – Ennadha must work with others, they must represent the people, and they must not repeal women’s rights. To understand why, you have to look back at the development of Tunisia’s domestic political culture, and its historical legacy in the region.

As a small nation perched strategically at the top of Africa, Tunisia provides a natural crossroads for European and Middle Eastern interests. From the days of Hannibal and the Carthegenians – whose empire was centered in Tunisia – until now, Tunisian society has been comprised of shifting groups and transient populations. This has left the country with a deep legacy of tolerance and cohabitation. When Tunisia gained its independence from France (in a mostly bloodless transition), the new country contained thriving and intermingled populations of Arabs, Jews, and French Catholics, among other groups.

With the end of French colonial rule in 1956, and the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, many Jews and Europeans left for Europe, North America, and Israel. Over the subsequent decades, a subtle wave of Arabization took place, and the Tunisian political spectrum again shifted to better reflect the composition and views of its populace, which now strongly sympathized with the Arab cause.

According to Khedija Arfauoi, a member of Tunisian feminist group AFTURD and a researcher of gender studies based in Tunis, the current wave of relative conservatism has roots in this period. “I believe it started as a reaction against the West for its strong support to Israel against the Palestinian people. It was a reaction against colonialism and injustice,” she said. “This conservatism has been in the country since the 1970s, but it was repressed by both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.”

Here, she was referring to independent Tunisia’s first and second presidents, whose policies of aggressive, state-led, secular feminism led to the repression of more conservative voices for decades. The most famous – or notorious, depending on your perspective – document from this era was the Code of Personal Status created the year of Tunisia’s independence. It has provided women with an impressively liberal set of rights, including legal abortions, marriage and divorce by mutual consent, universal suffrage, and an enforced ban on polygamy. The brainchild of Habib Bourguiba, a  French-educated secularist and Tunisia’s first president, the Code was unique to the Arab world.

But while many believe he created the Code in good faith, there is also speculation that he harboured other political motives. At the time, Bourguiba was attempting to court and please the West – especially France, Tunisia’s former colonizer. And domestically, the Code’s protection of women served to disempower Bourguiba’s greatest critics – tribal leaders and religious conservatives. Whether or not the principles enshrined in the Code reflect Tunisia’s national character in the 1950s, then, is debatable.

After 55 years, they have been fused into Tunisian society and are now vehemently defended as distinctly Tunisian. But despite legal equality, the social marginalization of women is still incredibly prevalent in the country. Although most women agree that they should have the same standing as men in the eyes of the law, different interpretations and gradients of Islamic belief have left Tunisian women divided on how – or even if they should – tackle sexism and constraining social expectations.

Indeed, until this year’s revolution, many Tunisians experienced the Tunisian brand of state secularism as a kind of leviathan, actively punishing religious expression. The state discriminated against veiled women – police were known to enter public primary schools and order girls to take their hijabs off. And the general secularist sentiment meant that public figures who dared to speak about the intermingling of religion and the state were persecuted. Many members of Ennahda were among those arrested and often tortured by security forces under Borguiba and his successor, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The most prominent example of this is Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder and current head of Ennadha, who was tortured for years in Tunisian prisons before escaping to England in 1988, only returning to Tunisia after the revolution.

At the same time as the ills of state secularism have been largely remedied, worries have surfaced that reinvigorated conservative forces are attempting to fundamentally alter the fabric of Tunisian society – and especially the space it allocates for women. This fear springs from the fact that, even in little Tunisia, the dissemination of Bourguiba-era principles often proved logistically difficult. Many rural and nomadic communities remained largely untouched by the ideology of the state. In poor areas, children of both genders struggled to access public education, though girls had an especially tough time. As recently as 2008, 18 per cent fewer women in Tunisia were literate than men, according to UNICEF.. In many areas of the country, the combination of low levels of education, high levels of religiosity, and isolation from the rest of the country led to many votes for Ennadha. Thus, as the old political order was swept aside this winter, the old tug-of-war between aggressive state protection of women’s rights and persistent conservativism sprung back to life, pitting sectors of Tunisian society against each another.

The Tunisian revolution started with a man and a match. On December 17, 2010, 26-year-old produce vendor Mohammed Bouazizi covered himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished city in central Tunisia. His protest was motivated by his own chronic under-employment and frustration after a confrontation with a local police woman earlier that day. Upon telling Bouazizi that he needed a permit to set up his produce cart – a blatant attempt to receive a bribe, as no permits are required for street vendors in Sidi Bouzid – an argument ensued, which ended when the police woman reportedly slapped Bouazizi in front of a crowd of spectators.

Numerous aspects of the incident – Bouazizi’s frustrating plight, the corruption of state agents, and the perceived humiliation of a woman slapping a man in public – added insult to injury. In the ensuing weeks, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest everything from unemployment to state corruption, and soon demanded Ben Ali’s resignation. Bouazizi died in the hospital on January 4, 2011, and Ben Ali’s government fell just ten days later.


Since January, Tunisian political culture has been chaotically overhauled and reinvented. New norms regarding freedom of speech and freedom of organization have created something of an “insta-political culture.” From the guys who hang out all day at cafes on Avenue Bourguiba in downtown Tunis to intellectuals in the halls of universities to cleaning women, seemingly everyone is talking about the country’s future. It feels like everyone has a Facebook account (or multiple Facebook accounts), and is regularly consuming news on their newsfeeds and posting articles and tidbits from internet cafes and wifi hotspots. The fear of informants and secret police that prompted people to whisper when they talked politics is gone. Walking down the street, it is impossible to escape debates, conversations, and headlines about any and all details of “the new Tunisia.” However, while the discourse is thriving, it is still saturated with rumour, speculation, and strong emotion. In other words, the environment is extremely combustible and people seem ready to leap back into protest at any moment to protect the spirit of the revolution.

Part of the reason for this persistent, nervous energy is that Tunisia wants so badly to be a success story – the little country that could. People are weary of letting anyone, Islamist or not, spoil their chances of success. So, when seats in the National Constituent Assembly (the body charged with drafting the new Tunisian constitution) were recently revoked due to shady accounting, and then reinstated after the electoral commission admitted that they had almost no evidence for the decision, everyone seemed ready to forget the scandal and move on.

Unsurprisingly, this political upheaval has served to unearth divisions that have been festering below the surface of Tunisian society for decades. Falling loosely along lines of class and ancestral lineage, a well-developed dichotomy of “us and them” has become more visible in recent months, separating those who hold greater allegiance to Europe from those who identify more strongly with the Middle East. However, while they may not agree on key policy points, their vision of Tunisian identity and its legacy of women’s right remains surprisingly similar.

The pro-Western bloc is largely made up of people in the higher tiers of society: professionals, intellectuals, and businesspeople. They tend to be wealthier, and occasionally foreign-educated. Many of them are functionally bilingual in Arabic and French (as opposed to just Arabic) and feel that, while Tunisia is now primarily made up of Arabs, it is not an Arab country in the vein of the Gulf States. In fact, many Tunisians are wary of Gulf countries, like Qatar, intervening in their affairs. Besides accusations that the Qataris are running weapons into North Africa, speculation exists that Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-based news network, is playing favourites amongst the Arab revolution in an effort to dispose of regimes they don’t care for.

Since the revolution, this pro-Western camp has vocally opposed growing signs of conservatism, such as the increased wearing of the niqab – they assert that is not a traditionally Tunisian garment and has no place in Tunisian society. They say increased access to the Arab media is the main purveyor of new culture to the Tunisian mainstream, beaming in shows via satellite from Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. This Western-oriented elite also point out that many people, young Ennadha supporters especially, do not know what it is like to live in a non-secular environment, and take much of what they have received in Tunisia for granted. As Arfaoui put it, “The young generations have always lived in a secular environment, although it has been slowly veiling itself for quite a few years now. They think that it is normal that there is no polygamy, and that the rights they have as women are granted. They may not [know] that we had needed a man like Habib Bourguiba, our first President after independence from the French to bring those changes.”

The other camp invests greater importance in Tunisia’s connections to the Arab world. By and large, they are not opposed to the entrance of Islam into politics, as it is part of their daily life and practice. In the Tunisian context, the support for political Islam is also a mild anti-Western statement, somewhere along the lines of, “we can fend for ourselves thanks; take your influence elsewhere.” Meriem,* a 32-year-old professor of engineering and Ennadha supporter, described her support as stemming from Ennadha’s overall message in an email: “They won’t touch our rights and they will make the society better. Every woman thinks like a mother. We think about the future generations. Women and I personally think that Ennahdha is the best for the future generation, for my future children and for the future society. They care about the poor. They care about our identity. We are Tunisia. We are Muslim and Arabs. We are open to Europe, but some of the European habits do not fit our society and can harm us.”

Indeed, many believe that, on election day, it was women who gave Ennadha the final push towards their overwhelming victory, although there’s no reliable polling data on the matter. In fact, in the National Constituent Assembly, the Islamist party will have more female representatives than any other party, including the pantsuit-wearing, hijab-less Suad Abdel-Rahim. (Granted, some secularists maintain that Ennadha is using these women as fronts for a hidden, anti-woman agenda).

It’s easy to oversimplify the reasons so many women gravitated towards Ennadha, but any plausible explanation is full of nuance. Many women have indeed become more overtly religious (in line with trends throughout the Middle East in past decades), and do not see Islam as a threat to their livelihoods or in any way mutually exclusive to politics. But, in Tunisia, a vote for Ennadha is not just an attempt to become the next Saudi Arabia or Iran. “The history of our country was always related somehow to women’s achievment,” Meriem writes. “Carthage was built by Elissa. The ‘Kahina’ was a Berber queen that fought against Muslims in the 8th century. In the modern era, Tunisia women acquired many rights that made us proud as a nation: right to vote, right to work. Even though the Tunisia society has a male dominance, the Tunisian women proved that they deserve a place in all domains, and we earned every inch of freedom that we have today. Women are free and emancipated compared to our fellow sisters in other neighbour nations.”

In a way, after years of repression and authoritarian governance, supporting Islamic politics is both reactionary and revolutionary. Now, Ennadha is doing double duty, as both the old underdog and the emerging political leader. As the primary opposition party, they also had arguably the best name recognition in the dizzying field of 116 parties and coalitions. And, like Islamist parties elsewhere that have spent decades furtively organizing underground, Ennadha has an enormous party infrastructure. Many suspect that they received the most campaign donations from private donors of any Tunisian party, both nationally and from abroad.

However, Ennadha was also the subject of the largest numbers of complaints during the campaign, including allegations of vote buying with items such as cigarettes, phone cards, and straight-up cash. Independent election monitors (one of which I volunteered for) received reports that Ennadha attempted to sway illiterate voters in districts all over the country. These accusations have seriously damaged Ennadha’s already tenuous credibility. Ennadha’s margin of victory was substantial, but it may have been more a matter of luck and circumstance than people realize.

So what does Ennadha’s rise tell us about the future of women in Tunisia? Some left-leaning Tunisians were quick to jump on the Ennadha victory as a cataclysm for Tunisian women. They worry that Ennadha will attempt to write certain clauses into the constitution that either limit the rights of citizens or keep the party in power for longer than was originally stipulated.

But there is no strong indication that Ennadha’s intentions lie in limiting the rights of women, or that they would be able to do so if they tried. The political will is simply not there. And while that might not have mattered a year ago, political will is now undoubtedly the most important and vehemently defended currency in Tunisian society. The only thing that most Tunisians can agree on is that their government must design a new state using legal frameworks that maintains rights, especially those of women.

A number of days after the election, I came home from school to find my 11-year-old host sister smiling and eating her afterschool snack in the kitchen. “We’re moving to France!” she told me excitedly. The daughter of a businessman and a gynecologist, both educated in France, she had been privy to her parents’ conversations about the potential ills posed by Ennadha. “Yeah, we’re moving to France because Ennadha won and they are going to make us all wear the veil. It’s gonna be awesome, but don’t worry, it’s not until after you leave.” I smiled and laughed politely.

This was neither the first nor the last time I heard this threat – everyone on the left seems to be spouting something of the sort since the election. But the repetition only led me to reflect on how Ennadha’s election should really come as no surprise. While Tunisian feminism and political thought was repressed and guided by the state since the 1950s, it did not stop evolving. Just as Tunisians have adopted their own stances on politics and religious practice, and a version of Tunisian feminism that is not at odds with Islamic belief has emerged. As Meriem notes, “We made a revolution to push the country forward and not to pull it back. The women[’s] status should be confirmed and we should add more privileges and rights to women also. A big work should be done to get the society aware of women’s right.”

So I wouldn’t pack my bags just yet. While society is undeniably becoming more conservative, there seems to be very little interest in letting anyone inhibit anyone else’s rights. And while Ennadha is respected by many, they are now charged with the task of earning the trust of many Tunisians. To be successful in the future, they will have to prove that they understand the views and desires of the people, and will undoubtedly fight against better-organized and consolidated political opposition. As of yet, Yasmine has not moved to France, nor has she taken up arms to fight for her right to wear miniskirts. But she is ready, and she, like millions of other Tunisian woman, is watching.

*Names have been changed.

Sarah Kerr is a U3 Joint Honours Political Science and International Development student. She is spending her final semester studying abroad in Tunis, Tunisia with Portland State University (OR) and volunteering for an independent election observation mission. All views expressed in this piece are her own.