This article gives a voice to female participants in the Tunisian Spring by recounting women’s participation in these uprisings, their demands, and their assessment of the post-revolutionary era in terms of gains and/or loss of rights for women in particular and for their fellow citizens in general.
Thus, I conducted interviews with the blogger Lina Ben Mhenni who participated in the uprisings as one of the leaders, and with Fatiha Hizem who participated in the Revolution as a board member of the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD), an organization working in the field of women’s rights.
Lina Ben Mhenni (1983 - )
Journalist and English Professor at the University of Tunis, Lina Ben Mhenni began composing her blog Tunisian Girl in 2007 (Mhenni, 2007). Already at this time, Ben Mhenni criticized the dictatorial regime and corrupt government of Zine Abiddine Ben Ali.
Lina Ben Mhenni and the Revolution
When the street vendor Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid on Decmeber 17th, 2010, Ben Mhenni visited the Tunisian city. As the popular protests erupted, she documented the events by photographing the victims of police brutality and by conducting interviews with their families.
Ben Mhenni did the same in Kasserine and Regueb when the protests spread to these regions. She subsequently posted the images and the information gathered from the victims’ families on her blog and shared them with the foreign media. In fact, during the Tunisian Revolution, Ben Mhenni acted as a volunteer correspondent for the international media, including France 2 and France 24.
Ben Mhenni’s blog proved to be an effective tool. Via her blog, she informed protestors about dates and locations of future sit-ins, meetings, and demonstrations. Ben Mhenni expressed her thoughts on civil liberties, human rights, and gender equality.
Indeed, if Tunisian women enjoy more rights than other Arab women, they do not enjoy full equality of rights with Tunisian men. For instance, inequality of inheritance rights persists to this day. That said, following the advent of the post-colonial State in 1956, Tunisian women achieved substantial legal rights including the abolition of polygamy, the right to divorce and the abortion right in 1973.
Mhenni was not the only female participant in the Tunisian spring. In fact, women of all social classes participated at all levels of the Revolution. For instance, female doctors tended to the wounded despite the government imposed prohibition, female lawyers denounced violations of the human rights of protestors and the population, young women, regular participants in the demonstrations, used twitter to forward information about the protests, and housewives cooked food for the protesters.
Absence of feminist claims and demands for women
Contrary to what one may expect, and despite women’s active participation in the Revolution, no claims for gender equality were made. In fact, the Revolution’s adherents limited their claims to the three following demands: work, dignity, and liberty. This may be because women tend to believe that the law already protects them and that the advent of a lawful state will naturally result in equality between the genders.
Only once the Revolution ended did women begin to make public demands for gender equality. In the streets, women carried signs proclaiming “sawa-sawa”, or “equal-equal”, because the post-revolutionary period and the subsequent rise to power of Rached Ghanouchi, leader of the Islamist party En-Nahda, illustrated to women the fragility of the status of their acquired rights. Indeed, despite identifying as a modernist, Ghanouchi has nonetheless made public statements threatening women’s existing rights, including his intention to reintroduce polygamy and charia law (Islamic law) into Tunisian legislation; discrimination against women being one of charia law’s main features.
Assessment of the Revolution’s results and its consequences for women. The results of the Revolution, and its impact on women, remain uncertain. The Prime Minister seeks to reassure the populace, but has nonetheless announced his intention to revise the Code of Personal Status. Moreover, pro-Islamist groups openly challenge women’s rights, particularly women’s abortion rights, and have perpetrated violent attacks against women’s rights activists and unveiled women.
However, discrimination against women in Tunisia must be situated within the larger national democratic context. The impact of the Revolution on citizens as a whole remains uncertain. The Revolution resulted in little socio-economic progress and failed to contribute to improvements in civil liberties. Also, as the results of the peaceful demonstration on April 9, 2012 show, there appears to have been a return to police repression and brutality.
Lawsuits against journalists have also become prevalent, as was the result for journalist Neji Khachnaoui after he criticized the impunity of individuals who gained their wealth through corruption. If anything, the government has succeeded only in creating an identity problem in Tunisia and in dividing Tunisians between Islamists and secular Muslims.
Despite these disappointing results, Tunisians are not likely to regret their involvement in the Revolution and the non-tangible impact the uprisings had on the collective: the right to freedom of expression, confidence in the strength of a people, and first-hand experience of the democratic process. Those who voted for the current government will learn to distinguish between extremist groups and democratic groups. Civil society remains a significant presence in Tunisia, and most feel confident that democracy will triumph, as Fatiha Hizem’s subsequent testimony reveals.
Spokesperson for the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD), Fatiha Hizem explains that the ATFD was established in 1989 for the purpose of overcoming patriarchal oppression and achieving women’s full citizenship using an alternative discourse and approach (AFFD, 1989). The ATFD campaigns for gender equality, democracy, secularism, and social justice.
The ATFD and the Tunisian Revolution. According to Fatiha Hizem, Tunisian women participated as members of several different organizations including the ATFD, the Association des Femmes Tunisienne pour la Recherche et le Développement, and the Tunisian General Labour Union.
The ATFD’s struggle against the repressive and ultraliberal politics of Ben Ali’s government intensified after the death of Bouazizi. The organization regularly hosted thousands of protestors at its headquarters in Tunis and organized sit-ins, meetings, and demonstrations.
Similar organizations assisted women in Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, and Kairouan to demonstrate en masse in the streets. Needless to say, the advent of democracy and social justice impacts women directly. Poverty acted as a motivating factor in mobilizing crowds in Tunisia. Women, more likely than men to be stricken by this devastating problem, suffered severely as a result of the ultraliberal politics of the deposed regime.
The regime’s policies, coupled with the patriarchal structure of Tunisian society, resulted in the unfortunate feminization of poverty. Indeed, women tend to have less education and degrees than men do, are paid less than their male counterparts, and often work in the economy’s most precarious sectors where there is an absence, or a near absence, of unions.
In addition to organizing sit-ins, meetings, and demonstrations, the ATFD published news releases and performed interviews with the foreign media to inform Tunisians and the international community about the Revolution’s progress.
Women’s demands following the Revolution. Initially, the ATFD limited its demands to the immediate cessation of violence against the population and to the removal of Ben Ali from office. On January 29, 2011, however, the ATFD organized a women’s demonstration at the capital to make demands for gender equality and the right of women to fully enjoy their citizenship. During the demonstration, pro-Islamist groups attacked the protestors. Identifying themselves as representatives of charia, the attackers demanded that the women “return to their kitchens,” “occupy themselves with their children,” and accused the protestors of “taking the place of men at work.”
Women, including members of the ATFD, presented claims to the post-revolutionary government for the purpose of securing their established rights. They demanded the constitutionalization of women’s right, as advocated by article 1 of the “Constitution of Equality and Citizenship,” women’s organizations working paper:
The State guarantees full and effective equality between women and men in rights and duties in all public and private areas, particularly both within and outside of the family. There can be no discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, region, political opinion, language, wealth, marital status, and ability, regardless of the origin of the discrimination whether from public authorities, groups, or individuals.
Furthermore, Article 3 of the Constitution outlines the responsibility of the State vis-à-vis women:
The State guarantees the respect of the physical, moral, and sexual integrity of all citizens, and protects women against violence perpetrated against them, whether physical, moral or sexual, regardless of the reasons and origins of the violence, and regardless of the space from which the violence is exercised.
Finally, the ATFD met with the President of the Republic and the President of Constituent Assembly to sensitize them about issues related to gender inequality and to invite them to constitutionalize women’s rights.
Unfortunately, while the Assembly has been working for several months, the ATFD has yet to be invited to express its demands. Because numerous organizations have attended Assembly meetings for the purpose of presenting their views, the ATFD suspects the Assembly of deliberately excluding them from the process of drafting the Constitution.
Assessment of the Revolution’s results and its consequences for women. It may be too early to declare with certainty whether the Revolution in Tunisia resulted in a gain and/or loss of rights for women and other citizens.
One may argue that the results are mixed. On the one hand, women and women’s rights activists suffer harassment as a result of the religious discourse of pro-Islamists and of the Islamist party currently in power. Attacks against artists, journalists, human rights defenders, and women’s rights activists have multiplied. Moreover, the attack perpetrated against young girls in swimsuits at Hamamate beach in summer 2011 has forced women to question whether they can go to a beach and swim without risk. The lax response of the State to these attacks and threats has not been reassuring.
On the other hand, the Revolution represents both tangible and non-tangible gains. First, Tunisians won the right to freedom of expression. Citizens now know that they can mobilize and express themselves in the streets. Second, the electoral law that stipulates that electoral lists must have alternating parity represents a substantial gain for women. Even if today the majority of female members of the Constituent Assembly (60 of 217 members are women) fail to advocate forcefully for the feminist project, such a law nonetheless assists the ATFD, and women in general, to work towards greater equality in the future.
January 30, 2013