By Sarah Mersch
Women were a key force
in the popular protests that toppled Tunisia's government last year and kicked
off the Arab Spring. But now many Tunisian women worry that the new government
may want to turn back the clock.
Women were a
conspicuous force when Tunisians took to the streets in 2010-11 to oust former
president Zine El Albine Ben Ali. But when Ben Ali stepped down on January 14,
2011, it opened up new debates about the role of women in Tunisia.
independence from France in 1956, Tunisia was one of the most progressive
countries in the Arab world in terms of women's status. Women were quickly
given the right to divorce and vote. In 1981, in a move to combat what was seen
as an outmoded religious custom, Tunisia actually banned the Hijab, or
headscarf, in state offices and at universities.
"We want to keep
moving forward and not make a U-turn." - Activists fear Tunisia's new
government might try to roll back the rights of women
But with the moderate
Islamic Ennahda movement having won 40 percent of the vote in the 2011
elections, some women now fear that the government may try to compel them to
adhere to certain practices, traditional and otherwise.
"I don't want
anyone to force me to do anything," Salma, a young translator from Tunis
stated. "If I decide some day to wear a headscarf, or even a burqa, no one
has the right to tell me yes on no." The same, she added, applied to
drinking alcohol or having a boyfriend.
government has repeatedly assured the public that it will not try to roll back
the rights of women. But skeptics fear that words are one thing, and actions
Since last November,
sit-ins by Islamist students have brought the humanities department at Manouba
University in Tunis to a standstill. The students have demanded that female
students be allowed to wear the full facial veil or niqab while taking exams,
and that the university allocate space for daily prayer.
The fight for a truly
democratic Tunisia has only just started: men and women are demanding equal
rights for both sexes
"It's a false
debate intended to distract attention from the truly important problems, the
economic and political development of the country," says Rafiqa, an editor
at a Tunisian weekly newspaper. "We have to work at ensuring progress in our
country, and with that in mind, the women are simply going to have to remove
Rafiqa herself has
worn a Hijab since marriage, but she says demands to allow Niqabs, which could
obscure the identity of women taking exams, go too far. She admits she fears
such protests could herald the beginning of a two-class society for men and
there'll be separate busses for men and women, and the day after that separate
universities," she complains. "We want to keep moving forward and not
make a U-turn."
Others are less
interested in cultural issues such as veils and more concerned with female
participation in the economy and politics. In elections to the constitutional
assembly in October 2011, men and women were supposed to alternate on the lists
of the various parties. But the political reality looks very different.
"In the first two
transitional governments, there was only a single women," says Najoua
Makhlouf, a member of Tunisia's largest trade union, the UGTT. "After the
elections, there are only two women in the government. Those are catastrophic
results for us women."
After the elections,
there are only two women in the government. "Those are catastrophic
results for us women," says Najoua Makhlouf, union member and female
Yet even within the
UGTT, with its 48 percent female members, the top positions are exclusively
held by men. Makhlouf is one of the few females to have an official union post,
in her case the chair of the union's women's commission.
"The mentality is
simply sexist," she says. "The social milieu of Tunisian trade unions
is traditionally masculine. A quota for women would be our salvation."
But Makhlouf adds that
last year's revolution was only the beginning, and that the fight for a truly
democratic Tunisia was just getting started. And she's not alone in thinking
"We Tunisians are
no longer going to allow ourselves to get trampled on," Salma says.
"The politicians have understood this, and they are going to think very
carefully about what they do."
Although it generated
new debates about the role of women in a Muslim society, the revolution of 2011
clearly showed Tunisian women that they can have considerable political power.