New Age Islam
Tue Jul 07 2020, 06:22 PM

Islam, Women and Feminism ( 2 March 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Tunisia: Women Try to Assert Independence

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.

After gaining 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.

The Ennahda-led 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 another.

Veils and distractions

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 their veils."

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 women.

"Tomorrow, 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.

Gender quotas?

"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 rights activist

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 this way.

"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.



Compose your comments here

Total Comments (2)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles and comments are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of

Total Comments (2)

  1. Such a cruicial theme, but no response from the readers. Talk about 'beard and burqa' or 'burning of the Qur'an' everyone has something to say. The level of scholarship in Islam seems to have reduced to the basic visible things of life - food, burqa, mooon sighting, Qur'an burning, women's dress - issues that dominated the thoughts of the orthodoxy in early Islam who were not interested in the social, moral, ethical, liberating and universal tenets of Islam. But there were a great many progressive thinkers who took Islam forward and laid the foundation of a civilization that was the most advanced for their era. Today, the progressive thinkers are a miniscule minority and Islam is left with the dead weight of orthodoxy that simply ducks the challenges of the times by clinging to its antiquated tenets, somewhat like a blind man holding on to his stick - for that is the only object most dear to him - for he does not know what lies around him besides the stick.
    By muhammad yunus 07/03/2012 21:23:49
  2. While technically Tunisian women must have the liberty to wear a veil, niqab or burqa, this practice, which has nothing to do with true religiosity or piety is creating a serious problem – particularly in the context of the West as spelled out in a recent article on combating Islamophobia, extracted below:
    • Its distinctiveness gives a false signal of an exaggerated presence of the Muslims that may be threatening to some.
    • Its association with medieval papal attire creates a social barrier in that a non-Muslim woman (or even a Muslim woman) going about casually with her head and ear exposed may feel alienated from a woman wearing a uniform type headdress that is reminiscent of de-feminized medieval nuns.
    • It gives a false notion of regimentation as Muslim women from different cultures are as unconnected with each other as their non-Muslim counterparts from different cultures, but wearing a uniform type head-ear wraparound, they collectively look like a team or troop (as a prelude to a cultural invasion).
    • It can be physically inconvenient to some working women as well as to those participating in outdoor games, sports, swimming and athletics by blocking natural ventilation around their heads and ears.
    • It has lost its original role of providing security in an exclusively male occupied public arena. Today, a Muslim woman in any backstreet of America or Europe is probably far safer without the head-ear-chin wrap around than with it.
    • Face veiling is already banned in many places including the premise of al-Azhar University, public places in France; besides, it conflicts with a clear Qur’anic directive to women to keep the face visible for personal identity (33:59), and there is no Qur’anic instruction to cover the head, ear or chin.
    The truth is wearing the traditional veil, niqab or a medieval nun style head-ear-chin wrap around – not a casual gracefully flowing ‘dupatta’ resting on the shoulders tends to imbue the wearer with an exaggerated gender consciousness that can detract from their active participation in the public arena and gradually lead to their marginalization and domination by the male members of the society. It is therefore in the interest of the Tunisian women to maintain their liberalized personal bearing rather than wearing a head-gear that, in all likelihood, will gradually relegate them to subordinate gender role.
    By muhammad yunus 04/03/2012 07:57:13