Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Tunisia, New Generation of Women’s Initiatives Reshaping Feminism

Feminism tunisia
Tunisian women chant slogans and wave their national flags during a demonstration to mark Tunisia’s Women’s Day in the capital Tunis. Photo: FETHI BELAID / AFP

Decolonization, intersectionality or inclusivity: whatever the label, a new generation of Tunisian women’s initiatives is reshaping the first prototype of Tunisian feminism.

Since the late 1950s, pioneering gender-equality reforms have given Tunisia the reputation of being a women rights champion. This reputation is largely thanks to the country’s archetypal ‘father’ of feminism, Habib Bourguiba, the first post-independence president, who granted women rights such as the right to refuse polygamy, to initiate divorce, to undergo free abortions as well as to vote and hold elected office.

However, a growing group of LGBTQ+ activists refuse to be trapped in what they see as the straitjacket of Tunisia as a feminist vanguard: a sort of regional version of the West European (feminist) model.

Philosopher and writer Soumaya Mestiri, for instance, voicing the opinion of various other analysts in the region, advocates the ‘decolonization’ of the feminist movement, which she calls “a failure”. In her eyes, Tunisian feminists have a blind spot for the repercussions of colonial relations and power gaps between women. Other feminist critics argue that the largest women’s movements are ‘paternalistically copy-pasting the state-promoted homogeneous model of the “Tunisian woman”.’

These ideas have been given a face by a new generation of initiatives, notably Falgatna (‘we are fed up’), which became an instant hit after organizing a flash mob to draw attention to violence against women. Amal Bintnadia, one of the initiators, describes the group as “non-political, inclusive and non-hierarchical. Also safe for transgender women who suffer double discrimination”.

Counterintuitively, Bourguiba, who became a national women’s rights icon, outlawed feminist movements other than those of the ruling party. “Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali allowed us to work because he took us fo r an anti-Islamist ally, but this was over as soon as we demonstrated we were not his puppets,” Bochra Bel Haj Hmida remembers. A lawyer and former prime minister of the liberal Nidaa Tounes party, Bel Haj Hmida is a co-founder and one of the first presidents of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD). She was also president of the state-initiated Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee.

The ATFD, alongside several other women’s organizations, embodies Tunisia’s feminist history. Bel Haj Hmida describes the atmosphere under Ben Ali as “intense”. “We were kept in check, eavesdropped on etc. The room for manoeuvre varied from case to case,” she said. “But pragmatically, sometimes when women were in trouble, they were referred to us, with the words ‘That’s what the ATFD is for’.”

This is a sore spot for the ATFD. Critics often accuse the oldest feminist organizations of being co-opted by subsequent ruling parties, while politicians strategically played the ‘women card’. Bourguiba’s state feminism is today often viewed as a ‘paternalistic’ approach wherein feminism was a compulsory part of the nation’s construction project with only a supporting role for party-affiliated women’s organizations.

“Well, that time is way behind us,” Hela Ben Salem, a lawyer and member of the ATFD board, told Fanack, somewhat vexed. “As long as it reinforces the position of women, I don’t mind. Our autonomy is beyond question.”

Bintnadia from Falgatna is not convinced. “All window dressing,” in her view. “Take, for instance, the parity clause in the election bills, which requires 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men on the election lists. Nice idea, but how many female MPs do we actually know?” She has a point. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of female members of parliament dropped from 36 per cent to 21 per cent.

“The classical glass ceiling: women are regarded as powerful voters but not as (potential) powerful leaders,” Bel Haj Hmida noted.

In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, the exponential rise of gender-equality organizations has reshaped Tunisia’s civil society. “With the entry of LGBTQ+ organizations, the feminist agenda has shifted to issues such as safety in the public space and physical autonomy,” Ben Salem said.

Bel Haj Hmida also points to a change of style and modus operandi. “New initiatives are generally more energetic and spontaneous, less studious,” she said while regretting “the lack of mutual alignment”.

For her part, Ben Salem asserted that the ATFD is still up to date. “We moved with the times, of course. Yet combatting the patriarchy is still front and centre of the feminist movement,” she said.

She described the ATFD as a “secular and autonomous organization for all women.” However, as stated by Bintnadia, new-generation networks such as Falgatna are at least partly a reaction to the way the post-2011 civil society took shape.

“We felt a need for a looser and more inclusive structure,” she explained, echoing the global emphasis on intersectionality (recognizing different experiences and the impact of power relations) and problematizing the universality claim of the ATFD and its contemporaries. “I can’t speak for other women. I have never walked in the shoes of a transgender woman, by way of illustration,” Bintnadia said, voicing the criticism that ‘mainstream feminists’ are reproducing stereotypes and ignoring the diversity among women.

Such arguments are, according to the ATFD, merely proof of patriarchy’s success. “It’s a fallacy,” Ben Salem said. “The ‘so-called’ decolonization feminists are most of the time Islamic women who deny being oppressed.”

Meanwhile, Bourguiba’s feminist model has developed into one of Tunisia’s unique selling points. For Bintnadia, however, the ‘Tunisian woman exception emblem’ is nowadays used as a weapon. “Men call us feminazi and argue that Tunisian women have more rights than other Arab women and should be happy with that. But we refuse to compare ourselves with women elsewhere.”

The ATFD, by contrast, wears the title of women’s rights pioneer with more pride. “Tunisia is still the best Arab country for women,” according to Ben Salem.

To maintain their independence, Falgatna and other new-generation initiatives avoid funding from other governments. “We are very picky,” Bintnadia said. “We build networks with organizations that put pressure on their own countries to change the power balance between Europe and Tunisia.”

Today, the Tunisian feminist agenda is set by the #EnaZeda (#MeToo) movement, which emerged after a 19-year-old female student posted images on Facebook allegedly showing a Tunisian politician masturbating in his car outside her high school. “Enough is enough. It’s time to break the silence on the widespread sexual harassment and abuse. Sexism has become thoroughly normalized in our society,” Bintnadia said.

Feminism in the 21st century has morphed into a multifaceted battle. Tunisian LGBTQ+ activists are engaged in a threefold struggle: against the patriarchy, the dominant ‘Western model’ and ‘constructed identities’. They are undeniably more visible than ever.

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