The statements made by the Member of Parliament are a picture of the polarization in relation to gender equality that has taken place in Tunisian society in recent years, and which is also seen elsewhere in the region. Women’s rights have become a red-hot political issue in the cultural battle between secularism and Islamism that took off after the 2011 revolution – the political uprising that celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2021 and came to be known as the Arab Spring. Islamist parties, it turned out, eventually gained a majority in the Tunisian parliament. Thus began a cultural struggle on the democratic stage.
MOHAMED AFFES’ POINT OF VIEW aroused anger, and a few days later the protests manifest themselves outside as about 40 older and younger women and a handful of men show up in front of a large, black iron gate into the Tunisian parliament in the capital Tunis.
“ I’m so tired of this that I no longer know what to write,” reads one of the protesters’ signs. A white car drives up against the group of protesters. The driver is a female Member of Parliament. A protester knocks on the window of the car and shouts that she must push to show support and be allowed to enter. The woman pushes, waves out the window, and the herd splits in two and lets her pass.
“ It’s not right to say that. We will not accept that, ”Henda Chennaoui said of Affes’ statement in parliament. She has turned up for the demonstration wearing a dark red long wool coat and sunglasses. Henda Chennaoui is a journalist, activist and feminist and has been fighting for women’s rights in the North African country since the revolution ten years ago.
“ There is a great deal of polarization. There are people who have become more aggressive when it comes to everything that deals with women’s rights and feminism. At the same time, there are also more who are becoming aware of the problems and becoming feminists. In the same family you can have members who are feminists and others who are afraid of feminism and the possible changes for women in society. There is a strong presence of Salafist and patriarchal movements everywhere in Tunis and in other regions, and we can feel that. ”
THE CONFLICT IS PRESENT IN ALL the countries of the region, but Tunisia has for decades been a frontrunner for women’s rights in the Arab world.
In 1956, President Habib Bourguiba introduced the so-called Code of Personal Status with a series of progressive laws that, among other things, abolished polygamy and introduced that marriage required the consent of both parties. Contraception and access to abortion were legalized in the 1960s, and in the 1990s the Code of Personal Status was updated to include a clause that a woman should no longer obey her husband. In this way, Tunisia, which is historically a relatively secular society, has made greater progress for women’s rights than other countries in the region.
With the growing struggle for women in Tunisia and the region after the Arab Spring, not only did greater freedom and freedom of expression come to women. There was also a new freedom for Islamists.
Before the 2011 revolution, the Islamist party Ennahda was banned and many Islamists lived in exile in Europe because they risked being thrown behind bars. Islam was considered one of the reasons for the country’s lack of progress, and religion was not part of the public space. A well-known image of secular society was when former President Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s drank a glass of orange juice during a television interview in the middle of Ramadan to point out that a modern state cannot afford to fast an entire month.
Today, Ennahda is the largest party in parliament, and the very conservative party Al Karama – which Mohamed Affes represents with the critical eye on women’s freedom – sat in the 2019 election in 21 seats out of parliament’s 217. The same trend was seen in Egypt after the Arab Spring, in which Islamist parties won a majority in the National Assembly, with the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest.
Islamists and more conservative people have thus gained more freedom and a political platform to express themselves in the last ten years, says Sarah Yerkes, who is a fellow on Carnegie’s Middle East program and, among other things, a researcher in Tunisia’s politics, economy and security. “ Tunisia will not completely abandon its religious identity and its identity as a Muslim country. But at the same time, we want to be a little more liberal and progressive in relation to issues of equality and rights. The country is still trying to figure out what the right balance is. What a Tunisian is today. And we also see that discussion in other Muslim countries, ”says Sarah Yerkes. “ The struggle over what the role of religion is and should be will continue. It may mean some withdrawal of some of the women’s rights, which have so far been fairly well protected. ”
Some of the key disagreements right now, for example, are the issue of inheritance law. The Inheritance Act says, as in other Muslim countries, that women inherit only half as much as the men in the sibling group, and that was suggested by former President Beji Caid Essebsi to change back in 2018. But the Islamist party Ennahda will not vote for, nor will the new president Kais Saied is in favor of it. For Henda Chennaoui and many other feminists, passing the law is a no-brainer , but it shows the tension surrounding the Tunisian identity and the role of women. And as Parliament is screwing up right now in Tunisia, Henda Chennaoui is having a hard time seeing that it can succeed.
“ We still have very old and conservative people in parliament,” she says. “ Even though there are 56 women MPs, I do not feel represented.”
HEVEN CHENNAOUI’S INTEREST in feminism began when she was in her mid – 20s and her family had just gotten internet. She read various French texts on feminism and women’s rights, and a new world opened up. Growing up with violence and sexual abuse, where she had always been blamed for the beatings and oppression, she suddenly felt not alone.
“ I realized I should not be ashamed. That I was not to blame for all the violence I had been subjected to. It was not because I was wrong or evil. ”
She started writing her own blog about her experiences and was overwhelmed by the many messages she received from girls and women with the same narrative. Instinctively, she knew she was going to try to convey the same feeling that she herself had been sitting with. The feeling of not being alone. She has been doing this ever since with texts and videos via social media.
“ It dawned on me that feminism can save lives. Feminism and the Internet, ”she says.
On the whole, social media has become a central focus of the women’s struggle in the Arab countries. Right after the revolution, Henda Chennaoui, together with a group of women, set up a movement on Facebook called Women’s uprising in the Arab world and was the first initiative to connect feminists from different Arab countries.
It was clear to her that although legislation and structural change could pave the way for women’s freedoms and rights, they could far from stand alone. The least equally difficult battle is over culture.
THAT STRUGGLE INTENSIFIED with the revolution ten years ago, when the struggle for women in Tunisia and other Arab countries began to separate more from the political institutions and also include other minorities such as LGBT people in the struggle for better rights. Because even though the legislation was present at some points, it required that it be implemented in society.
The new women’s struggle has, among other things, been expressed in #MeToo movements that have broken down over the last few years. The movements have addressed issues of violence and oppression of women in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. Under hashtags like #MeshAyb (no shame) and #Masaktach (I do not want to keep quiet), thousands of women have shared their experiences with everything from violations in public transportation to domestic violence.
In Tunisia, the #MeToo movement woke up in the fall of 2019 when a newly elected male MP was caught masturbating in front of a young female student at a high school, after which she shared photos of it on social media. It sparked great outrage and backing for the woman, and ever since, thousands of women have shared their experiences on social media and demonstrated in the capital Tunis.
One of the women behind the #MeToo movement in Tunisia, who runs one of the Facebook groups where experiences are shared daily, is 30-year-old Najma Kousri Labidi.
She believed for a long time that the problem was the lack of legislation. That it would help women when a law protecting them from sexual abuse and violence was in place. It got Tunisia as the first country in the Arab world in 2018, but there have been no judgments yet and only a handful of reviews. Now she knows that the laws cannot stand alone, and the other part has to keep up if anything is to change.
“ I have studied law so I know how important legislation is. But here it is not the legislation that helps. Not when neither judges, police nor the women themselves make use of it. The problem is the mentality and the culture. That is the one we need to change. I feel that there is a lot of hatred towards women, and it is a big taboo to talk about and report violence and sexual abuse, ”she says.
Najma Kousri Labidi acknowledges that the challenge is great, but she will “ Keep putting pressure on me and say my opinion”.
According to Sarah Yerkes, it is a common theme for Tunisia that the country looks good on paper, but the legislation is not properly implemented. The same is true with Morocco and Egypt and their laws to protect women. The new laws have led to remarkably few reviews.
SIF THERE IS A GREATER FOCUS on cultural change and the mentality of the Tunisian women’s struggle, then a feminist like Henda Chennaoui knows very well that the political struggle within parliament must also continue. That is why the herd of younger and older feminists is crowded together in front of the Tunisian parliament on a Tuesday in December. For yes, feminists like Henda Chennaoui describe parliament as a bit of a political failure – but at the same time they know that it is in there that important decisions must be made.
“ As a feminist, I want economic reforms, more rights and a new environment for investment, education and health. That is why I try to shout at the politicians and put pressure on them. ”
Henda Chennaoui lights a cigarette and withdraws slightly from the crowd of protesters. She takes off her sunglasses.
“ It is very important that we let girls and women know that they are not alone. That they have to fight. ”
The journalists behind the article have received support from the International Women’s Media Foundation.