Feminism and the revolutions of our regions: How did feminism turn into a stigma? | Tunisia
When we revolted in the winter of December 2010, our demonstrations resulted in breaking the silence of many groups, and forced the Ben Ali government to suspend lessons in universities, cut off the Internet, and organize security campaigns to chase down protesters for allegedly stirring up riots and conspiring against the country’s security. Many who followed Tunisian affairs on Arab and Western channels questioned the motives that incited the youth to commit suicide in solidarity with Mohamed Bouazizi,1 in a country that Ben Ali and its national media qualified of “permanent joy.”
At the time, the answers differed between the TV stations; the international analysts and experts they brought gave their opinions on the affairs of the country, and even went as far as naming the revolution. The French media was the most influential, as it bestowed upon it the name of “Jasmin Revolution.” That naming came after the French government provided the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior with security equipment to suppress the revolution and its course in early January 2011.
But we, who were standing in the streets, had our own individuals reasons to remain there. We were young people who had lost hope in university institutions that, since 2007, had adopted the “LMD”2 system that neither teachers nor students understood. At the time, universities were witnessing many demonstrations against the academic results and the ambiguity of specializations. For example, there was an applied license in the French language and it is a three-year certificate that does not make one a professor nor enables them to complete the master's degree.
In addition to the deteriorating conditions in the university housing and transportation, I was facing harassment while on my way to the institute. I lived in the Bardo region next to the Higher Institute of Humanities where I was studying in the French department. I felt bitter for having to go to my institute on foot: I was unable to hop on public buses that connected my neighborhoods, as they were always overcrowded.
In such conditions, seeking knowledge became a nightmare for me: harassment in public transport, harassment if I walked, harassment if I went to the university security, and the nepotism that I had to recur to if I wanted to pass a class and get recognition. All universities and institutions were governed by the youth committees of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, which excluded everyone who was not an adherent of the regime and its group.
As I am of Amazigh origin from northwestern Tunisia, I stand out in my difference. I have curly hair, a brown face, and poems about the resistance, the country’s mountains, and their histories, which are absent from the school curricula. The system then adopted the method of Arabization, fortifying ties with Arabism, and glorifying the idea of Arab origins, which became the source of the authenticity of the country and the heritage of each family. Anyone who wanted to brag claimed that they came from the Hijaz, lived in the capital, and was a member of the Constitutional Democratic Rally.
Dictatorship, corruption, and the exploitation of influence have covered all fields, including economics, politics, education, art, history, and geography as well. These policies have made the Tunisian coast a center for the most important national projects, such as hospitals, universities, and recreational facilities, and have marginalized the northwest, south, and central regions, in which minimal life facilities are absent.
In light of these conditions, women in Tunisia were the group that sustained most harm, especially women from outside the central government,3 as they had to face a dual violence. Maha Abdel Hamid, a black Tunisian feminist, once told me that she was in the middle of a conversation with a fellow research students in the field of history when he told her,4 “grace your lord, we used to sell you by the kilo,” meaning “stop complaining, you were being weighed and sold in the old Tunisia.”
At the time, Maha Abdel Hamid had to quarrel with him and defend herself on her own, because the Tunisian left to which she belonged did not see racism as a core issue. They had reduced the leftist politics to two points: class struggle, and a national revolution with a socialist aspect.
On December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to his body in front of the municipal headquarters of Sidi Bouzid. The spark of the revolution for liberation began from Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, and included Sfax and the marginalized neighborhoods in the Tunisian capital. Trade unions, human rights organizations, and the political parties that were banned from working were at the forefront of the demonstrations. The streets were stronger than the regime and those who tried to lead the crowds, which made for a youthful Tunisian revolution with no leader except its symbol, Mohamed Bouazizi and his cart, and its martyrs.
In the events of the revolution, I lost my classmate, Marwa ben Yamina, who died from a gunshot wound to her head. A sniper5 shot her while she was sitting in her living room. The news was resounding to me. Marwa was my companion in the Students’ Union, and she used to work in her father’s modest store that sells nutritional food in Malassine, one of the most popular and poor neighborhoods in Tunis.
I went to Marwa’s house to say goodbye. Her funeral was strange to me. For the first time, I saw women walking at the funeral, singing the national anthem spontaneously, talking loudly about poverty, cursing the regime and the corruption that killed Marwa. The administration of the Higher Institute of Humanities decided to offer Marwa a hall in her name as a martyr of the Tunisian revolution. Marwa’s martyrdom, our demonstrations, and the pictures that have appeared in various media outlets were admired by all political forces in Tunisia across the political spectrum.
However, the state of love for the country’s women faded and deserted the media platforms when the Association of Democratic Women and the Association of Tunisian Women Voters demanded the principle of equality and rotation via the adoption of an electoral law that support the representation of women in the Constitutional Assembly, including when it comes to heads of electoral lists. This is in addition to the Democratic Women’s Association’s insistence on raising the issue of equal inheritance and guaranteeing individual rights to the first national government with a revolutionary dimension, following the fall of an unjust dictatorship. The answer to their demand echoed Gaddafi’s question to the Libyan rebels, “who are you?”
1. Who are we?
We are not as beautiful as in the pictures. We will not be content with being a “brand” of political parties that rule the country, hosting us as vases in the hearings and taking us as human shields in the demonstrations or as part of a marketing tool for the Tunisian revolution and the Beji Caid Essebsi transitional government.
The revolutionaries are the transgressors of traditions and customs. Many women have dared to break the barrier of fear and go toward the sit-ins with confidence, without fearing society’s perception of them and without thinking about their fate. In the sit-in square, they spent nights in tents with young men and women to whom they are not related, except in their shared pledge to freedom and the homeland.
There, in the Kasbah Square, in front of the headquarters of the First Ministry, I joined the youth in standing up as a human belt against treacherous police attacks that might come to us suddenly, with the suspicion of the presence of some suspects. Our families also persistently called us because of the rumors they had heard about relationships between young men and women inside the sit-in camps.
The space of freedom that we created under the roof of the tents killed our internal fears for our honor and reputation. Many women did not care about society’s or other protestors’ view. This was evident in the division of roles entrusted to us. I was not in the committees of nutrition and cleaning and the distribution of blankets for the protesters, but I was in the seminars and in the human belts and in the language editing committees whenever I was needed.
The revolution against the obsession with honor was accompanied by a revolution on patriarchy and misogyny that dominated the Tunisian political history. The political forces in Tunisia were surprised by the feminization of the revolutionary discourse by bloggers, academics, and revolutionaries. The space for freedom that emanated from the outskirts of the Dignity Revolution expanded to include the feminist struggle, raising the slogans “equality in rights and duties,” “equal for the girl and the boy” (in relation to inheritance), and “equality, equality, women democrats.”
There were demands that were ostensibly welcomed by all, or rather, were a consensus among the political forces that claimed progression and leftism. Inwardly however, they were rejected and marginalized. Behind the scenes, we were told, mesh waqtou, meaning now is not the time. Postpone your demands for later, under the excuse of maintaining the revolutionary momentum in the face of the remnants and reactionaries.
Actual equality was seen as a luxury, not an imperative. The political forces have dealt with women’s issues as a beautiful facade of what is known to some as the Jasmin Revolution. Women were present in the photographs and wall frames of all parties. It was also the preamble of all political discourse and the subject of political bids among politicians, which is not new. The Ben Ali regime used to market itself globally and internationally under the banner of “modernity and emancipation of Tunisian women.” But how do we, as women, under a capitalist dictatorship, enjoy all our rights as citizens, not as subjects?
The last government of Ben Ali had 45 members, including four women, who were the Minister of Women and Family, the Secretary of State for Social Affairs, the Secretary of State for American and Asian Affairs, and the Secretary of State for Information Technology, in addition to 59 women elected out of 214 seats in the Tunisian Parliament in 2009, not to mention the 17 out of 112 women in the Council of Consultants.
At the time of the revolution in 2011, and after the enactment of the Equality Act in the electoral lists that urged the participation of women in the political life, the rate of women’s participation did not reach 30 percent of deputies. 59 women were elected out of 218 seats. With the domination of misogyny, the Tunisian voter believes that there is no good in a people ruled by women, because, according to them, politics is a typical man’s business that is difficult to be managed otherwise.
2. When feminism becomes a social stigma
Words such as “leftist,” “secularist,” “democratic,” “dustbin of the revolution,” “feminist,”6 other insults rained down on us nonstop since the birth of the Tunisian revolution. The rejection of the demands of the feminist movement coincided with the rejection of the revolution by the forces of the previous regime, that considered it a Zionist creation linked to the New Middle East project with the aim to destroy the region. This was somehow linked to the demands of the progressive feminist movement, perceived by conservative forces as a threat to the Arab-Islamic identity of Tunisia.
We received blows from everywhere and little support. It started with the murder of the communist militant Kahina Hussein, who was thrown from the top of the “Internationale” building. The Tunisian Communist Workers Party’s stayed silent about the case that had to do with one of the militants of the Women Democrats, and through the defamation campaigns that affected the blogger Lina ben Mhenni and stigmatized us all, calling us “whores.” I was publicly called “the Arabs’ whore” in a video by a Tunisian political activist with a leftist background.
The progressive left forces agreed on the phrasing “get over it” as advice for every victim of violence. The comrades’ solidarity with the defamation we were exposed to barely concealed their misogyny. Their approach did not differ from that of my mother, the housewife with no university degree, who was facing societal by upholding patience as the key to relief. In the fiercest battles, male activists limited themselves to sending solidarity messages based on the principle of manhood, shame, manners, and morals, not from a standpoint of supporting us in our struggle for real equality. The distortion inflicted on feminists affected not only our reputation, but our professional and academic path as well. Lina ben Mhenni was accused, for example, of filming pornographic videos to access the global blogging platforms. Recently, the Democratic Women's activist, Wafa Farwas, was accused of selling sex. This is in addition to the accusations and rumors about the wife of the martyr Chokri Belaid, the activist Basma Al-Khalfaoui, about her alleged divorce from her martyred spouse and a sexual relationship she supposedly had with one of the left-wing influential leaders in the political life in Tunisia.
This male solidarity was exacerbating the issue by strengthening the position of men in the political and legal movement and increasing the vulnerability of women. These accounts became a pretext for conservative forces of all kinds, such as the old regime, Islamists, and centrist parties, to fail to empower women in leadership positions and activate national policies that would end violence against women.
Male solidarity makes use of many excuses, perhaps the most prominent of which is the word weld houmti, meaning my neighborhood’s son, in an attempt to exonerate men. This word echoed in support of a Tunisian rapper who released a song that publicly called for the rape of a TV presenter in Tunisia. The song was rejected and condemned by the feminist movement that deemed it threatening to the bodily integrity of the presenter. We were also weary of the normalization of the calls to abuse women in the Tunisian mainstream.
Thus, classism, or class struggle between the ruling bourgeoisie and the impoverished class – residents of the popular neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital Tunis and inhabitants of the poor areas of the Tunisian countryside – turned into a weapon against us. We were told that feminists in Tunisia were from a privileged class that has no other concern than to jail rap artists and fight youth art in the name of women’s rights. Accordingly, pages were created on social media platforms to denounce the feminist movement as a movement against the concerns of the popular class, specifically the poor neighborhoods. That is in addition to the ridiculing of the word “feminist” and its reduction to a woman who has nothing better to do than chase “men of the country” and put them in prison, following a western human rights system that wants to undermine the pillars of the Arab nation – its men, its protectors and rulers.
3. She is a feminist because she is a homeland that refuses to be defeated
We can define the feminist struggle as a revolution against the fatwas that call for our obedience and submission to rulers. It is a revolution against the tales that consider that a nation cannot be ruled by women. Feminism is a revolutionary act against tyranny, submission, and superstition that make the woman the mother of sins and the sinner. Feminism is our journey towards dignity and our right to life as women citizens.
I was introduced to the feminist struggle in the spring of 2008 in front of a siege by Ben Ali's forces at the headquarters of the opposition newspaper Al-Mawkif. I cried as I chanted the Tunisian national anthem alongside the head of the Progressive Democratic Party, Maya Jribi,7 who is known for her struggle against the tyranny of Ben Ali’s regime. We stood by a significant number of women activists who opposed the dictatorship. I was then in my early twenties, and the scene that unfolded was amazing to me: women singing for a homeland surrounded by an arsenal of security, political police, and informants.
Their songs were different from the ones we saw on TV. Their poems recounted the struggle of women working in factories, who used to carry the country’s flag. They would say, “A million green women8 today live under whips and don’t kneel,” or, “Put your hands in my hand, we stand next to the workers, we do not fear prison, exile, torture, or arrest.”
Their words are inspired by the stories of grandmothers who lived under French colonialism. And I, of mountain origin, would find my face blossom with joy whenever I heard one of them sing while narrating the memory of mountains, where the blood of resistance fighters was shed, and the sweat of peasants and laborers in factories and mines flowed. We come from the countryside, or “shadow areas” as the regime liked to call them, due to the absence of the necessary facilities for life, such as hospitals and schools. Women die there on their way to work, riding old-fashioned trucks that drive them off the mountainous terrain. Official statistics say that 65 percent of women working in agriculture do not have social insurance and work without work contracts, in addition to being subjected to harassment. That is in addition to the death of some children and girls in those areas due to the cold, hunger and insecure roads, such as the recent death of the child Maha Al-Qadkady in Wadi Jarif on her way to school.
After eight years of feminist struggle against the patriarchy and misogyny that obstruct our demands and our right to life in dignity, it has become imperative that the feminist movement writes its history and reality with a sincere pen that narrates events as they are, away from ethnic, geographic and political centralities. This pen would document the grievances that women human rights defenders face as they call things by their names. The end of violence begins with the definition of it, its documentation, and the struggle to stop it.
- 1. After Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to his body, other similar suicides took place in Tunisia.
- 2. A new educational system that was created in France to implement the Bollon Program project, which aims to establish a university space identical to those of the European Union before 2010. Started in France in 1998, it was adopted by some SWANA countries. What distinguishes the LMD system is an evaluation method that differs from the classical system. A certificate is awarded after the student obtains 180 credits at a rate of 30 credits each semester. The credit is an evaluation unit determined according to the work accomplished by the student, which is the extent of their discipline with lessons, their personal work, their perseverance, and the submitted thesis.
- 3. Centralization of various forms, including political (to belong to the ruling party), ethnic (to be Arab), and geographical (to live in the capital or the cities of the Tunisian coast, such as Soussa from where the deposed President Ben Ali comes from).
- 4. An incident that Maha Abdel Hamid personally narrated to me as part of a discussion between us about the leftist student work before the 2011 revolution.
- 5. Marwa was martyred in the snipers’ case, Tunisian security agents who rose to power during the revolution and killed the protesters with live ammunition.
- 6. Used by opponents with an aggravated T to imply an insult.
- 7. Maya Jribi, the late Tunisian politician, was known for her solid stances in the face of tyranny, as she initially fought in the ranks of the student movement in the late 1970s before she became involved in partisan work. She participated in the founding of the “Progressive Socialist Rally Party,” which later changed its name to the “Progressive Democratic Party,” then to “the Republican Party.” Maya Jribi took over the General Secretariat of the Progressive Democratic Party in 2006, turned Republic party in 2012. She was Ahmed Najib Chebbi’s successor, thus becoming the first Tunisian woman to lead a political party. In 2007 she fought with al-Shabi a month-long hunger strike, in protest of a judicial move to expel the party.
- 8. Green is a reference to Tunisians, as Tunisia is often times called “green” because of its landscape in comparison to more arid lands in the North of Africa.