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In Tunisia, Are Sisters Doin' It for Themselves?

by GOLBARG BASHI in New York

24 Jan 2011 22:04Comments

An interview with Dr. Amel Grami of Tunisia's University of Manouba.

[ Q&A ] The Tunisian uprising in January 2011 took the entire world by surprise. Following a self-immolation by a desperate young man, a massive uprising spread across the North African country, resulting in the spectacular ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from his 23-year-long dictatorial rule. Hope for change has spread around Tunisia and even into neighboring countries. But what change, exactly? How will women in particular fare in this revolutionary moment? In the midst of the rapid developments in Tunisia, we know very little about women's struggles there.

Tunisia is widely known as the first Arab nation to ban the male prerogative to multiple marriages and is famous for its "Code of Personal Status," a set of laws seen as a progressive step toward gender equality, at least in the legal realm. Despite its focus on gender equality relative to other Muslim nations, compared to the unexpected uprising in Iran following the June 2009 presidential election, widely known as the Green Movement, there seemed to be less of a female presence among the recent Tunisian mass rallies. But that was just a visual impression. In many ways, women's rights in Tunisia under Ben Ali's rule resemble those of the Pahlavi regime (1925-79) in Iran.

As an Iranian and transnational feminist, I am particularly interested in knowing whether the rapid changes in Tunisia today are going to translate into feminist reform or Islamist (or other ideologically) driven regression on women's rights, similar to what occurred after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the multifaceted, popular rebellion that ousted the authoritarian Pahlavi monarchy, was immediately hijacked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamist associates. The Islamization of the Revolution and the ayatollahs' ascent to total power swiftly limited women's rights and eventually yielded a system of gender apartheid, one that Iranian feminists of nearly all ideological persuasions have been engaged in defeating or at least reforming for the past three decades.

To find answers to my questions concerning women's role in the current struggle in Tunisia and the future of feminism there, I reached out to a prominent Tunisian feminist academic. Dr. Amel Grami is a professor in the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba in Tunisia. She teaches gender studies, women's history, and Islamic studies and is a frequent speaker at international conferences. She also manages a translation program on intellectual and civilizational history at Tunisia's National Center for Translation.

I contacted Dr. Grami via Facebook, the very same social networking site that has been instrumental in both the Tunisian and Iranian uprisings. What follows are my questions and Dr. Grami's answers regarding her current analysis of the Tunisian revolt.


What are your immediate thoughts and reactions to the recent developments in Tunisia and the ousting of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali?

I think that the "Youth Revolution" is a historical event not only for Tunisians but also for all people in the world, especially in the Middle East. The accomplishment of this revolution shows the will of people to change their reality and to build a new democratic republic. Really it was a great surprise for intellectuals.

What role, if any, have women's rights groups had in these developments?

I believe that the recent developments were a spontaneous action done by all the citizens: youth, adults, women, and men. No ideological slogans were raised. Women were present as citizens and as agents of change, not as women belonging to any political or human rights movements.

How do you assess the condition of women's rights in Tunisia during the 30 years of Ben Ali's rule?

The official discourse of the Tunisian government saw the status of women in Tunisia as a model for all Arab and Muslim countries. Locally, the work of women's rights activists fighting for more justice, equality, and human rights was often blurred and invisible. The Association of Democratic Women, for instance, was under tight governmental control. Many members of this association suffered from police brutality and the regime's oppression.

Are there grassroots women's organizations that at this historic moment can secure enduring women's rights guarantees for the future of Tunisia?

I think that the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) have been in the lead seeking to resist any form of regression. They will campaign for more rights and insist on starting discussions and debates with Islamists on major issues related to women's rights.

What are your fears and hopes in this historic moment for Tunisia?

I hope that we will succeed to organize our political parties in order to build a new country and to defend human rights and dignity. Our fear is the regression of mindsets and views.

What are some of the comparative lessons that Tunisian and other Arab and Muslim women can learn from each others' experiences?

Certainly women from all over the world can learn from each other and exchange experiences. Arab and Muslim women will be certainly inspired by this revolution. Many activists will continue their work in order to change their situation. If governments are not sensitive to such calls, women should use the "street" to campaign for their rights.

As you know, in 2009, women were at the forefront of the democratic uprising -- the Green Movement -- in Iran. How do you compare and contrast their presence in the Iranian and Tunisian contexts?

I have always envied the Iranians' Green Movement, because it has been a sign of collective conscience and resistance against dictatorship. Unfortunately, this form of resistance failed for many reasons. Indeed, I am concerned about the women's right movement in Iran. If we talk about the "Youth Revolution" in Tunisia, we should recognize that this revolution was made possible thanks to Internet social networks, among other means, which helped mobilize young people. I find that in Tunisia, we have a different perception of modernity that helped shape a different view and reality of the local culture and mindsets.

Do you worry about the condition of females under the current chaotic atmosphere in Tunisia?

We are optimistic, but at the same time we should indeed be aware of the real meaning of revolution and the risks and challenges that we will face.

Do you envision the attainment of women's rights in Tunisia within the framework of Islamic law or in a larger context?

We have no idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge, so it is too early to talk about the future. Our first and immediate priority is laying the foundations of the Second Republic.

Golbarg Bashi holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University and an M.S. in women's studies. She teaches West Asian (including Iranian) history at Rutgers University. She has frequently contributed to Tehran Bureau on women's issues.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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