A Feminist (trans)election Barometer

“What are your immediate thoughts on the election?”

“I am really angry! That is all,” Myriam explained through a facebook chat. Myriam is a university graduate in her mid twenties who has studied in Europe and recently returned to Tunisia.

At a small couchsurfing gathering at a friend’s apartment I started speaking with Mouna about her thoughts on the future of Tunisia following the elections. Mouna studied Business in France and currently works with a company that facilitates business opportunities for women entrepreneurs. She hopes to begin her PhD soon. I wanted to know how she perceived the election, through the lens of women’s rights. I began with the same question, “What do you think about the election?”

The overarching emotional value of her response can be paraphrased as distinct apprehension, fear that one dominant force will simply be replaced by another. While she spoke, my thoughts returned to a moment of exchange at the New Arab Debates, held at the Mediterranean Business College on 20 October, three days before the election. It mirrored comments that echoed in multiple languages across Facebook and Twitter leading up to the 23 October election. The sentiment can be summarized as, “We did not oust one regime that controlled what we can do to vote in another that will control what we can do.” There was, and continues to be, a palpable environment of concern over the rights of women in particular. At the same time, individuals in the international media have begun to speak of a women’s victory in the election, see for example University of Washington professor Philip N. Howard’s recent article in Miller-McCune. Howard claims, “[r]egardless of how particular parties fared in the election, it is safe to say that women will help mediate political power in Tunisia.” I argue that positivist and episodic analyses that fail to take into account qualitative and long term indicators may result in a more shallow picture than realized.

“Women’s rights are in danger,” Mouna explained. I pushed her on this issue. The status of gender rights in Tunisia is a common point of praise among scholars and analysts observing Tunisia, and an oft expressed issue of national and legislative pride among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken. An example is the Personal Status code, passed in 1956, which gave women the right to vote, to engage in parliament, and the rights to abortion and divorce.

But in a social space where the overarching narrative is one of gender equality, a legal space where the laws are purportedly clear on the status and rights of women, it is necessary to separate narrative from the material phenomenon encased in the narrative. Why? Because when a narrative becomes enshrined in the conscious perception of ‘reality’ it is easier for that narrative to maintain itself, of its own force, well after it has ceased to signify a material phenomenon. What does this mean? It means that constructing a narrative of a phenomenon, and deconstructing that narrative, are equal components of power and resistance. Unwrapping this narrative, the conscious ‘reality’, the signifer of a social phenomenon, from the signified concept, the material phenomenon is the task of discourse and narrative analysis. While this article is too short to adequately present and analyze the complexity of Tunisian social space it offers a small platform to inaugurate this sort of inquiry into the social and political transformations simply understood as the Tunisian revolution-accepting that a revolution is a bounded episode of change, and that the episode of change in Tunisia is still underway. I argue that the Tunisian revolution is still very much under way. This is perhaps best understood in the continuing dialectic environment. So, approaching the revolution in Tunisian social space with these caveats in mind, I return to Mouna’s concerns on women’s rights.

She agreed that by many accounts women’s rights in Tunisia are more robust than in many of the country’s Arab neighbors, and by some accounts more robust than in a number of ‘developed,’ ‘modern,’ ‘democratic’ countries. Still, according to Al Jazeera, regardless of the law stating all party lists for the constituent assembly must alternate between men and women candidates, the fact remains that of the 828 parties’, 655 independents’, and 34 coalition’s domestic lists, totaling 1,517 lists, the percentage of men vs. women as heads of lists before the election was 93% men and 7% women. However, if we examine the result it paints a somewhat better picture. According to Tunisa-live, forty-nine women received seats in the 217 seat Constituent Assembly giving them 24% representation. This means that women make up a slightly larger percentage of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia than in the 112th United States Congress, which, according to thisnation.com is 20% women. These are quantitative indicators that often fail to present a deeper, analyzable picture of a regime or social space.

Mouna, and a number of others, have expressed a deep concern, which should not be disregarded as merely overly emotional or uninformed apprehension. It is the continuation of a narrative that has apparently grown traction among much of Tunisia’s (women) elite. I make this clarification due to my own sampling constraints, the women with whom I have spoken, and the majority of women-as writers, referents, or general voices- in this conversation appear to be among the country’s elite. Defining ‘elite’ in the confines of a blog is difficult but I will stick to a narrow definition, that of an educated, identifying as predominantly secular Muslim-or cultural Muslim, and generally from a middle class or above economic group. This understanding of elite applies to both men and women. Mouna continued…

“Maybe…” Maybe the situation is better. Maybe there are reports that discuss marriage and divorce rights and women are granted a purportedly freer status in public space, “but it is not good.”

Tunisia signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on 24 July 1980 and later ratified the Convention on 20 September 1985. It is germane to situate Tunisia within the timeline of other Maghreb countries’ date of ratification. CEDAW entered into force in 1981, thirty days after the twentieth state ratification, under Article 27(1). Libya ratified the treaty in 1989, Morocco in 1993, Algeria in 1996, and Mauritania in 2001. While ratification of international treaties far from guarantees compliance it demonstrates a legal standard the state claims to uphold; however, it also provides an inscribed foundation of rights protection which may be manipulated to artificially proliferate a narrative of the existence of rights in potential that contradicts the actual environment of rights in practice.

The government of Tunisia, at the time of ratification still under Habib Bourguiba, issued two declarations and three reservations regarding Tunisia’s legal responsibilities as a state party to the Convention. The general declaration reads: “The Tunisian Government declares that it shall not take any organizational or legislative decision in conformity with the requirements of this Convention where such a decision would conflict with the provisions of chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution.”

Chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution lays out the general provisions. It begins with, “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the republic (Art. 1).” The first chapter goes on to guarantee a number of rights, including the freedom of expression and the freedom from arbitrary detention and torture. Despite the inscription of these ideals into Tunisian Constitutional law, reports by Human Rights Watch ((Click here to see list)) and other international human rights organizations clearly point to the disconnect between print and practice during the Ben Ali years. This phenomenon is not unique for Tunisia, of course, but it brings me back to the point under discussion: contrast between inscribed, narrative ‘reality’ and material phenomenon.

What has been a vocal point in the lead up to the election has been Article 1 of Chapter 1 of the Constitution. Article 1 presents a legal definition for Tunisian Arab-Muslim Identity. But what does this identity mean? And how will the interpretation or reworking of this chapter, or the meaning it is meant to reflect, affect Tunisia’s responsibilities under CEDAW; more specifically, how will women’s identity and place be affected?

“I have been harassed on the street. Men see me and they say, ‘why are you out in the street like that?” As she spoke she pantomimed eyes going up and down her full figure. This is a concern that has been expressed elsewhere. With the new found freedom and decreasing persecution of religious rights in Tunisia, a number of women have reported increased public harassment for not wearing a veil, or for their dress and presentation-or merely being in public. Reportedly the men who approached these women all identified themselves as supporters of Al Nahda.

Mouna continued, “They point at me and say I should be covered. They make a point to intimidate me. Sure it is okay to go out and work but I should not be dressed like this. A few days ago a professor was teased and shamed by several of her students because she was not wearing a scarf. This kind of thing didn’t used to happen (before the revolution?).” I pressed her on Al Nahda; the party has continually responded to its critics promising that it will continue to uphold the secular identity of Tunisia and will not push for a theocratic state. Recently, according to Reuters, Al Nahda’s leaders continued this promise, stating that they will focus on democratization and a free-market economy, leaving religion out of the constitution. Furthermore, they promise to uphold the status of women and will not promote any constitutional changes that will threaten the ‘modern liberal’ state of women’s rights. For Mouna, and many women, “Maybe they say this but they don’t mean it. I don’t believe it.”

Distrust of politicians was a salient feature leading to the elections, and persisted well after the blue ink had faded from voter’s fingers. Lingering distrust of political figures can be easily understood in a social space coming from decades of political abuse. As is the feature of authoritarian regimes built around the cult of personality of a deified leader figure, Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were the symbols of abuse and corruption, symbolized in the omnipresent posters and references to Ben Ali’s 7 November 1987 coup. Ben Ali’s visage presented a constant reminder of where this dominant power emanated. As much as rage over decades of abuse targeted these images with the revolutionary contention that ousted Ben Ali, and continue to deface his symbols, constructing metaphors of power, and resistance, has become a feature in these revolutionary times. In this sense, much of the dialectic of political participation has centered on discussing individual party leaders as much or more than the party platforms themselves. What this also means is that discovering the meaning of disparate parties has in many ways become a matter of discussing perceptions of those parties’ leaders, perceptions that have constructed a narrative reality of what the party represents. So, what the figures leading the party say in public, and what the party claims in its literature, is judged against the collective perception of what the party or individual will actually do. The dominant force of perception in translating political campaigns into ‘real’ planned policy, the disconnect between perception and promise, has continued the atmosphere of distrust of politicians. I don’t mean to reductively imply that all distrust of politicians is merely the result of an unjustified marriage of perceived ‘reality’ with accepted ‘reality,’ but I have noticed a particular discourse among the elite of Tunisia: regardless of what Al Nahda claims to stand for, claims that it will preserve Tunisia’s modern, liberal, secular freedoms, many people simply distrust the veracity of these claims. Hence the debate topic: “In their first free election Tunisians have nothing to fear from Islamists,” at the New Arab Debates (linked above).

Mouna explained, “They (Al Nahda) say ‘of course women can work. But it would be better if they stayed home and took care of the family. It is fine for women to work but they should take care of their home and let their husbands work. It is better for them, less stress, a better life.” She made these comments mockingly paraphrasing her understanding of Al Nahda’s position. But from her concern over the status of women we arrive at an understanding, regardless of whether the threat to women’s rights comes from an Al Nahda legislation or a social value, of perceptions of women’s rights in Tunisia, and how women’s rights fit into the changing political environment. Answering whether she felt that the situation has gotten worse since the revolution, or whether it has been a long time coming, she pointed to a growing trend of decreasing ‘experienced’ rights of women. Mouna’s perceived ‘reality’ offers a marked divergence from the narrative of women’s rights generally invoked when discussing Tunisia. Has it gotten worse?

“Yes. It has gotten worse. It was best during my grandmother’s years or maybe in the 1960s, 1970s. Since then it has been up and down but recently I am very concerned. And now with Al Nahda it could get even worse.” A number of political advertisements, commercials on television or kept to digital circulation, purportedly apolitical but obviously targeted at Al Nahda, have directed an accessible critical appeal on behalf of women, against an Islamic takeover of the political and social space left vacant with the flight of Ben Ali and the RCD. Not necessarily because of a particular enmity toward Islam, tout court, as religious rights must also be given a fair inclusion within any such discourse, but out of a precedent of doctrinal interpretation that favors a patriarchal power structure.

2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian human rights defender Shirin Ebadi, an outspoken critic for women’s rights within Islam who takes the antithetical position of Ayaan Hirsi Ali-who argues that Islam and human rights are inherently at odds-offers some assistance for this discussion. In a recent interview Ebadi gave to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates she expresses that women should “not give way to a government that would force you to choose between your rights and Islam…Getting to understand Islam well and encouraging women to learn different interpretations of Islam is important.” As one Tunisian woman told the Guardian in the lead up to the election, it is not only a concern of forcing Islam on the secular. “I am a religious woman. I pray. They want to impose the religion of An Nahda on me? I pray by myself. They are telling me to pray? Why do they impose things on me?”

Ebadi continues, speaking about women, Islam, and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, stating that women in these countries  have witnessed the predicament of Iranian women and have seen how Islam ‘hijacked the Iranian revolution.’ Essentially Ebadi argues that of course there are serious issues of women’s rights in many countries in the Muslim world but these inequalities do not stem from an enlightened interpretation of Islam; they stem from the patriarchal structures of traditional society, which have masked themselves in Islam and given women, and men, the false choice of voting with X party or government or against Islam. In the Tunisian case, it is part of a crafted narrative that Al Nahda represents Islam and therefore any vote against Al Nahda is a vote against Islam. It is part of the narrative that conflates concern over Al Nahda, a political party, with Islamophobia- an argument with as much reasonable, academic appeal as criticizing human rights reports on Israeli abuses in Palestine with anti-semitism or a critical approach to US Foreign Policy with treason. There are plenty of women, and men, that are fearful that future criticisms of Al Nahda’s policies will be translated by Al Nahda as an attack on Islam. The concern for the women of Tunisia will be how Al Nahda chooses to interpret Islam and how women will factor in this interpretation. And this concern has echoed, in varying degrees of severity, through the conversations I have had and the tweets, blogs, and Facebook conversations I have observed.

While these challenges may emanate most resoundingly from those among the country’s elite (or minority as some might argue considering the high numbers of voter support for Al Nahda who gained 41% of the vote, earning them 90 seats in the 217 seat assembly), any reasonably concerned observer must position these concerns and critical analyses within the universal dialectic on women’s rights and cultural values. The question that is most pressing perhaps as Tunisia heads into a new era of national, ideological, and social introspection is how cultural, religious, and political values will be judged, treated, and implemented. A number of women have expressed to me that the most important change needed in Tunisia, rather than the political or economic change many foreign media and policy perspectives have highlighted, is a change in mentality. As Tunisian artist and theorist Mohamed Ben Soltane notes in an article in Nafas Art Magazine, “We took possession of our country and we must build a model of living together that meets our needs. This is Culture. We must restore our confidence in our creative abilities and assume our responsibilities.”

Changing a nation’s mentality is a more complicated task than queuing to cast a vote for a constituent assembly. It requires creative engagement and a rearticulation of power and place.

I will offer a cursory example.

A few days after I arrived in Tunisia, a friend and former classmate, Yasmin, invited me to attend Amnesty International Tunisia’s new ten point country plan for human rights. Of the issues presented, the death penalty and women’s rights sparked the most animated conversation among the twenty-nine party representatives and five private citizens who responded. A few party representatives went so far as to ask “If there is a ministry of women’s affairs, why isn’t there a ministry of men’s affairs?” Or to state that “We are placing women at the level of God.” But a number of representatives defended women’s rights noting that “Women need a ministry because they are discriminated against.” But what presents a deeper view into the ‘mentality’ of Tunisian social space came after the conference, when Yasmin and two friends of mine, Graham and Brandon, went looking for a cafe to discuss the day’s events.

I suggested a cafe where Graham, Brandon and I had gone several times. They have a good café allongé, espresso served with water. As I was suggesting the cafe Yasmin noted that the majority of Tunisia’s many cafes are for male clientele only. This had not occurred to the three of us. However, after Yasmin’s comments, and looking back, the gender segregation of cafe public space had been glaringly obvious. What does this mean exactly? In part, the cafe represents an open forum, a caffeinated agora, the salon of political engagement, where actors may participate in the dialogic process of negotiating place and meaning. One is left to consider the culturally accepted place of women in the activity of negotiating ‘reality’ in a cultural mentality where custom is to segregate this sort of public participation. Of course there are bars and clubs were this gender segregation does not occur, but these are the venues frequented by the country’s elite, again that word with its complexity of meanings. The point however is learning how to treat the cafe as an analytical model for perceiving social space. There are volumes of potentially analyzable data that can be drawn from the cafe, as a metaphor and material substance, but for our purpose here this simple example will have to suffice.

Returning from the precipice of the metaphysics of the cafe, a subject I will return to in a later post, I offer what appears to be the recurring sentiment of many men in Tunisia. “Women are weak.” I will elaborate. Women and Islam has also been the thrust of a number of conversations I have had with several men, resting in a cafe in Tunis, sitting in a living room, or, most recently, walking through the streets of Gabes. There is a disconnect between the equal status afforded to women in Islam and the practice of implementing this status, as alluded to by Shirin Ebadi above. That patriarchal structures of power manipulate partial interpretations of Islam is an inconceivable fact to a number of these men. For them, Islam is pure, or it is not Islam. One of them, a 21 year old Tunisian who has studied in France for two years, told me that he would not vote Al Nahda. Not because he was worried about Islamists in government-a situation it seems he would prefer- but because he did not trust Al Nahda was a true Isamist party. This is a point for another post. I return to women and the cafe as a social indicator of gender mentalities.

In Gabes, for example, the night of Eid-the Muslim holiday of sacrifice meant to symbolize Abraham’s trial by God- I was walking back to my rented apartment with Sammy, a Tunisian male friend of mine. We passed many open cafes, despite the rest of the town being closed for the holiday, and, since Yasmin’s comments, I have been keen to observe the gender make up of cafes. Sure enough it was a men’s world. Sammy began to complain, noting the high amounts of young Tunisian men who spend all of their time in cafes. The concern of too many men in cafes as an indicator of employment malady was also expressed to me by two women, the executive assistant and chief designer, at a small fashions textile factory in Nabeul during a visit before the election. If too many men in a cafe can be treated as a barometer of an economic phenomenon then it should logically serve, ceteris paribus, as a barometer of a gender phenomenon.

The problem, Sammy said, was that these young men didn’t have anything else to do, jobs are a problem, hobbies other than watching football are a problem, etc. I mentioned that there are no women in the cafes, “Where do women go to socialize?”

“There are separate cafes for married couples and families,” replied Sammy. “Okay, but what about women who are not married?”

“What?” He didn’t understand.

“What do women who are not married do? Say there are three or four friends, all girls, where do they go if they want to hang out and chat?”

He reiterated that there are cafes for married couples, to which I pushed, “So unless a women is married she cannot go out?” This quickly turned into the old standard, ‘it is for their protection; women are weak. Men might say some bad things or make her feel uncomfortable.’

“Shouldn’t the society be more concerned with correcting the bad behavior of the men than in keeping the women locked up?” I asked.

“They are not locked up. Look, Tunisia has about 60% women in universities.” This may be true but where are they after the classes end? Where are women, represented in the public space? How does this public representation filter into private conceptions of value?

Fear of hurting her father’s or brother’s reputation has kept at least one female acquaintance of mine from allowing me to visit her hometown unless I did so without connecting with her. Concern that her behavior will reflect poorly on her family, in this sort of scenario, is that the perception is that she is a commodity of the family and must remain within a conception of purity if she is to be accepted as a bride, etc. etc. It is an old analysis. Hoarded away into homes and families after graduation is no way to bring women, hence women’s rights, into the salience of the public sphere to encourage a robust engagement with understanding and improving women’s rights. The cafe plays a very important social function in society. A drastic gender imbalance in the most prominent public space of the country, the cafe, has a symbolic value which arguably has a psychic affect on how society perceives women.

I offer a quote from a Guardian article by Angelique Chrisafis. She quotes Jamila Brahid, a woman in Kairouan. “The men are all sitting in cafes. The women do all the work, in the fields, as well as the home, earning money, making bread, providing for and taking care of the whole family… At least now we’ve got freedom of speech. Who says poor rural women aren’t interested and won’t vote? We’re mobilized. We’ve been oppressed for too long.” And what with this voice? How will this freedom of speech be factored into the conversation on shaping Tunisia’s future?

Speaking on the gender parity in the constituent assembly, Nejib Chebbi, president and founder of the PDP, discussed in an earlier post, had this to say, according to an article in the Huffington Post, “There is the obligation of getting results… Parity is one thing, but the reality is another.” Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Paul Schemm, the authors of the Huffington Post article, continue, “The new assembly will write the country’s constitution and groups like the Association of Democratic Women worry that their long-held rights may not be explicitly protected in the new document.”

As I mentioned, a number of women, and men, with whom I have spoken highlight the necessity of a change in mentality. Those whose concern over the rights of women, and other human rights in fact, stem from a perception that abuses of women’s rights stem not from political or religious doctrine alone may be less moved when Al Nahda president Rachid Ghannouchi’s daughter Intissar Ghannouchi- who is usually clarified as a student at the School of Oriental And African Studies at the University of London- states that “Al Nahda is clear on women’s issues, respects women’s rights and will not impose theocracy but believes in equality.” For Al Nahda’s critics these announcements are treated as the manifestation of double messages, the duplicity of discourse and feed the distrust of politicians. But if the meaning of a demand to change mentality is to sink in we must realize that what many Tunisians are skeptical of is not only the promises of politicians but the potential of fellow citizens. Of course, much of the anti Al Nahda criticisms have come because of what Al Nahda supporters have done.

Ellen Knickmeyer pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article, “As elsewhere in the Arab world, the joining of forces to rise against dictators momentarily blurred the lines between secularists and fundamentalists. But months later, in countries where the dictators no longer rule, the distinctions are growing sharper every day.” What she is describing is the difficult task of reaching a consensus in a value-pluralist social space, to which acclaimed sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has noted, “[n]ot every difference has the same value, and some ways of life and forms of togetherness are ethically superior to others; but there is no way of finding out which is which unless each one is given an equal opportunity to argue and prove its case (Bauman 2001: 79).” With this in mind I would elaborate on Knickmeyer’s analysis. Secular and fundamentalist identities came together during the revolution, to reach perhaps what political philosopher John Gray (2000) would call a shabby consensus, and now the commingled identities that have been subjugated under the tyranny of Ben Ali have found freedom to compete for a consensus The question is how will this space be kept free to allow for an equal opportunity where all actors and identities may argue and prove their case.

I am not negating the fact that what has taken place in Tunisia has been positive. Of course the promise to shrug off domination and collectively negotiate a national political and social autonomous identity is a powerful experience. My concern is that, in the state of elation, the domestic and international community does not allow the euphoria, and the existing narrative of rights, to obfuscate a critical phenomenological engagement with the established narrative of women’s rights, the political environment, and the material or experienced phenomenon of women in Tunisia.

Election Day, 23 October, voters leaving a voting station in Bab Souika, Tunis

Bauman, Zygmunt, (2001) Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge, UK: Polity

Gray, John, (2000) Two Faces of Liberalism, New York, NY: The New Press

2 Responses to A Feminist (trans)election Barometer

  1. nodmil says:

    I enjoyed reading this.

  2. Maryam says:

    Dear Michael, Sorry for my long delay in responding to you. I finally had a chance to read through this piece and I’m really grateful for both the facts about Tunisia’s legal history vis a vis women and the analysis on your interactions. I just got back from another trip. What strikes me is that this narrative of things were better in the 70s for women is constant across the world and in the US…of course its not true but we are engaged in a serious confrontation with traditional and progressive values across the board. What I think we need everywhere is an emphasis on consequences of laws and regulations rather than abstract assertions about human rights and Sharia. Also, the divisions between people in society perpetuate these policies. I am going to write about this soon. Will send to you. Good to be in touch and I look forward to reading more. Maryam from http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/3271/maryam_abolfazli_on_fire/ & http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/3356/maryam_abolfazli_collisions_a/

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