Reconciling Gender and Religious Identity in Tunisia

“Feminism was a tool for female advancement”.
Amel Grami

In Maghreb countries, Islam was a crucial cultural and religious factor of unity. It was considered as the national struggle for independence. After the independence, Maghreb countries experienced what we can call “Nationalization of religion”. Postcolonial Tunisia was founded on the principles of modernity and a moderate Islam that enabled the establishment of a family law which recognized the basic women’s rights (Arfaoui, 2016). After Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, the first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba chose to found a modern system and to promote women’s rights. The Personal Status Code established in 1956 had a progressive nature. The code granted equality in divorce procedures, gave women the right to divorce and child custody, banned polygamy, established consent and instituted a minimum age for marriage. In addition, it gave women the right to work, travel, start businesses and open bank accounts (Grami,2018). Bourguiba’s regime was considered a new period in Islamic innovation, which is essentially similar to early phases in the history of Islamic thought (Charred, as cited in Grami, 2018). After Bourguiba’s removal from the office by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, the latter followed Bourguiba’s same secular republican path. He continued to promote women’s rights by implementing policies and reforms that improve women’s political, social, economic and legal situation. In this respect, in 2007, the minimum age in Tunisia was raised from 15 to 18 for women and men (Grami, 2018). He portrayed himself as a champion of women’s rights.

From the beginning of the 21st century, women’s rights were expanded in areas that significantly concern marriage contracts, custody over children and alimony (Grami, 2018). These policies reflected the modern progressive ideology adopted by the State and portrayed Tunisia as embracing modernity in the international community’s eyes. The debate over women’s rights made the polarisation between secularists and Islamists significantly visible. The debate was framed within two dichotomies and opposed visions. On the one hand, the western model of liberation supporting a modernist view. On the other hand, the conservative Islamic perspective calling for the return of Islamic rule. Islamists accused the State of not respecting the Muslim identity. While the State blamed the Islamists for wanting to return to the dark ages (Grami, 2018). They were no autonomous feminist movement in Tunisia. Women’s activism was always circumscribed within an inherent conflict between the Islamists and the State. Radhia Haddad, the president of the National Union of Tunisian Women, among other feminists were criticizing and denouncing state feminism. Although his progressive revolutionary ideas, Bourguiba prefered to strengthen the traditional women’s roles, and he refers to them as wives, mothers, and guardians of the culture and Islamic tradition (Grami, 2018). After the independence, the field of religious exegesis and studies remained male-dominated (Grami, 2018). Most of the Tunisian feminists were part of leftist parties and were not knowledgeable about religious issues. Nevertheless, many women today are starting to embrace an Islamic perspective to women’s empowerment and emancipation. These women have chosen to defend their feminist agenda within a religious framework. They wanted to reconcile their gender and religious identity by re-interpreting religious texts and appropriating the religious field. They also tried to deconstruct religious discourses to fight men’s monopoly of religious knowledge and denounce state feminism and patriarchy (Grami, 2018).

The rise of political Islam and the politicization of religion have pushed feminist scholars to take action. They were harshly accused of being western pawns implemented by imperialist agendas. By countering this religious discourse, they were defending themselves against charges of lacking religious legitimacy and knowledge (Grami, 2018). Tunisian feminists challenge literal readings of the Quran done by male religious scholars and represented by them as authentic to the Islamic legacy. Feminist scholars tried to criticize the existing religious knowledge without repudiating their cultures. They believe that gender justice is essential to a just society. Women’s rights have become a fertile ground for ideological and political debates after the independance in 1956 and the revolution in 2011. In this respect, the feminist voice had known a crucial disparity regarding women’s status. Therefore, it was significantly challenging to reach a unified vision concerning the future of women’s situation in Tunisia. In sum, feminists have enormously helped reshape and refashion the upcoming generation’s consciousness from a gender perspective (Grami, 2018). Women’s engagement in the reinterpretation of religious texts has enabled them to integrate the public sphere and establish a different form of knowledge (Grami, 2018). However, many women were still adopting a conservative perspective of Islam, and they ultimately rejected the secular view since they considered it a threat to Islam. Fatima Shakeout, for example, was calling for a radical conservative form of Islam, and she denounced the Personal Status Code because it goes against the Sharia law (Grami, 2018).


Tunisia is represented as the positive outcome of the Arab Spring. The establishment of an egalitarian, democratic constitution and the strong women’s rights movement have made Tunisia a great example to follow by other countries in the region. The post-revolution period has known a prominent debate around the Personal Status Code between secularists and Islamists. On the one hand, the secularists perceived Bourguiba as the « liberator of women » and called for more reforms to advance women’s rights. On the other hand, Salafists were firmly against the western perspective and wanted to reinforce the authentic Islamic order (Grami, 2018). Therefore, the dichotomous debate emphasized the existing division between scholars who seek to advance women’s rights and others who want to establish an authentic Islamic order. The secularists were accused of immorality and infidelity. Secular feminists were perceived as traitors and as a disgrace to the Islamic culture in Tunisia. Islamists have tried their best to portray feminists as morally transgressive of the ideal divine order (Grami, 2018). They were described as “non-believers”, and they were seen as enemies of the Ummah. Women activists who received support from the State were perceived after the 2011 revolution by the Islamists (mainly members of the Al Nahda party) as supporters of the State (Grami, 2018). They were treated as against Islam. In this sense, the question of women’s rights has become unconsciously related to Bourguiba and Ben Ali, who are considered dictators and enemies of religion (Grami, 2018). Members of Al Nahda party have a negative view of women’s rights since they conceive them as opposed to the divine law (Sharia). Many feminists were dismissed because they were only representing the liberal social class, essentially acting against Islam. Some politicians who are part Al Nahda party believe that society’s economic and ethical sicknesses are the result of the alienation from the ideal Islamic path. In order to get more support, Islamists instrumentalize the narrative of Muslim oppressed veiled women as victims of the former dictatorships (Grami, 2018). Numerous members of the Al Nahda party attacked some activists during the process of writing the new Constitution after the revolution because they accused them o violating Islamic morality (Grami, 2018). In fact, post-revolution Islamism has become more complex than just spiritual practices and piety. Despite all the promises to promote the women’s rights agenda that Nahdawi leaders made, many of them were willing to Islamise the society (Grami, 2018). Rached Ghannouchi, the co-founder of the Al Nahda party, called for a revision of the Personal Status Code and other members of his party suggested implementing the Sharia.


Moreover, despite the efforts done by the ruling Islamist party to look like a party that respects women’s rights by recruiting women, the party’s real attitude towards women was apparent when it suggested a reform of Article 28 of the draft constitution to define women as “complementary to men” (Grami, 2018). This proposal was a shock for women activists. It also paved the way for adopting Sharia law that perceives women as supplementary to men and not as equal partners (Grami, 2018). Fortunately, this suggestion was met by strong protests on August 13, 2012, considered Women’s Day in Tunisia. Furthermore, some Islamists started calling to lift the ban on polygamy and permit religious marriages (Moghadam, as cited in Grami, 2018). After the fall of the Morsi regime, Al Nahda tried to place women in the positions of public representatives of so-called “moderate Islam”. They aimed to show the Tunisian Islamist party as different from other political parties in the region. They claimed that they embrace a moderate political Islam, which is not contradictory with democracy nor incompatible with women’s rights.

The uncertainty concerning the future of women’s rights in Tunisia fueled women and motivated them to go in manifestations, raise their voices and expand their sphere of influence. It is also worth noting that social media had a significant impact on promoting gender equality and societal change (Grami, 2018). Tunisian women have long enjoyed rights that were seen as a mirage for other women in other countries in the region. However, these rights were often used to discredit and disarm feminists (Grami, 2018). The main change that was brought by the 2011 revolution was the responsibility and accountability shift from the State to the civil society and lawmakers. Women’s massive vote has powerfully changed the power balance and enabled the victory of the liberal candidate Nida Tunis. This demonstrates the importance of women’s political activism. political involvement is, therefore, crucial and even indispensable for women’s fight for their rights (Grami, 2018).


Sources:

  • Arimbi, D. (2009). Contemporary Issues of Women and Islam in Muslim Societies. In Reading Contemporary Indonesian Muslim Women Writers: Representation, Identity and Religion of Muslim Women in Indonesian Fiction (pp. 27-54). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n07t.5
  • Badran, M. (2001). Locating Feminisms: The Collapse of Secular and Religious Discourses in the Mashriq. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, (50), 41-57. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4066404
  • Grami, A. (2013). Islamic Feminism: A new feminist movement or a strategy by women for acquiring rights? Contemporary Arab Affairs, 6(1), 102-113. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/48600673
  • Moghadam, V. (2014). DEMOCRATIZATION AND WOMEN’S POLITICAL LEADERSHIP IN NORTH AFRICA. Journal of International Affairs, 68(1), 59-78. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24461706
  • Moghadam, V. (2007). GLOBALIZATION, STATES, AND SOCIAL RIGHTS: NEGOTIATING WOMEN’S ECONOMIC CITIZENSHIP IN THE MAGHREB. International Review of Modern Sociology, 33, 77-104. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41421289
  • Yacoubi, I. (2016). Sovereignty From Below: State Feminism and Politics Of Women Against Women In Tunisia. The Arab Studies Journal, 24(1), 254-274. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44746854

About the author:

Rim Affathe is a 20 years old master’s student. She was born and raised in Morocco, and she is currently living in Vienna. She is an International Relations master’s student at Central European University in Vienna. Rim Affathe has a vested interest in gender studies, postcolonial feminism, security studies and diplomacy. She aspires to be a Moroccan diplomat and a women’s rights advocate. She is also a member of the feminist and youth-led initiative Politics4Her.

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