In the middle of the political crisis in Tunisia, Tunisian women, celebrating their national day today, seem caught in the middle of a situation that does not look like a celebration.
Besides facing the threat of conservative political forces, many issues remain unsolved because women’s issues cannot be isolated from the country’s larger challenges.
In the middle of the economic crisis, women are not spared, as they constitute an important fork force, a great section of which is unacknowledged in official documents. The deficiency of the democratic institutions in the country also makes the ground shaky below women’s rights.
The official story claims that the history of women’s rights in Tunisia starts in 1956. However, if we want to contest the idea of the “Bourguibian woman,” which has grown into something close to a myth, several other factors can be discerned.
On August 13, 1956, the Code of Personal Status was promulgated, making unilateral divorce (or repudiation), polygamy and child marriage things from the past. This is when August 13 became Women’s National Day, cutting off that date from what preceded it.
Published in 1930, Tahar Haddad’s book Our women in Sharia’ and Society, explicitly calls for women’s emancipation through education and participation in the workforce. It is a truly radical and progressive document about women’s rights in Tunisia.
At the time, Haddad received criticism from traditional Tunisians and scholars. The Zeitouna, now standing for the moderate aspect of Tunisia’s traditional background, has not always shown support for modernizing projects, especially if they were related to women’s emancipation.
Women’s participation is complex and embroiled with political disputes of various political forces. The most notable female radicals like Fatma Haddad and Fawzia Bouzgarrou have belonged to different, even rival, ideological and political currents. However they have nonetheless contributed to the creation of a relatively coherent women’s movement, despite being part of existing political parties.
Perhaps what characterizes the pre-independence women’s movement in Tunisia is that unlike feminist groups in other Arab countries that grew among upper classes, Tunisia’s early women’s movement mostly flourished through the middle class who easily connected with the labor movement.
In the early 1950s, even rural women became part of the struggle, something that is quite unusual for a country which had not yet obtained independence, and where rural areas were relatively isolated from public life.
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Imen Yacoubi is a Professor of English and an academic researcher teaching English literature at the University of Jendouba. She earned a BA in English language and literature and her “Agrégation” diploma from the Faculty of Letters, Humanities and Arts of La Manouba and the Ecole Normale Superieure de Tunis. From 2005 to 2009, she taught at the University of Gabes, and has taught at the University of Jendouba since 2009. She is member of the Young Arab Analyst Network International and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Moorings, a cultural Maghrebi magazine in English. She is an alumnus of the Civic Engagement and Leadership Fellowship, a program accommodated by Syracuse University, NY. Imen is author and contributor for HumanRightsTV.com and MideastYouth.com. Read other articles by Imen.