Published on January 29th, 20130
Women on the Barricades: A Feminist Approach to the Tunisian Revolution
By Håkon Tranvåg
This article investigates the participation of women in the Tunisian revolution in 2011. One of the things that caught the eye of the western media was the high number of women taking to the streets. To many, this was seen as a sign that Tunisian women were now standing up for their rights and fighting for gender equality. Others held the view that the revolution was not about women’s rights in particular, but that the Tunisian people was fighting for more democratic freedoms on a more general basis.
When twenty six year old Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself outside the police headquarters in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 in an act to protest the confiscation of his vegetable cart, he probably never imagined the consequences of his actions. Not only did it start a massive popular revolt in Tunisia itself, resulting in the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but dictators and presidents all across the Arab world were shaken to the core by uprisings and rebellions.
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen were forced to resign and countries like Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, and Morocco saw massive demonstrations and demands of political reforms, but without any transmission of power. Even more dramatically, Libya and Syria collapsed into brutal civil wars, the former resulting in the eventual downfall and death of long-time dictator Muhammad Gaddafi, the latter still raging with disastrous human costs.
There are several reasons why one can employ a feminist approach to explain the revolution. First, feminist theory is a relatively new theoretical branch in political science; and is thus yet little used. In this regard, it can have a lot to offer to our understanding of political events. Second, as previously mentioned, many western commentators regarded the high number of women participating as a sign of a “women’s” revolution. In addition to that, Tunisia is traditionally a strongly patriarchal country. These factors combined, feminist theory should be able to at least partly explain such events.
Feminist international theory
Feminism is a broad theory, often divided into three main branches: Liberal feminism, Marxist/socialist feminism and Radical feminism. The primary concern of Liberal feminism is the legal rights of women and how they are represented in politics. It places the individual in the centre of attention, and operates with a strict divide between the public and the private sphere. They do not directly interfere in the private sphere, but believe that juridical equality in public life will eventually lead to de facto equality in the private sphere as well.
Marxist feminism has a more economic focus. This branch draws heavily from the Marxist analysis of the state as a capitalist state and therefore a class oppressor. Marxist feminism takes this view and adds to it the notion of the state as an oppressor of sex as well. The state uses this as a tool to reinforce its hegemony in the capitalist system, and thus the oppression of women contributes to keeping the capitalist economic system intact.
It is first and foremost the class-system that is identified as the enemy: In a classless society, there will consequently be equality between sexes as well. For Marxist feminists, the struggle for gender equality is just a part of the bigger class war, and therefore it is often put in second line.
The third branch is Radical feminism. To Radical feminists, the patriarchy is the main problem, and this patriarchy exists on all levels of society. Thus, Radical feminism does not operate with the divide between the public and the private as Liberal feminism does. Radical feminism attacks not only the inequalities in public life; it attacks male power in the family as well, as it does not believe that de jure equality will inevitably lead to de facto equality. This makes it necessary to see beyond juridical definitions and use extra-parliamentary tools, because political reforms cannot change the power structures of the whole society.
Labelling a revolution as “feminist”
Exactly how one can detect a feminist identity in revolutions is no easy task. It is difficult to determine specific factors, activities, and goals that make it possible to label a revolution as a feminist one. According to Mary Ann Tetrault, there are three basic points of analysis. The first is the question of oppression of women in the pre-revolutionary society. Was gender a source of discrimination before the revolution? Were women oppressed simply because they were women?
The second point is about rhetoric. One needs to know if there were any demands of women’s rights that were articulated as goals of the revolution, and if there was a general support for these claims. And were there any female leaders or participants during the revolution?
Third, one must look at the outcomes of the revolution. Do women now have the same rights as men to participate in public life, politics, society and family? Do they at least have stronger rights than before the revolution? This is not easily answered, and it often takes some time to know with certainty, as changes and new structures are not implemented over night. In the case of Tunisia it is still too early to tell. Consequently, this question will not be dealt with here.
Women’s rights before the revolution
First then, one needs to answer if Tunisian women prior to the revolution were oppressed simply by virtue of being women. Since its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has often been hailed as a secular and economically well-developed country with strong women’s rights compared to its neighbours. Much of this is attributed to the 1956 Code of Personal Status.
This set of laws forbids polygamy, gives women the same right to file divorce as men, and declares in clear text that both spouses must agree to marriage. It also gives women the right to work and hold possession when married, and the right to abortion. Three years later, the Tunisian constitution was signed. This declares all citizens equal before the law, and forbids the forming of any political party that takes sex (among other things) as a basis for its existence. Further, Tunisia ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985.
However, the government made several reservations to the CEDAW, especially in questions of marriage and family. Among other things, the man still has a juridical dominant role as “head of family” and as sole guardian of the children. There are clear restrictions on the woman’s possibilities to re-marry: A Tunisian woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man, and must wait three months before re-marrying if her husband has left her, and four months if her husband has died.
Such restrictions do not exist for men. The lack of protection from domestic violence is striking: In marriage, rape is not illegal by law, and divorcing a violent husband is not easy, as this requires the man to have received a criminal conviction; a medical certificate from a doctor proving violence, is not sufficient.
Further, women were quite poorly represented in public life. Despite the fact that 54% of the students in higher education were women in 2012, only 25.5% of all Tunisian women had jobs (and only 16% of married women). There were 4 women out of 45 ministers in Ben Ali’s government. 27.6% of the representatives of the Lower House, and merely 15.6% of the representatives in the Upper House in the Tunisian Parliament were women. In 2010, Tunisia ranked 107th out of 134 countries in World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
There seems then, to be a lacking equality for women in Tunisia before the revolution. This should, according to Tetrault, indicate that there was a potential for a feminist revolution in Tunisia.
Women during the revolution
From a feminist perspective, three currents among the Tunisian demonstrators can be detected in the Tunisian revolution. The first is a minority, but nonetheless an active one. They were the ones who did not see Tunisian women as being equal with men, and who where willing to fight to change this. When the revolution came, they saw an opportunity to do so.
The discrimination against women cannot be removed simply by achieving democratic rights; there must also be an awareness of it, and there must be a will to fight it. They fear that the same will happen to Tunisian women as did with Algerian and Iranian women in the revolutions of 1962 and 1979, where women were active in the events, but lost many rights when the revolutions came to an end.
It is therefore necessary, according to them, to hold an active line throughout the revolution. There was a common feminist identity among them, they had an awareness of the fact that the group lacked rights that it ought to have, and there was a willingness to fight the patriarchy in both the public and private sphere. This echoes general Feminist theory, and more specifically Radical feminism.
A second group argued that a democratic revolution would inevitably lead to stronger women’s rights, but that this was not an isolated battle. They did not regard women as being equally put in Tunisian society, but were careful not to make the revolution in to a gender-based one. This is because it was important to create a common, unified front against the regime of Ben Ali, by avoiding as many potential fractions as possible.
Therefore, in order to keep the revolution going, the gender-focused battle was not prioritised. However, they were very aware of their current rights, and very determined to fight to keep them. Only through keeping their old rights could they have a chance to win new ones.
This, in a way, echoes both Liberal and Marxist feminism; Liberal feminism because of its belief that gender-equality will emerge through better laws and stronger rights; Marxist feminism because it stresses the need to put the gender-battle in second line in order to make sure that the greater revolution succeeds, and that only through the defeat of an oppressing state can an egalitarian society prevail.
The third current among the demonstrators is the relatively large part that did not see Tunisian women as being oppressed any more than men were in the pre-revolutionary Tunisia. They emphasise instead that Ben Ali’s regime did not discriminate on the basis of gender, but that it held back rights for all, both men and women.
For those who hold this view then, it was not necessary to focus on women’s emancipation, as the old regime oppressed everyone, regardless of gender. Fighting the dictatorship became a struggle for all, not just for women. They too emphasised the need to form a common, broad front against the regime, but contrary to the others, they did not see any gender-discrimination in the pre-revolutionary society – or, at least, it was not important enough to draw much attention during the revolution. It was the need for economic change and stronger democratic rights that were the important factors driving the revolution.
What about leading female figures and organisations? There were several women and feminist organizations prominent during the revolution in Tunisia. The Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, the Collectif Droits des Femmes, and the Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Développement were leading in organizing demonstrators and in giving a voice to women’s demands.
Maya Jribi, the first female leader of a major Tunisian political party (the Progressive Democratic Party) and later secretary-general of the newly founded Republican Party, was active during the revolution fighting for women’s rights and gender-equality.
27-year-old Amira Yahyaoui was an active blogger and campaigner for women’s rights during the revolution, and is now president of the Tunisian NGO Al Bawsala. Blogger and activist Lina Ben Mhenni travelled the country extensively during the revolution and reported both to international media and on her own blog about the atrocities done by the regime. Much cited in global media, she became an international figure, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
The answer to Tetrault’s second question about rhetoric and leading figures in the revolution seems to be a bit more ambiguous, then. There clearly were women and feminist organisations in leading roles during the revolution, and there were groups with demands and the will to fight for women’s emancipation. Active as they may have been, they did however not consist of the majority of protestors.
Three groups are identifiable with regards to feminist theory in the Tunisian revolution. The first did not see women as equal, and were willing to fight for better women’s rights. This can be described by Feminist theory – more specific Radical feminism – in that they had a common identity as women, that they felt that they should have stronger rights than they currently did enjoy, and that they were willing to fight for this to happen in all sectors of society.
A second current consisted of those who also considered women as oppressed by the virtue of being women, but they did not make it a prioritised battle during the revolution. This was because they stressed the need to form a broad front against Ben Ali’s regime, and that better women’s rights would be won if a more democratic society emerged after the revolution.
They clearly saw women as having a common identity and they claimed better rights as women. This is an echo of both Liberal and Marxist feminism. The third and last current consisted of those who did not see women as any more oppressed than men in the pre-revolutionary Tunisia. To them, the fight against the old regime was a universal one, and there was no need to make it into a gender-specific battle. It seems that the clear majority, both men and women, belonged to this group. The focus was first and foremost on getting rid of Ben Ali and his regime; all other struggles were put on hold.
Khosrokhavar, Farhad (2012). The New Arab Revolutions That Shook The World. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Randall, Vicky (2010). “Feminism.” In Marsh, David and Gerry Stoker (ed.). Theory and Methods in Political Science. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 114-135.
Tetrault, Mary Ann (1992). “Women and Revolution: A Framework for Analysis.” In Peterson, V. Spike (ed.). Gendered States. Feminist (Re)Visions of International Theory. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 99-121.
Online news coverage from BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, Le Figaro, and Le Monde.
*Cover photo by Magherabia, fire photo by Magherabia, wall photo by Khaled Abdelmoumen, market photo by Fabio Dilupio, city photo by Michael S. Gallagher, car photo by Magharebia, female demonstration photos by Felix Tusa.