Women’s movements in Tunisia

Challenges and perspectives towards a common project

Essay, 2022

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background: State feminism vs. grassroots women’s movements

3. Evolution of women’s movements in post-revolution Tunisia and the clash between “contemporality” and “tradition”

4. The heritage oflslam for Tunisian women’s movements

5. Conclusion: Towards a collective Tunisian women’s project? The need of building bridges

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Albeit women’s movements in Tunisia date back to the 20th century, it is fair to acknowledge that in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, women’s activism intended to renegotiate their identities and status to a broader extent than in earlier times and to expand active leadership and civil society’s influence in women’s rights reforms (cf. Grami 2018: 23; cf. Norbakk 2016:15). It is also important to recognize that, compared to other countries of the Maghreb region (Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt), Tunisian women’s movement was visible and well-organized at the start of the Arab Spring and the female share in parliament was one of the highest among the abovementioned countries, back then and now (26% in 2021) (cf. Moghadam 2018: 9; World Bank 2022). Nonetheless, one of the most concerning and prevailing drawbacks to women’s full and equal citizenship lies in their significantly lower access to employment and unequal wage. In fact, the female labor force participation rate increased only a few percentage points from 26.8% in 2011 to 28,3% in 2021, while the latest figures amount to 75% (2019) in male labor force participation (cf. World Bank 20221 ). Another prevailing impediment to equality dwells in inheritance law. Tunisian Parliament has heretofore failed to pass the draft bill proposed by Beji Caid Essebsi in November 2018, which would grant women equal inheritance rights (cf. Charrad/Youseff2021: 2).

Tunisian women’s movements are anything but homogenous. Grassroots women’s movements and new forms of feminism[1] have been competing against a top-down feminist project promoted by the state. Hence, tensions between the different understandings of a women’s rights agendas have clashed, making room for new conceptions of Tunisian womanhood, resistance, and empowerment. The dichotomy between “contemporality” and “tradition”2 might have hindered women’s collective empowerment and the formation of an all-encompassing movement. Nevertheless, Tunisian women are still capable and encouraged to build bridges between the diverse women’s projects and continue to demand tangible gender equality, especially concerning decision-making positions. This diversity in perceptions, as well as the enthusiasm to prove the compatibility between a women’s project seeking gender equality and Islamic tradition, constitute one of the most valuable potentials of Tunisian women’s movements. This might even result promising for the women’s cause in the first place, considering that there is sufficient common ground among the intrinsic principles and objectives of women’s movements around the world. Other women’s movements in the phase of consolidation can thus learn important lessons from the Tunisian example.

The following segments will briefly recapitulate some of the most relevant historical milestones of Tunisian history while acknowledging their interconnection with the evolution of Tunisian women’s movements over the decades. Special attention will be drawn to the consolidation of grassroots, state-independent women’s movements in post-revolution Tunisia, and to the necessity of reconciling the heretofore contesting women’s projects. This, with the motivation to understand: what challenges have Tunisian women’s movements faced thus far and what perspectives do they have to build a more consolidatedproject?

2. Historical background: State feminism vs. grassroots women’s movements

The early women’s movements in Tunisia date back to the 1920s and aid, among others, to enhance Tunisian women’s level of education, which in turn should give way to a generation of women with the potential of impacting society and politics. Especially in the late 1920s, denounces regarding women’s status (e.g., regarding access to education, work, and political participation), inspired more drastic demands, mostly related to women’s self-fulfillment and right to take part in social life (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 54f). With Tunisian independence in 1956, former president Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) promulgated the Code of Personal Status (CPS),3 giving rise to a state-led “feminist agenda” based upon the principle of gender equality. Hence, women’s political rights were acknowledged, polygamy and repudiation were abolished, and several women increasingly started to reject the veil (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 55f). Despite Bourguiba’s initiatives to encourage the development of a modem nation-state, such reforms were initiated by an unchallenged elite and did not respond to any grassroots women’s movement, suggesting the top-down character of the national women’s agenda (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 56; Gondorova2014: 31).

Women’s involvement in the public and political spheres was championed by the political leadership under the auspices of the dominant party. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, however, the state’s project began to clash with the emerging Islamist movement. The former would criticize Islamists for their alleged strong reliance on tradition, while the latter would accuse the government of “uprooting Muslim women from their Islamic identity” (cf. Grami 2018: 27). Especially in the 1980s, “contemporality” and “tradition” competed for ideological influence and political expression within the so far state-led feminist movement (cf. Grami 2018: 26). Notwithstanding this, “women’s activism remained circumscribed within a national political conflict between the state and the dissident Islamist voices” (Grami 2018: 27).

With the merging of the three main women’s movements into the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), women’s policy continued to be strictly dependent on Bourguiba’s government (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 56). Limited freedom of expression and association accounted for some of their main objects of critique (cf. Grami 2018: 28). Nevertheless, women continued to advance on a state-independent agenda that fulfilled their demands beyond the still insufficient changes achieved by means of the CPS. In 1989 their efforts seemed to bear fruits, as the first autonomous women’s organizations were founded: The Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) and the Tunisian Association of the Democratic Women (ATFD) (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 57). Both domestic circumstances and international conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women - abbreviated as CEDAW (ratified in 1985), seemed to have additionally fuelled the emergence of these non-governmental women’s organizations. Furthermore, this new generation of female scholars could profit from the generalization of education in Tunisia (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 57).

Their underlying motivation was, on the one hand, to promote a critical and constructive reflection on the situation of Tunisian women back then. On the other hand, to establish networks with women’s organizations in neighboring countries and in other regions of the world, aiming to come up with common strategies to eradicate gender-based discrimination and generate pedagogy around this issue (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 57). What differentiated their women rights’ agendas from the state-led organizations was, above all, the development of their own programs of action under the motto “women’s rights to citizenship and equality”. They drew attention to so far neglected issues like gender-based discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, violence against women, and the issue of inheritance, among others (cf. Arfaoui 2007: 57).

3. Evolution of women’s movements in post-revolution Tunisia and the clash between “contemporality” and “tradition”

Despite further accomplishments concerning women’s education, participation in the public sphere, and the continued effort to maintain women’s rights through social institutions during Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s administration (1987-2011), equality between women and men has not been fully achieved heretofore, especially when it comes to equal access to decision-making positions, (cf. Grami 2018: 25; Gondorova 2014: 32), to employment and legal protection, for instance in cases of domestic violence, and regarding inheritance rights (cf. Norbakk 2016: 21f).

Although women’s movements had never been homogenous thus far, differences in the advocating strategies of Islamists and “secularists”4 exacerbated in the aftermath of the revolution (cf. Grami 2018: 40). The clash between Islamist and “secular groups” reached a new peak in 2011 when the first elections were held following the Jasmine Revolution. With the overwhelming victory in the legislative elections of 2011 and a female share of 26% in the National Constituent Assembly, the Ennahda Party - self-defined as an Islamic democratic party - intended to portray itself as women-friendly and carry the flag of women's rights (cf. Grami 2018: 37f). According to “secularists”, “the years 2011 to 2013 witnessed a shift under the new Islamist government towards a more explicit state-led anti-women’s rights agenda”. Non-governmental women’s organizations often pointed out that beyond its outspoken support for the CPS, Ennahda had not formulated a coherent policy on women’s issues (cf. Gondorova 2014: 43; Grami 2018: 39).

The fundamental clash lies thus in the gap between the women’s agendas of the ruling party on the one hand, and of non-governmental organizations, on the other hand. The latter perceived the compliance of the National Constituent Assembly with measures that decisively contested gender discrimination and segregation and allocated the responsibility to combating gender­based violence within the state, as insufficient (cf. Grami 2018: 41). Well-established organizations and women’s rights advocates had long lobbied for influencing legal processes and for introducing tangible laws seeking to institutionalize gender parity and end violence against women. They therefore demanded more support for this agenda through visible action, as well as a higher accountability and state responsibility (cf. Grami 2018:41; 43f).

One of the most prominent examples of this confrontation concerns the case of the complementarity clause. Ennahda was accused of political conservatism towards family law by allegedly advocating for Art. 2.28 of the draft constitution, which stated the complementarity of roles in family of men and women. This unleashed massive protests and debate around women’s status and brought state women’s rights agendas from those of non-governmental organizations further apart (cf. Norbakk 2016. 17-19). Ennahda female representatives defended their intention of highlighting “how men and women have different - but equal - duties in the family “, suggesting that the clause was misunderstood and that they were too in favor of gender equality (cf. Norbakk 2016. 18). Despite the common ground between both agendas, the understandings of women’s fundamental freedoms and the preferred strategy towards equality seems to slightly deviate. The Islamist women’s movement, for instance, has consistently pleaded for including the freedom of religion and political affiliation as fundamental for woman’s equality. In this vein, women’s right to veil has therefore regained importance in this movement, being conceived as an expression of freedom of choice (cf. Norbakk2016: 16f).

Regardless of their political agenda, female members of the National Constituent Assembly did not enjoy independence from the Ennahda Party. “They did not show any independence from party policies, decided mostly by a male-dominated central committee. They did not adopt, individually or as a group, any position championing women's roles, and rights in political or social spheres” (Grami 2018: 43). In short, the women’s discourse was predominantly absorbed into the dominant state discourse, hindering women’s rights associations - state sympathizers or not - to act autonomously without the state’s interference (cf. Gondorova 2014: 33) Despite their degree of autonomy, it should not be overlooked that Ennahda women managed to mobilize female voters for the National Constituent Assembly elections and to reach rural women throughout this process (cf. Gondorova 2014: 42). This, aiming to bring forward a political Islam that would reconcile the idea of democracy and the “modem status” of women in society with Muslim tradition (cf. Grami 2018: 43).

What can be concluded from this section is that the rise of Islamist power in the country revitalized the women’s movements in post-revolution Tunisia (cf. Grami 2018: 43). Ever since, and partly motivated by the political instrumentalization that had hampered full legal equality between men and women so far, the non-governmental women’s movement, reinforced its resistance and expanded its political scope and medial support yet counting with the outspoken support of well-established women’s organizations such as AFTURD and ATFD (cf. Grami 2018: 41f). Continuous demonstrations and a broader debate on the women’s future in Tunisia, especially in social media platforms, were fertile ground for the 2014 elections, in which the newly constituted secular party Nidaa Tounes, obtained 86 of the 217 seats in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, while the Ennahda Party lost 20 out of the 89 seats it had obtained in the previous parliamentary election (cf. Grami 2018: 44/ cf. National Democratic Institute2014: 53).


1 The following paper rather uses the term women’s movements, in contrast to “feminist”. According to Prof. Beckwith, the key difference lies in the fact that feminist movements are predominantly characterized by their objection to all forms of gender-based domination and patriarchy, while a women’s movement encompasses a broader series of women’s gendered experiences (Beckwith 2007:lf).

2 Acknowledging the complexity of such wording and the importance of a postcolonial critique of concepts that follow a linear, Eurocentric conception of history (e.g., modernity), contemporality refers in this case to the stronger uprooting from traditional Islamic tradition and a more marked orientation towards international women’s rights standards, while tradition implies a rootedness in what is perceived as the authentic Islamic belief. This paper intends, however, to remain free of any sort of normative assessment.

3 The CSP primarily concerns personal status and deals with men and women’s respective rights and duties within the family, among others (cf. Norbakk 2016.14).

4 „Secularits“ refers to the women’s movement that has framed its advocacy strategy within a less religious scheme, orientating itself towards a more international framework of women’s and human rights activism (cf. Grami 2018: 41).

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Women’s movements in Tunisia
Challenges and perspectives towards a common project
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Political Science)
Revolution und Entwicklung? Transformationen und Geschlecht in den arabischen Revolutionen
Catalog Number
Feminism, Tunisia, women's movements, Islam, Arab Spring
Quote paper
Daniela Forero Nuñez (Author), 2022, Women’s movements in Tunisia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1267312


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