This post originally appeared on Sharnoff's Global Views.
In the middle of the political crisis in Tunisia, Tunisian women, celebrating their national day today, seem to be caught in the middle of a situation that does not look like a celebration. Besides facing the threat of conservative political forces, a lot of issues remain unsolved, for 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 13 August 1956, the Code of Personal Status was promulgated, making unilateral divorce (or repudiation), polygamy and child marriage things from the past. This is when 13 August becomes Women’s National Day, cutting off that date from what has preceded it.
Tahar Haddad’s book, Our women in Sharia’ and Society, published in 1930, and explicitly calling for women’s emancipation through education and participation in the workforce, is a truly avant -gardist document with regards women’s rights in Tunisia. The book earned Haddad the antagonism of the Tunisian traditional population and scholars, and banishment from scholarly circles at the time. 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 to history is complex and embroiled with political disputes of various political forces. The most notable women militants like Fatma Haddad and Fawzia Bouzgarrou have belonged to different, even rival, ideological and political currents, but have nonetheless contributed to the creation of a relatively coherent women’s movement, despite being part of existing political parties.
Perhaps what characterizes pre-independence women’s movement in Tunisia is that unlike feminist groups in some other Arab countries that burgeoned among upper classes, Tunisia’s early women’s movement mostly flourished through the efforts of middle class citizens who connected easily with the labor movement in the country. In the early fifties, even rural women became part of the struggle, something that is quite unusual for a country that had not yet obtained independence, and where rural areas were relatively isolated from public life.
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