Women are Tunisia’s revolutionary guards


Three years ago, December 17, 2010, something happened in Tunisia: the Jasmine Revolution. Remember? On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire. It was a desperate act that lit the sky and the world. His act reflected a general sense of despair, and in that reflected despair, people saw transformative change as their only hope. Within 28 days, on January 11, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned.

From its first flicker, the Jasmine Revolution was more than the ouster of a dictator. It was an assault on patriarchy that emerged from decades of women and youth organizing. Three years later, it still is.

For Tunisia, the past three years have been “interesting,” and particularly for women. The government has seesawed repeatedly on its position vis-à-vis women’s rights, equality, and roles. The State and parts of Civil Society have colluded in trying to diminish the significance of women’s work and contributions. And women have pushed back.

When the Ben Ali regime was in its last days, the State unleashed its dogs. Women, especially those in poorer areas, were sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped by security forces.  Women pushed back, and helped push Ben Ali out.

Once the unity of the first phase of the Jasmine Revolution dissipated, fractures emerged. In the intervening three years, women have reported increased attacks on women ostensibly for their attire. In some instances, women were attacked for not wearing a veil or for wearing jeans; in other instances, women were attacked for wearing veils.

The policing of women’s bodies intensified until last year, when a young woman was raped by police officers. She took the officers to court, where she was charged with public indecency. Across much of Tunisia, women and men said, “We are not going back!” Women pushed back, and continue to do so.

Women are organizing. They’re running for office, training, mobilizing, and generally opening common spaces and freer zones. According to the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, ATFD, a majority of women participating in revolutionary activities had suffered violence as women. This included secular feminists, such as those in the ATFD or the Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche sur le Développment; Ennahda women, especially those who had been imprisoned; the anti-heroic women youth insurgents who kept coming out into the streets and squares; women trade unionists and women homemakers; rural women and urban women; women who had extensive formal education and those who had been systematically denied access to education. Women.

And women are pushing back. They’re organizing tribunals to hear, publicize and respond to testimony on the forms of violence against women. There will be one taking place next week. Prominent women, such as Wided Bouchamaoui, Maya Jribi, Basma Khalfaoui, Salma Baccar, Amira Yahyaoui, Kalthoum Kennou, Leïla Ben Debba, Dalila Ben Mbarek, Mbarka Brahmi, Yamina Thabet, Néjiba Hamrouni, Amel Grami, Latifa Lakhdar, Olfa Youssef join women across the country in rejecting what Tunisian feminist Lilia Labidi named “féminisme au masculin.” Women are Tunisia’s revolutionary guards, and the revolution continues.


(Photo credit: Fethi Belaid / AFP / Jeune Afrique)