Women in Tunisia’s Revolution

Women in Tunisia’s Revolution January 17, 2011

On Friday, the President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled his homeland as it was engulfed by an uprising, sparked by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate who had taken to selling fruit in Sidi Bouzid.  When authorities confiscated his wares for not having a license, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building. Protests followed, as thousands took to the street in a movement fueled by rage over corruption among the elite.

Unidentified Tunisian woman protesting. Image via AFP.

Anger in Tunisia has been building up for years, with Laila Al Trabelsi, former first Lady of Tunisia and infamous as “The Queen of Carthage,” becoming a lighting rod for much of the dissent.  As Larbi Sadiki puts it “The First Lady is almost the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos incarnate. But instead of shoes, Madame Leila collects villas, real estate and bank accounts.” Laila and the Trabelsi extended family are often referred to as “The Family” or “The Mafia” in Tunisia, and  “No to the Trabelsis who looted the budget,” has been a popular slogan in the protests.  The irony is that the references to Laila al Trabelsi have been the only mention of Tunisian women in the events leading up to the ousting of the regime. Unlike in Lebanon or in Iran, where Neda Agha-Soltan became a symbolic figure of resistance, there was little mention of the women who took part in the protests in Tunisia, or of the victims of the security forces response, such as the woman who was shot and killed in Nabeul.

What explains this disparity? This was very much a media event, and perhaps this in itself was part of the reason. In the Arab world, and to a lesser extent in French media, there has been a month of in-depth coverage of a developing story, but in English-language media, the real coverage began only as Ben Ali began making concessions. Consequently, there was no narrative to frame events, so a disproportionate amount of the analysis has focused on the new media’s role in the uprising, from Wikileaks to Twitter.

Yes, social networks had a huge role to play, as did bloggers and sites such as Nawwat. However, to suggest that social media “caused” the revolution, is ridiculous to say the least, and to call this the first Wikileaks revolution is to suggest the Tunisians were not informed of what was going on in their own country and needed to be told that the Trabelsi clan was corrupt. It also ignores the role of pan-Arab satellite TV, which was at least as important as the internet, as was recognized when activists acknowledged Al Jazeera for its part in presenting the story as a people’s struggle, rather than dismissing it as “unrest” over unemployment.

In focusing on the new media and its part in the uprising, the English-language media has diverted attention away from the people in the street, other than as an undifferentiated mass of angry Arab men. With so many deaths, and the revolt starting in more conservative regions, perhaps there were initially few women on the street. The lack of attention to the role of women may partly be because Tunisia’s revolution focused on issues, with little attention paid to the importance of circulating images of “liberated” women to get the West on its side.In Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, activists consciously created a particular image of liberal secular youth in revolt, a campaign one blogger extended to Tunisia recently, in a compilation of “Tunisia’s revolution babes.” Obviously, Tunisia’s revolution babes do not include older women or the hijabis, who were excluded from public spaces during the regime and had one more cause to celebrate the fall of Ben Ali.

While the vocal position on Iran’s Green Revolution was fueled by media focus on women seeking liberation from a repressive Islamist regime, Tunisia’s revolution was a secular, popular people’s movement. Tunisians were fighting a secular oppressive dictatorship, which was a U.S. ally in the war against terror. The difference in both the media coverage and the official response was only underlined when Hillary Clinton declared on the 12th of January that Washington would not take sides.

Now that the regime has been ousted, much has been made of “the unique nature of Tunsian society” in the media. Or as as one blogger puts it, Tunsia is “much more modern than the rest of the Muslim world: You were more likely to see a Tunisian woman walking down the streets of Tunis wearing a tank top and tight jeans than wearing a burqa.”

Undentified Tunisian women demonstrating. Image via Reuters.

For another commentator, this modernity was threatened by the revolution against the secular regime: “What will be the result of this? Probably an Islamic country where women have few rights. Whatever the creep president’s flaws and corruption, he was fighting that.” When reminded that this revolution is a good thing, the commentator responds “tell that to the women of Iran” apparently making little distinction between the Islamic Revolution and Tunisia’s secular, grassroots uprising. This confusion over Tunisia’s “secularity” and its uprising against a secular oppressive regime, and the simplistic binary underlying it, is incisively analyzed by Haroon Moghul in “Secular Good, Muslim Bad: Unveiling Tunisia’s Revolution.”

Tunisia’s revolution and Iran’s revolution do have one thing in common however: like the Shah, Ben Ali has fled his homeland. In a region full of “creep presidents” and dictatorships, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution has electrified the Arab world. As part of the opposition, and as part of creating a new Tunisia, women are playing their role. The opposition leaders who are now analyzing the situation from both within Tunisia and abroad include many women, currently appearing in interviews on pan-Arab satellite TV, and at the grassroots level, women are taking part in the forming of neighborhood watches, protecting their property from Ben Ali’s forces and gangs, as well as criminals set free to add to the chaos.

As activists have stressed, this is not yet over, Tunisia has not yet achieved freedom, and what comes next politically remains unclear. However, the fact remains that an Arab regime has been toppled, not by a coup, but by a popular uprising of people, both men and women.

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