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Islamic Extremists Alarm Secular Women in Tunisia

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tensions are rising between secular Tunisian women and political Islam. "There is no room for the opposition and women to participate in building the country we want," says one critic.

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Tensions are rising between secular Tunisian women and political Islam. "There is no room for the opposition and women to participate in building the country we want," says one critic.




Woman at a protest in Tunis, Tunisia.
Woman at a protest in Tunis, Tunisia.

Credit: Amine Ghrabi on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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(WOMENSENEWS)--"My body is mine, not somebody's honor."

Nineteen-year-old Tunisian feminist Amina Tyler wrote these words in Arabic across her breasts and stomach to defy growing Islamism in her country, and then posted topless pictures of herself on the Facebook of the organization Femen Tunisia.

The images went viral on March 8, International Women's Day, and unleashed a month of online debate and some calls by Islamic extremists for her to be stoned to death. Tyler went into retreat but last week broke her silence in an with the French magazine Marianne.

"My family accepts me, but not my action," she is quoted as saying in the magazine. "I am tired, I am being given anti-depressants . . . I want to go back to school, I don't feel free. I want to be free to call my friends again, to go on the Internet."

Femen and other feminists called for April 4 to be "International Topless Jihad Day," as it coincides with Tyler's birthday, the French newspaper Liberation reported.

Tyler is an extreme example, but tensions between secular women and political Islam are growing in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab uprisings.

On Feb. 6, the high-profile secular Tunisian politician Chokri Belaid was killed in what authorities said was an assassination by Salafi Islamist militants. The slaying collapsed the government of Hamadi Jebali, of the ruling moderate Islamist party Ennahda.

The new government, also led by Ennahda, expresses no outright intention to rule the country according to Sharia, or religious law. But its ability or willingness to control a minority of Salafists who want to impose Sharia and create an Islamic state by violent means if necessary is in doubt.

"There is a pressing problem of insecurity in Tunisia with the birth of militia and armed Salafists who attack people without hearing any reaction from the government," said Saida Rached, secretary general of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a group that was banned under the ousted regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. "Tunisians are starting to suspect the current regime and especially the Ministry of Interior of complicity."

Increased Fear

Because of the insecurity "women are afraid to go out," Rached added, recalling a few incidents in which violent Salafists attacked people, including women, who disagreed with their ideas. Rached spoke with Women's eNews in March, on the sidelines of the U.N. annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women.

The attacks have given Salafists a violent reputation, but the majority of adherents seek to establish an Islamic state through legal means. One apolitical faction takes no interest in the modern state and devotes itself to living as much as possible as the prophet Muhammad and his followers did in the 7th century.

Although women have not lost any legal ground, Rached said they are suffering a "social regression" that began with the start of the global economic crisis in 2008 and worsened after the ousting of Ben Ali.

Islam was the religion of the state under the previous constitution adopted in 1959 and the draft version of the new constitution, now being written, reasserts that. Secularists now wonder whether the official religion will overtake state functions and international treaties that sometimes oppose the cultural norms of conservative Islam.

Last year, an article in a draft version of the constitution expressing the "complementarity" between men and women brought protesters into the streets. The word was eventually dropped and replaced by "equality." In the latest draft of the constitution, wording about equality between the sexes appears in the preamble, Article 5, Article 7 and Article 37.

Rached draws little comfort from such concessions. "It is still the Islamist party that is in power and decides who should be ministers and how the country should be ruled," she said "There is no room for the opposition and women to participate in building the country we want."

On March 29 dozens of angry people in Tunis brandished shoes and demanded the resignation of Sihem Badi, the minister of women's affairs, for her slack response to the rape of a 3-year-old girl at a nursery in a Tunis suburb. Badi said a member of the girl's family was to blame and that no measures against the nursery were needed.

Yesterday, a no-confidence motion against Badi was submitted to the Tunisian Parliament. Seventy-eight lawmakers signed the document, exceeding the 73 signatures required for a motion to be discussed. The signatories are demanding the dismissal of Badi from the government.

Polygamy Rumors

Rumors of legalized polygamy recently spread online to the point where a lawmaker named Karima Souid felt compelled to reassure followers on her Facebook page that no such bill had been submitted to the assembly.

Public discussion of female genital mutilation is also on the rise. A few weeks ago, Habib Ellouze, an Ennahda member, sparked outrage after he stated in a newspaper interview that female genital mutilation is "an aesthetic surgery." The president of the Islamist party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, expressed his disapproval for such a practice and was quoted in press accounts as saying that it "goes against Islam and that doesn't belong to the Tunisian culture."

There is no legal ban on female genital mutilation in Tunisia and the practice is uncommon. Article 17 in the draft of the constitution says "the state shall guarantee the physical and moral sanctity of the human self and shall prevent all forms of physical and/or moral torture."

"Ellouze's remarks on the excision are disgusting," said Sophie Bessis, a research fellow at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, in an email interview. "FGM has never really existed in North Africa. Ellouze wants to import a barbaric practice."

Bessis, author of the 2007 book "Arabs, Women and Freedom," added that "Tunisia has today a government dominated by conservatives and women are paying the price of it."

She criticized the current draft of the constitution for continuing to affirm Islam as the official religion. "This might lead to abuses and in particular depending on the interpretation of Sharia," Bessis said.

In January, Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa, saying the latest version of the constitution "is more respectful of the freedom of expression and women's rights than the first draft." However, he expressed concern about provisions such as judicial immunity for the head of state, lack of sufficient guarantees for the independence of the judiciary and ambiguous formulations that could threaten rights and freedoms.

Bessis said the current draft "is not good neither for women or democracy."

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