Tunisia’s Dhaouadi: Dignity and Freedom At Last

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(WOMENSENEWS)–Aicha Dhaouadi, now a deputy in the post-revolutionary parliament of Tunisia, readily recalls her nightmarish years under the fallen regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

She and her husband were both considered political opponents and lived under constant surveillance.

In 1991, her husband Mohammed Hedi Kefi won asylum in France as a political refugee, but she wasn’t so lucky. "I was taken hostage for seven years before being able to join my spouse in France," she said in an interview earlier this year.

Dhaoudi said that during the years she and her husband were apart Tunisian police kept her under constant surveillance and harassed her daily about the whereabouts of her husband, a member of Ennahda, the banned Islamist party.

During this time she said she was forced to remove her veil after being threatened with job loss and jail if she didn’t.

She was imprisoned for eight months. Her crime, she said, was belonging to an unauthorized organization and fundraising without permission.

Dhaouadi said the organization for which she raised money helped other families who were victims of repression. Several other women whose husbands were in exile were left to raise their children alone. "I was only helping these women and families that were the target of Ben Ali," Dhaouadi said.

In 1995 her case drew the attention of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group. On Jan. 19, 1996, she was released from prison.

During her detention, Dhaouadi said she was tortured and humiliated. "I have always had this dream to live in a democratic nation. I have always hoped to live freely in Tunisia, to be able to gather and express my opinions even if they are against the regime; but instead of this, I was arrested, tortured and humiliated."

She said she recovered her "dignity and freedom" the day Ben Ali was forced to flee the country.

Today she is deputy elected by Ennahda for the governorate of Bizerte, in the north of Tunisia. "I am glad and happy to know that we turned the page on Ben Ali’s dictatorship," Dhaoudi said.

Dhaoudi could not be reached for comment on a recent poll finding widespread discontent so far with the Ennahda-led government. One hundred days after the October elections, more than 85 percent of Tunisians thought the government had failed to lessen unemployment; 75 percent thought it had failed to curb bribery and corruption. The survey was conducted by SIGMA Conseil, a North-African marketing research firm based in Tunisia, in conjunction with Tunisian daily Al Maghreb.

Dhaoudi’s involvement with Ennahda started several years ago when the party was still illegal.

‘Answering to the Revolution’

Today, Dhaouadi is confident about what the party can bring to the post-Ben Ali Tunisia. "With Ennahda, we want a constitution that answers to the revolution and the expectation of Tunisian people. We want a constitution that preserves the dignity and the freedom of our country," she said.

During the country’s month of popular revolt most of its leaders were in exile and only returned after the president fled for Saudi Arabia. However unlike, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which disapproved of the Jan. 25 demonstrations that started the revolution there, Ennahda long advocated the overthrow of Ben Ali.

Dhaouadi rejects the criticism of those who dislike the integration of religion with politics. "Those who question the place of Islam in Tunisia ignore the history of our country. I reject those words ‘Islamist’ or ‘extremist.’ I am not one of them. I am simply a Muslim woman once again. And like I have always said: Islam is a moderate and balanced religion."

Dhaouadi said Ennahda did not intend to roll back on women’s rights. "On the contrary, we want to move forward and give a more active role to women in the civil and political spheres."

Dhaouadi said she would like to see more flexible workplace schedules to help mothers to raise their children, higher salaries for women who work more hours than men and higher positions for women in politics. For the time being, however, Tunisia’s Parliament–which is 23 percent female–is focused on drafting its new constitution.

Opponents in Tunisia accuse her party of "double discourse," meaning the party only has a veneer of being moderate and its real agenda is imposing a fundamentalist view of Islam on Tunisia.

"People judged us without even knowing us! Try to know more about us and then make your mind," she declared.

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Hajer Naili is a writer currently based in New York. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.

One thought on “Tunisia’s Dhaouadi: Dignity and Freedom At Last

  1. This certainly is a story of personal courage and ambition for a nation. I appreciate the womensenews for relating a story about a religion that requires covering the head of women more than of men; you give voice to the lives of the women.
    I have a concern about women wearing a face-covering veil, which this author did not wear for her photo in womensenews, but is mentioned as a cause for discrimination against her in the past. The wearing of veils is never done by men, and is reserved for a misguided belief that distrusts women. A veil makes identification of the person difficult, and is a health hazard for the veil wearer, as all people need a certain amount of contact of the skin with sunshine; if even your face is covered, this is impossible. Then, when women show the poor health results from veil wearing they are accused of being the weaker sex. How do cultures and nations that understand the unfair discrimination (on many levels) against women in veil-wearing, take a stand to support women’s rights? When do religious rights and human rights of a given nation cause a right for the nation to ban a harmful practice? And what should be the punishment for taking part in a banned practice? In Canada recently, a family was convicted for the honour killing of 2 teenaged girls and their mother. There was some question about whether this should accept the religion’s Sharia law that would allow this, but fortunately the Canadian court system ruled that this was murder and it was punished as such. Veil wearing is much more minor, but, is still a harmful practice that prevents good health and identification of the person wearing the veil; it is also true that veil wearing is there to hide women from men outside her family, which is an expression of lack of trust in women and in men’s ability to be respectful of women. I wish Ms. Dhaoudi success in developing a strong human rights based government in tunisia. That must include a ban of veil-wearing and of abuse and murder of family members in the name of honour and for any other reason for which murder and abuse are attempted to be justified.