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Tunisia’s Dark Turn

Monday 18 March 2013, by siawi3

Mar 17, 2013 4:45 AM EDT

They campaigned for freedom. But the overthrow of the dictator has made Tunisian women less free.

Jamie Dettmer reports from Tunis.


Once it was a rare sight to see women wearing the hijab on the streets of Tunis, but no longer. Now more women do than don’t, and very few risk harassment or disapproving eyes by wearing a skirt to walk the city’s main shopping thoroughfares, even on sunny March days.

Tunisian Women During Demonstration

Photo: Tunisian women shout slogans during a demonstration call by the opposition and the Tunisian General Union of Workers (UGTT), at the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, Tunisia, in March. (Mohamed Messara/EPA, via Landov )

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings, but many Tunisian women say they feel less free now than under the secular rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first of the region’s autocrats to fall. They worry that their North African country is succumbing rapidly to hardline Muslim pressure, despite claims by the leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, that they have nothing to fear. “Ennahda believes in the absolute equality between the sexes. No one will outdo Ennahda in that regard.â€

“Some said we would cover up women when we come to power. We have no such thing in our party program, though,†he said at an event to mark International Women’s Day during which he praised the role of women in the Arab Spring and described allegations that Ennahda wants to restrict women’s freedoms as groundless. “We would close beaches, they also said. Last year, 6 million tourists visited Tunisia. It’s an irrational fear."

Not for 23-year-old Mariam, a chambermaid at one of the city’s hotels. “I have stopped wearing skirts,†she says. “It just wasn’t worth it—I kept getting hassled—and not just by young Salafi but by the police, too. All my friends are dressing cautiously now.â€
Rached Ghannouchi

Rached Ghannouchi (left), leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that heads the new Tunisian government, arrives for a press conference in Tunis on Friday. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty)

A recent graduate—hotel work was all she could find in a country where youth unemployment is running at more than 30 percent—Mariam also avoids problems by wearing a hijab, something she didn’t do a year ago. “It is just easier,†she says. She asked for her family name not to be published.

Forty-two of the 49 female members in the country’s 217-strong constituent assembly are members of Ennahda, which has been ruling Tunisia in coalition with two secular center-left parties since elections in 2011. Ghannouchi likes to stress that the numbers of female and male nominees in his party’s lists for the elections were close. But critics of the Islamists say the voices of Ennahda women lawmakers have been subsumed by the louder collective voice of the party and they are religious conservatives anyway and so aren’t inclined to defend liberal or progressive positions.

Tunis at night feels increasingly more like a Gulf country than it did before the Arab Spring.

And they charge the party is orchestrating a creeping Islamization of Tunisia through indirect pressure and by failing to suppress Salafi militias—they describe themselves as Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution—who are highly active intimidating opponents, pressuring owners of clubs or bars to stop serving alcohol, and protesting art exhibitions they deem violate Islamic principles. A climate of fear has been established—one that has had the consequences of squeezing the social space for the sexes to mix easily and to make women like Mariam feel they have to wear the hijab.

All this contrasts sharply with Ennahda claims that it supports diversity and broad freedom. In a recent BBC interview Ghannouchi insisted Islamists were against the intimidation. “We consider violent views and violent action to be a danger to stability and a danger to Ennahda and a danger to development.â€
Tunisia Harlem Shake

Tunisian students performing a “Harlem Shake,†in front of the education ministry in Tunis, Tunisia, in early March. (Amine Landoulsi/AP)

But those who doubt his sincerity point to a video released last October of him in discussion with Salifis and not taking issue with their ideological positions. “Be patient,†he says in the video. “The government is in the hands of the Islamists. The mosques are ours and we have become the most important entity in the country. The Islamists must form associations and establish Koranic schools because our people are ignorant of Islam.†Ghannouchi says the video has been manipulated and edited.

For university professor Jelel Ezzine the video demonstrates that “there are two realities: what the party says publicly and what it does behind the scenes.†He argues that the Islamists are two-faced and engage in doublespeak. “Ennahda even though it tried, did succeed to some extent to convince the West that it is really a moderate democratic Islamist movement, what is really going on in Tunisia today does not really go along with that image.â€