by Monica Marks
26 October 2011
TINY Tunisia, where a fruit seller’s suicide sparked the Arab Spring, held its first free elections on Sunday. Over 90 percent of registered voters turned out, far exceeding expectations. Lines of beaming blue-fingered voters poured out of polling places, proudly posting photos of their freshly inked hands on Facebook.
Yet despite Tunisia’s election day success story, many observers fear that democracy could unleash an Islamist tidal wave. The Islamist party Ennahda, banned as a terrorist group under the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, won approximately 40 percent of votes — a resounding plurality.
A small but increasingly vocal minority of secular Tunisians are predicting that an Islamist-dominated national assembly will reverse key pieces of civil rights legislation, including those recognizing the right to abortion and prohibiting polygamy.
Tunisia’s secular feminists, many of whom are urban admirers of French-style secularism, see Ennahda women as unwitting agents of their own domination. Although Ennahda openly supports Tunisia’s 1956 Code of Personal Status — arguably the most progressive piece of women’s rights legislation in the Arab world — its critics accuse the party as a whole of purveying a “double discourse,” adopting a soft, tolerant line when speaking to francophone secularists but preaching a rabidly conservative message when addressing its rural base.
Rather than developing strong platforms of their own, secular opposition parties like Ettajdid have focused their campaign efforts almost exclusively on fear mongering, raising the specter of an Iranian-style Islamist takeover and the imposition of Shariah, the legal code of Islam. Daniel Pipes and other Western commentators have joined the fray, urging Washington to stand against the “blight” of Ennahda and labeling Islamism “the civilized world’s greatest enemy.”
But it is far too early to sound such alarms. As a result of their active participation in party politics, Ennahda women actually stand to gain more from Sunday’s election than any other group.
In May, Tunisia passed an extremely progressive parity law, resembling France’s, which required all political parties to make women at least half of their candidates. As a long-repressed party, Ennahda enjoyed more credibility than other groups. It also had a greater number of female candidates to run than any other party, and strongly supported the parity law as a result.
Many Tunisian women developed a political consciousness in reaction to Mr. Ben Ali’s severe oppression of Ennahda in the 1990s. While their husbands, brothers and sons were in jail — often for reasons as simple as attending dawn prayers — these women discovered that they had a personal stake in politics and the strength to stand alone as heads of families. When the party was legalized in March, it found a widespread base of public sympathy and grass-roots support.
As the big winner in Sunday’s elections, Ennahda will send the largest single bloc of female lawmakers to the 217-member constituent assembly. The question now is how Ennahda women will govern. Are they unwitting dupes of Islamic patriarchy, or are they merely feminist activists who happen to wear head scarves?
After interviewing 46 female activists and candidates from Ennahda, I found that many turned to politics after experiencing job discrimination, arrests, or years in prison merely because they chose to wear the head scarf or because their families were suspected of Ennahda sympathies. For some of them, this election is as much about freedom of religious expression as anything else.
“I have a master’s degree in physics but I wasn’t allowed to teach for years because of this,” said a 43-year-old woman named Nesrine, tugging the corner of her floral-print hijab, a veil banned under Mr. Ben Ali but legalized since his departure. According to Mounia Brahim and Farida Labidi, 2 of the 13 members of Ennahda’s Executive Council, the party welcomes strong, critical women in its ranks. “Look at us,” Ms. Brahim said. “We’re doctors, teachers, wives, mothers — sometimes our husbands agree with our politics, sometimes they don’t. But we’re here and we’re active.”
These women are not likely to oppose women’s rights legislation. Ennahda women are, first and foremost, Tunisians. They are well educated, and their brand of Islamism, like Tunisian society as a whole, is relaxed and comparatively progressive. Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed greater legal protections than their counterparts in other Arab states.
Tunisians are currently seeking to reconcile this legacy of largely French-inspired civil rights policies with the aspirations of a devout public. Ennahda’s challenge lies in striking the right balance.
To do so, the party has explicitly declared that it will emulate Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., which has cracked down on corruption, involved women as equal political partners, and delivered stunning economic growth rates.
Replicating this model of moderation and pious prosperity will be hard work in Tunisia, a country with staggering levels of unemployment and 25 percent illiteracy. Turkish-style democracy may look less progressive in Tunis — where angry protests recently broke out at a screening of the film “Persepolis” — than in Istanbul, where bars and dance clubs dot the city’s streets.
And there is a chance, of course, that democratic gains for women could be reversed. As history has shown in America, France, Algeria and Iran, revolutionary movements don’t always lead to greater gender equality or more inclusive politics. Women often fight fearlessly in such liberation struggles only to be sidelined when new national governments form.
Tunisian women, however, are well poised to avoid this fate. Tunisia has done an excellent job of including women in its transitional institutions thus far. This is especially true when viewed in comparison with Egypt, where the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces recently banned women from heading any party lists.
Ennahda has thus far used its newfound political heft to stimulate rather than stifle women’s participation in Tunisian politics. Its activists are presenting a potentially more accessible model of “Islamist feminism” to many rural and socially conservative Tunisian women than that of secularist parties.
Vocal, active, and often veiled, they are comfortable with the language of piety and politics. Despite the fear mongering of secular skeptics and Western pundits, their actions and aspirations are far more reminiscent of Turkey’s A.K.P. than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Monica Marks is a doctoral student in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.