Tunisian Women’s Role in the Tunisian Revolution
The Tunisian Revolution was a series of street demonstrations taking place throughout Tunisia since December 2010. The demonstrations and riots were reported to have started over unemployment, food inflation, corruption, freedom of speech and poor living conditions. The protests constituted the most dramatic wave of social and political unrest in Tunisia in three decades and have resulted in scores of deaths and injuries.
The protests were sparked by a self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17 and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later on 15 January 2011, when he officially resigned after fleeing to Saudi Arabia , ending 23 years in power.
The protests inspired similar actions throughout the Arab world, most notably in Egypt , Yemen , and Jordan . Women in Tunisia are unique in the Arab world for enjoying near equality with men. And they are anxious to maintain their status. In Tunis, old ladies, young girls and women in black judges robes marched down the streets demanding that the dictator leave.
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Status of Women in Tunisia
Tunisia has been strongly secular ever since it won independence from France in 1956. Both Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al Abeddin Ben Ali suppressed the Islamic veil on women or beards on men. Tunisia’s legal system is based both on French civil and Islamic codes. Sharia courts were abolished in 1956, but the constitution declares Islam the state religion and stipulates that the President of the Republic must be a Muslim. The 1956 Personal Status Code gave women a key role in Tunisian society; it abolished Polygamy, allowed women the right to divorce and gave them access to Contraception and Abortion.
Today, 99% of Tunisian women are educated. Women participate actively in politics, law, medicine, academia, media and business.
Tunisian Women Manifesting
On January 14th, the day the former Tunisian President left the country, thousands of Tunisian women hit the streets, mainly the Habiba Bourguiba Avenue. Scenes of women holding a banner reading “Leave now” during the demonstration were frequent. Female voices rang out loud and clear during massive protests. In Tunis, old ladies, young girls and women in black judges robes marched down the streets demanding that the former President Ben Ali leaves. According to a couple of studies, most male respondents in a recent poll believed Tunisian women were entitled to “far too many rights”. With the revolution, this kind of statements collapsed before one common goal regardless of all sorts of differences – gender included. Lawyer Bilel Larbi states, “Just look at how Tunisian women stood side-by-side with Tunisian men. They came out to the streets to protest in headscarves. They came out in miniskirts. It doesn’t matter. They were there!”
Tunisian Women and the Household
During the revolution, in the household, women maintained their classical gender role – that is cooking, cleaning, etc. Nevertheless, this role was extended geographically speaking to reach the whole neighborhood sometimes. In fact, with the food shortage that some poor neighborhoods suffered during the revolution, families started interhelping; cooking for each other, sharing food, and so on. When the secret police violence acts started taking place after January 14, women even transgressed their traditional gender roles by contributing to saveguarding neighborhoods at night along with men. Sometimes, they even suggested that men who spend the night doing that role stay home while they take care of protesting. The aim was to give them the opprotunity to rest. Documentaire “Plus Jamais Peur” de Mourad Ben Cheikh, Productions KMBO, 2011.
Tunisian Women and Online Activism
In light of the dramatic development of events on a considerable scale, it has become evident that new media have been playing a key role this time around in keeping the momentum going, and bringing the voices of the disengaged Tunisian youth to the attention of world media, and hence to international public opinion. Mobile phones, blogs, YouTube, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds have become instrumental in mediating the live coverage of protests and speeches, as well as police brutality in dispersing demonstrations. The role of women in this social media activism was again inevitable. Lina Ben Mhenni, creator of the “Tunisian Girl” blog states: “I participated in most of the demonstrations in the capital, even the protest of the lawyers. In the last ten days of the events, I decided to go to Sidi Bou Zid to videotape the demonstrations there.”