Can Islamism and feminism mix?

Monica Marks writes: 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.”

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1 thought on “Can Islamism and feminism mix?

  1. scottindallas

    the Hijab was rare in Algeria/Tunisia as late as the 80s. It’s rise has grown, and one can only draw the conclusion that this is political. As it becomes allowed, as religious tensions abate, as the vestiges of colonialism fade, I believe we will see a similar fading of the ubiquity of the Hijab.

    Thank you Paul, I would encourage you to keep your eye on stories coming out of this area, though the stories may be hard to find, many people are watching.

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