Tunisia’s Dark Turn

Jamie Dettmer on how women in Tunisia are less free than before the revolution.

Mohamed Messara/EPA, via Landov

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.

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.”

“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.”

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 She asked for her family name not to be published.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.

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.”

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.”

Tunis at night feels increasingly more like a Gulf country than it did before the Arab Spring. After dark, few women venture out alone or even with female friends. Discotheques are no longer open (although some may re-open in the summer) and there are fewer places to drink. Outside the coffee shops there are rows of bored-looking young men. In the beach resorts outside the city, such as Sousse, there is more nightlife, for women as well. “I had no problems wearing shorts or skirts,” said a British tourist. “And there were also Tunisian girls out who weren’t being hassled.”

Whether the beach resorts will be given a pass as low season shifts to high season remains to be seen. Tunisia’s tourist chiefs are desperate to woo back foreign visitors. Tourism accounts for a sixth of all jobs in the country, but tourism has been significantly down with hotels in the resort areas only 10 percent full at a time they normally enjoy a 40 percent occupancy.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

But the resort areas have not been free of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. Religious conservatives recently battled youngsters making “Harlem Shake” videos and police had to intervene in the coastal city of Mahdia and in Sousse to stop the clashes.

It isn’t just on the social front and on dress codes that women activists worry about the future. Left-wing blogger Olfa Riahi says that as a result of her criticism of Ennahda she’s “undergoing a very violent defamation campaign in social media, TV, and newspapers.” Before the Arab Spring she thought political Islam and democratic politics could mix, but now she’s “convinced that mixing this religion and politics will never work.” She has received death threats that she takes seriously in the wake of the political assassination of left-wing leader Chokri Belaid, who was gunned down on February 6 outside his Tunis home. Ennahda denies any involvement in the assassination, and several Salifists have been arrested in connection with the slaying, although police say the actual gunman remains at large.

Shorty before his murder, Belaid accused the government of being in league with Salifi militias and said, “All those who oppose Ennahda are now targets.” Ennahda leaders dismissed his accusations as high-blown rhetoric with political gain in mind.

On March 13, a new post-Belaid cabinet was sworn in under the leadership of the former interior minister Ali Larayedh, whose predecessor as prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, resigned amid the political storm and riots over the left-wing leader’s assassination. He has pledged that respect for the law “will be our credo” and that he will end the violence upending the North African nation by confronting Salifi groups.

Artist Mona Lakhdar, a mother of two, doubts whether the intimidation will stop. She says she celebrated the downfall of Ben Ali. “I was very happy to see the back of him. He and his family were mafia,” she says. “I didn’t think then about the Salifi or the Islamists.” Now she does and the 51-year-old fears “Ennahda will become more extreme and Tunisia will be more violent. “ She says she has no problem with Islamists being in the government, “if they say, ‘I am an Islamist but you can do what you want,’” adding, “I heard a Salifi say the other day that Tunisia’s identity had been robbed by Ben Ali and that he wanted to recover it. But I am Tunisian and I have an identity, and it is Tunisian too.”