About two years ago, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, sparking a string of democratic revolutions across the Arab world. The New York Times blew up, with interactive maps and graphics of political incidents in Tunisia, then in Morocco, then Egypt and Yemen and Bahrain and on and on. Only a hermit could have avoided the tweets and Facebook posts that soon dominated social media.
The first to go, Tunisia ousted its president of 23 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, after only three weeks in what has since been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution. Tunisia’s first free elections came that next October. It was an already liberal and progressive nation doing what it could only be expected to do: demand self-determination and equality. As an American, it’s easy to presume the association of equality and fairness with secularism in governance, so it’s with a measure of surprise then that this irreligious revolution produced a distinctly Islamist representative government.
Prior to the revolution, Islam was carefully constrained. Ben Ali perceived one of the biggest threats to his own power to be Islamist movements. Each mosque had prayer leaders appointed by the regime, and all Friday sermon topics had to be pre-approved. When the regime and its tight-fisted control over mosques dissolved, then, many were seized by ultraconservative Salafi imams who proceeded quickly to advocate the introduction of legislation on things like the implementation of Sharia law and the veiling of women. A moderate Islamist party called Ennahda, with a distinctly less rigid platform, also gained plurality in government. The new freedom to include religion in government was capitalized on, bringing about issues and concerns that the nation had never previously dealt with.
One of the concerns associated with a rise in religion in government is minority rights, particularly the rights of women. Say what you will about the authoritarian regimes of old, but it was not terribly uncommon for their personal interests in maintaining control to line up with the protection of their citizens. The Mubaraks and Assads and Ben Alis did their part for containing extremism, the very fact that slowed the United States in its rush to support the democratic revolutions of 2011. They generally provided for the security of their respective nations. The ability of these regimes to control crowds is all too evident from their behavior during protests. And more often than not, feminist agendas existed due in large part to the special relationships between authoritarians and their wives and daughters.
Leila Ben Ali, formerly Tunisia’s first lady, was the head of the Arab Women Organization, which sought to alleviate gender disparities and eliminate cases of non-reported domestic violence. Under her husband’s presidency, various departments of government conducted surveys in incidents of domestic violence against women and dedicated resources to responding to instances of abuse. The former president took many similarly positive stances on women’s rights—polygamy was illegal, for example. The personal status laws made mutual consent a necessary prerequisite to marriage, and a judicial procedure was in place for divorce proceedings.
But the relatively progressive and liberal treatment of women prior to the Jasmine Revolution doesn’t mean a non-secular government is necessarily a step back. As an American, it’s easy to look at an Islamist political party and assume the worst, to assume that any Islamist party would adopt intolerance for other peoples and fall toward the “extremist” end of the religious spectrum. In many instances the ruling Ennahda party and the Salafi imams presiding over mosques have given adequate cause for concern. When you consider the people of Tunisia, however, you can find reassurance.
Last September, a woman brought charges of rape against two policemen for the first time in Tunisian history. In what can only be considered an attempt to dissuade her to drop charges, she herself was subsequently charged with indecency and brought to court. It’s clear that systemic issues within policing mechanisms and a culture of corruption have not left Tunisia with its former president. But the people of Tunisia have developed a tried and true solution in response to these concerns. Nonviolent, articulate protests and social media campaigns rid the Tunisian people of Ben Ali, and they have now saved this 27-year-old rape victim from phony charges of indecency, guaranteeing fair treatment for her allegations.
Riots led by ultraconservative Salafis and an attempt to change constitutional language from gender “equality” to “complementary” gender relations aren’t the most reassuring events in Tunisian history. Yet, the chaos as a country determines its own values and goals, now that it has the ability to do so, cannot be expected to be easy. The people of Tunisia remain the inspiration they were in early 2011, and though maybe the current mix of political parties and ultraconservative religious leaders isn’t right for the nation, the people—the women, men and children—of Tunisia are.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.