Burqas and bikinis both on the agenda for the new Tunisia

Published March 28th, 2013 - 05:00 GMT
Tunisian women shout slogans during a demostration in the center of Tunis after the opening of the World Social Forum (WSF) on March 26, 2013. More than two years after the Jasmine revolution, tens of thousands of people are expected for the WSF, dubbed the forum of "dignity", a watchword of the Tunisian uprising that inspired revolts across the Arab world. (AFP PHOTO/FETHI BELAID)
Tunisian women shout slogans during a demostration in the center of Tunis after the opening of the World Social Forum (WSF) on March 26, 2013. More than two years after the Jasmine revolution, tens of thousands of people are expected for the WSF, dubbed the forum of "dignity", a watchword of the Tunisian uprising that inspired revolts across the Arab world. (AFP PHOTO/FETHI BELAID)

It has been two years since Tunisia’s government was overthrown, this period of time has seen some women enjoy their freedom to dress in traditional Islamic clothing while others are worried of losing their rights, according to the BBC on Wednesday.

Arije Nasser, a 22 year-old English student, said that she had chosen to wear the niqab, a traditional form of covering associated with Islam, after the Tunisian revolution of 2011.

Nasser said “I feel like a princess when I walk down the street wearing this, the niqab and even the hijab were forbidden before the revolution, but now we feel more comfortable to practice our religious activities.”

The English student explained that more women have decided to wear the niqab and that other conservative Tunisians like her have benefited from their new found religious freedom.

However, while some enjoy the more conservative side of the post-revolutionary Tunisia, many women worry that with an Islamist party occupying the majority of seats in the government they may lose their freedom to dress as they please.

The former regime was aggressively secular and encouraged women to wear western style clothes at the expense of more traditional garments.

Nostalgia for a secular state

A demonstration was recently held where approximately 800 protestors gathered in central Tunis to rally for a “secular state” against “the party of the brotherhood.”

The protest saw several women force reluctant teenage girls to join their rally saying “march with us, this is your future too.” 

Lina Ben, a blogger, spoke to a small group of people away from the crowd saying that “Tunisia has always been an advanced country in the Arab world when it comes to women’s rights, but now unfortunately our rights are threatened. Before the revolution we used to ask for more rights, for total equality, but now we’re just trying to preserve and keep the rights we already have.”

While former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in power, Tunisian women were able to enjoy more freedom than other women in the Arab world, according to the BBC report.

Tunisian women have the right divorce on equal terms and polygamy is banned.

The new government in Tunisia, vastly dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party, has not taken away those rights. A senior member of Ennahda’s political bureau, Said Ferjani, said that it “is not looking to impose a lifestyle on anyone, we are here to defend freedom.”

“Just look at this girl who did a topless protest, we protect her rights, but we also protect the rights of women to wear the niqab,” Ferjani added.

Amina, the topless girl Ferjani refers to, created a Tunisian Facebook group for the international feminist movement ‘Femen’. This group generally uses nudity as a form of protest.

The 19-year-old posted an image of herself topless on the page with the caption “my body is mine, not somebody’s to honor” written on her chest in Arabic.

Some Ennahda officials do not openly oppose Amina’s protest, however, one prominent Salafist cleric has called for the young woman to be flogged and stoned to death.

Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, explained that many Tunisian women feel that their rights are under threat, she said “I think the situation for women in Tunisia now, two years after the fall of the regime, is mixed.”

She added that nothing has changed on the legal side, in terms of the status of women, however “big changes are happening deep in society.”

“There are more hardliners, more of these so-called Salafist groups who tend to impose their own vision of society and religion - I think this might have a very strong effect on women.”


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