The Jasmine flower that has yet to blossom

Sophie Ghaziri

Published: Updated:

Over the last couple of days, the World Social Forum, which made its debut in Tunisia on Tuesday, has wrapped up amid ongoing women’s rights protests.

“Solidarity with women around the world!” was just one slogan being chanted at the start of the anti-globalization event, the first in an Arab country.

Throughout the Arab world, Tunisia has always been at the forefront where women’s rights are concerned. Both Tunisian and other world observers believe this could only continue to improve after their ‘Jasmine’ revolution in 2011.

However, one Tunisian blogger, Lin Ben Mhenni, has said, “unfortunately our rights are threatened.”

There have been several events proving this statement to be true, one most recent is the young 19-year-old girl who posted topless pictures of herself on the social networking site Facebook.

Amina created a Facebook group for the international feminist movement FEMEN, which rallies women together to make a stand and usually involves nudity.

She wrote in black marker on her chest in Arabic “my body is mine, not somebody’s to honor.”

Amina’s statement by the female youth sparked reactions on a myriad of social networking sites, but the icing on the cake was when a Salafist cleric called for the girl to be flogged and then stoned to death.

This may not be the best way to get one’s point across, but, on the other hand, she is fighting for her rights. However, there are many ways to create a stand without reverting to such ‘shock tactics’ in the Arab world, which goes against the basic Arab belief system.

When former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in power, Tunisian women enjoyed more freedom, but things seemed to have regressed in the hands of the ruling Ennahda party.

Maybe this could be the underlying cause for such dramatic and extreme activity taking place among the Tunisian female youth. But, Tunisia was once an extremely secular state denying some Muslim women the right to wear their traditional Islamic dress, whether it is the hijab, niqab or burqa.

Arije Nasser, a 22-year-old English student told the BBC that she had chosen to wear the niqab, the full veil that reveals only one’s eyes, after the revolution in 2011.

“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,” Nasser said.

But, other women in Tunisia think differently. They see Ennahda as a hardline Islamist party looking to implement Sharia law, which may seek to strip them of their rights, denying them their freedom and throwing the hope for democracy out of the window.

My country, My freedom?

At a women’s rights gathering this week, females – both young and old – demonstrated against discrimination, with feminists sharply criticizing the ruling party.

“Ennahda wants to establish sharia law and deprive women of their liberty. The same is happening in Egypt,” according to Zeina Chihi a university student.

After a failed attempt last year to introduce the concept of gender ‘complementarity’ rather than equality into the country’s new constitution, Tunisian media has also been critical of Ennahda and accused the party of endeavoring to limit women’s rights.

Thereby raising the question of the real or true intentions of the ruling Islamists.

Just yesterday, women were in the streets calling for the resignation of the minister of women's affairs, Sihem Badi, accusing her of failing to stand up to the ruling party.

"This women does not represent Tunisian women, on the contrary she has tarnished their image," Lilia Ben Kheder, a lawyer, told a news agency.

"She has not fulfilled her role as minister for the affairs of women and the family, and she has done nothing to guarantee the rights of children since her appointment" in 2011, she added.

Brutal violence

Yet another attack on women took place on Thursday when a women was filmed being dragged through the street by two policemen. On Friday, the Tunisian interior ministry said this would be investigated, but this isn’t the first time this has happened.

This could suggest that Tunisia maybe falling back on its once respected women’s rights record.

This type of behavior has been witnessed in a couple of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ countries, for instance, Syria and Egypt.

The Human rights watch director in Tunisia, Amna Guellali, has said that nothing has actually changed in terms of the legal status of women but “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,” Guelli said.

No one wants to blame Islamists for the hostility being taken out on women and their rights, but when stories like these make it into the headlines of not only Arab media but Western media also, one must ask: what has actually changed? Where did it all go wrong?


Sophie Ghaziri is a Shift Editor at Al Arabiya English. She has previously worked as a producer, presenter and a writer at the BBC, Al Jazeera and she was Head of English at Future News in Lebanon for 2 years. She can be followed on Twitter on: @sophieghaziri

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.