How did the women of Tunisia defeat extremists?
Tunisia is not an ordinary Arab or Muslim country but it is light-years ahead of others
In Tunisia, the person who dared to remove the flag of an extremist organization from the roof of an arts and humanities college was a woman, not a man. It was Khaoula Rashidi who confronted extremist Salafists and kept the Tunisian flag raised. The person who stood up against the country’s justice minister and thwarted his plans was also a woman. Judge Koulthoum Kennou, president of the association of Tunisian magistrates, launched a campaign against the minister - who belongs to the Islamist Ennahda party - and succeeded at preventing him from subjugating the judiciary to serve his party's interests.
On the judicial level, women like Judge Raoudha al-Qarafi and Judge Raoudha Laabidi, head of the syndicate of Tunisian magistrates, also confronted Ennahda party plans. All this means that Islamist groups have failed to alter the situation in Tunisia which continues to be the only Arab country that bans marriage under the age of 17, forbids polygamy and allows abortion.
Even during the Ennahda party’s reign, the parliament, and without the objection of Islamist members, approved equal inheritance rights as well as other rights. Extremists couldn't confront the civil social tide headed by women who lead different associations and institutions. This shows the solid basis established in the past decades and it explains why extremists failed in Tunisia and succeeded in other Arab Spring countries.
In Tunisia, there's a long list of effective women in important fields, like those of the judiciary, law and politics. There's Souhayr Belhassen, president of the international federation for human rights. She confronted the government and accused it of fascism and said the Ennahda party represents a threat to democracy and human rights. Her rivals couldn't make others doubt her integrity as she was a fierce opponent of the former regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In Tunisia, there's a long list of effective women in important fields, like those of the judiciary, law and politicsAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Unlike Belhassan, judge Abir Moussa belonged to the democratic constitutional assembly of Ben Ali's former regime. Despite that, she managed to overcome attempts to marginalize her and became leader of the tripartite coalition and she continues to stand against elimination and isolation attempts.
Dr. Amena Moneef is a lawyer who also belonged to the party of the former regime. She led a civil organization against extremists and was thus accused of freemasonry and Westernization. Fundamentalist campaigns and attempts to distort her reputation all failed. Extremists did not hesitate to harm those who defended them in the past, like Judge Radhia Nasraoui. Nasraoui, who defended Islamists during the reign of the former regime, also stood up to torture in the prisons of Ennahda government.
Tunisia is not an ordinary Arab or Muslim country but it is light-years ahead of others. The roles women play there are a significant sign of the Tunisian society's distinction. Tunisian women played an efficient role when confronting political parties, like Ennahda party and Hizb ut-Tahrir, who tried to seize the country. These women and the rest of civil Tunisian parties succeeded at preventing the scenario of fascist religious governing experiences like those of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt following the revolution against Hosni Mubarak, the Shiite religious parties in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled and Khomeinism in Iran after the Shah was toppled towards the end of the 1970s.
Despite its alliances and control over the decision-making process, the Ennahda party failed at confronting women's groups who proved that the legacy of Habib Bourguiba is stronger than the influence of political Islamist leaderships, including those who returned from Europe and attempted to restore a woman's role to housekeeping and cooking.
Despite its alliances and control over the decision making process, the Ennahda party failed at confronting women's groups who proved that the legacy of Habib Bourguiba is stronger than the influence of political Islamist leadershipsAbdulrahman al-Rashed
The question of why women succeeded in Tunisia and failed in 20 other Arab countries, despite half a century’s attempt at modernization, deserves a lengthy and deeper discussion. But I believe it is a failure in the process of modernization itself and not something women have failed to achieve.
This article was first published in Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper on Saturday, Oct. 11. 2014.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.
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