Tunisia's Secular Women Fret Erosion of Freedoms With Rise of Islamism

Secular, urban, middle-class women fear Tunisia might face the fate of Iran and Algeria, after Sunday's election handed power to Ennahda –a moderate Islamist party that was banned under decades of autocratic, secularist rule.

Reuters
Reuters
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Reuters
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When hundreds of Tunisians drove through the capital sounding their horns and waving scarves this week to celebrate the election victory of an Islamist party, there was little jubilation in the Ennasr neighbosrhood.

With its chic boutiques and upmarket cafes, this suburb is a bastion of a segment of Tunisian society left feeling marginalized and even a little fearful by the election result.

A demonstrator holding a sign reading, 'Ennahda is not above the law' during a protest against the once-banned Islamist Ennahda movement in Tunisia, Oct. 25, 2011.Credit: Reuters

Areas like Ennasr are home to middle-class, urban professional women who for decades have been living a lifestyle that in many ways has more in common with Europe than the Arab world. Now they worry that that is going to change.

In Sunday's election, Tunisia, birthplace of the "Arab Spring" uprisings, handed the biggest share of the vote to Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that was banned under decades of autocratic, secularist rule.

"We're afraid that they'll limit our freedoms," said Rym, a 25-year-old medical intern sitting in "Gringo's", a fast-food outlet in Ennasr.

"They say they won't but after a while they could introduce changes step by step. Polygamy could come back ... They say they want to be like Turkey but it could turn out like Iran. Don't forget, that was a very open society too."

This group is not typical of Tunisian society.

The majority of women in this former French colony are less well-off, they are conservative, they wear the hijab or Islamic veil and, unlike women higher up the social scale, they are more comfortable speaking Arabic than French.

But middle class, secularist women matter to Tunisia's prosperity because their layer of society traditionally provides its lawyers, bankers, marketing executives and creative minds.

Turkish model

Many of them do not trust assurances from Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader. He says he will model his approach on Turkey's moderate ruling AK Party, will not impose Islamic values on anyone and will respect women's rights.

Nadia Khemiri, a 39-year-old former public relations executive who is now a housewife, says it is not Ghannouchi that worries her, but the message his win will send to the streets.

A few days before the election, Khemiri was handing out leaflets in support of a rival party with other women activists.

"There were some men who looked at us and said: 'You keep doing what you're doing. But it's not going to last long. Soon you'll be staying at home'," Khemiri recalled in an interview on Tuesday.

"We have seen incidents that justified our fears of excesses from certain people, who are now going to feel stronger, and that they can get away with anything."

She said she had heard conservative men asking women "Why are you smoking?" and "Why are you wearing tight jeans?", and feared such remarks would become more common.

Mouna, a 28-year-old who works in Ennasr's "Le Continental" bakery, described how a man came into the bakery on Tuesday and told her, "You should stay at home."

Aggressive secularism

Such attitudes are commonplace in most of the Arab world, and even in large parts of Tunisia.

But for decades before January's revolution ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, women like Khemiri and Mouna were insulated from such things by an aggressively secularist regime.

In the evenings in Tunis, especially in the centre and the upmarket suburbs like Ennasr, La Marsa and Gammarth, groups of young women can be seen sitting at street cafes, smoking.

Alcohol is readily available. Teenage girls ride on the back of motor scooters driven by young men. Many women dress in short skirts or jeans and T-shirts. In those districts, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, is seen only rarely.

Ennahda's victory means Tunisia will finally have a leadership who share the values and Muslim identity of the majority of the population.

By no means all professional, middle-class women are against that. One of Ennahda's most prominent candidates is Suad Abdel-Rahim, a businesswoman who does not wear the hijab.

But many secularist women fear a gradual erosion of things that, taken together, allow them to feel equal and respected.

"It's men not looking you in the eye; talking to your husband, not you," said another woman, who did not want to be named. "I have a daughter and I worry about her."

Khemiri said she was shocked to see separate queues for men and women at polling stations in areas where Ennahda is strong.

"In some working-class districts, when you go to pay the gas or electricity bill, there are men who come with their wives and try to enforce separate queues ...I had the freedom to choose to be a housewife after working for a long time and I want to keep that freedom," she said.

Asked what the future might hold, she said she was torn.

"On one hand I tell myself that the Ennahda people, even if fundamentally they are Islamist... will keep this moderate stance," she said.

But at other times she thought about the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and about Tunisia's neighbor Algeria, where Islamists imposed dress codes, sometimes by force, on women in the 1990s.

"The second idea I have, the second feeling, is why would history not repeat itself? Could Tunisia not live through the same events as Iran, or Algeria?"

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