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“Male identity crisis”

by Amel Grami


Tunisian protesters hold up their shoes in a gesture of contempt for Sihem Badi, the minister for women’s affairs.

Tunisian protesters hold up their shoes in a gesture of contempt for Sihem Badi, the minister for women’s affairs.

The Arab revolutions are putting traditional gender roles in question. Amel Grami, a Tunisian intellectual, told Martina Sabra in an interview about how her country’s new strong women are resisting the Islamisation efforts of the ruling Ennahda Party within parliament – and those of the Salafists outside it.

Women played an important role in the overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Why do they now frequently face threats of violence and sexual harassment when they take part in demonstrations?
We thought for decades that relative gender equality could be taken for granted in Tunisia. But we now realise that Tunisia is no different from other Arab countries. We used to think of ourselves in Tunisia as a model for progress in the Arab world. Now we see daily evidence of the Islamists’ determination to smash that model. But Tunisian women do not want a uniform culture. They are searching for – and discovering – their own identify. In a figurative sense, they are taking off their veils.
Many women in Tunisia do not only criticise Islamists, but also their secular coalition partners in the government. In late March, demonstrators protested against Sihem Badi, the minister for women’s affairs. Badi belongs to President Moncef Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic, a secular party. Shoes were thrown at the ministry in protest.
Yes, that was a symbolic act recalling the Iraqi journalist’s gesture of protest against George Bush, who was then US president. The outcry was mostly a response to Sihem Badi’s support for Ennahda Party and to the government’s slow handling of a number of child sex abuse cases. At the same time, the shoe-waving was an allusion to a specific event. When the belongings of ex-President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi were auctioned, Minister Sihem Badi was photographed holding a pair of the former First Lady’s shoes. She even tried some of them on. That drew harsh criticism. Sihem Badi tried to justify her actions, but many considered her behaviour inappropriate, an evidence of her penchant for luxury. The purpose of the demonstration on 29 March in Tunis was to show that the minister for women’s affairs does not represent women and does not deserve her job.

What are her politics?
Let me give you an example. There is currently a trend in Tunisia to make even very young children wear the hijab. That flies in the face of Islam. Islam says that girls should wear the hijab only when they reach puberty, at the age of 13, 14. When democratic activists protested against this practice, Sihem Badi failed to adopt a clear position. She advised the feminists to discuss the matter with those who advocate the practice. She accused the intellectuals and democrats of resisting change and refusing to move forward.

What impact have the Arab uprisings had on the debate on equal rights for men and women?
Today, the debate is no more  about comparing the Arab world and the west; it is rather marked by pre-conceived ideas and stereotyped images. There is now an open discussion of the internal problems of Arab societies. The “other side” is no longer the west; it consists of Islamist movements or parties or, conversely, their opponents, the secularists. Moreover, the Arab revolutions have triggered a male identity crisis. After the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak, men simply wanted to forget everything: the years of oppression and impotence, and the attendant loss of masculinity and male honour. What we need is something like “men’s studies” in our universities. The Arab world has become a massive construction site in regard to men’s identity.  

What do you mean?
The revolutions proved that Arab men had been unable to defend their dignity. At the same time, in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and especially Syria, we see thousands of women showing no fear of death. Women have massed up to form human barricades against soldiers and police, to openly express their views regardless of the consequences and bravely took to the streets despite the risk of being raped. Today, self-confident women leave the house without asking for their families’ permission. They have cast off all chains. And men observe that these women have become their equals, or even stronger than them. Many men are scared and respond with violence. They want to control those women, to re-establish the old patriarchal model and to restore men’s former status. But that is no longer possible.

Many women are active in the Islamist parties and movements however. Their intellectual leaders claim that Islam “per se” does not discriminate against women. They say the Koran and the sacred texts of Islam have been misinterpreted, and they want to see them re-interpreted from a female perspective. What is your view?
After the revolution, I had expected a profound examination of the ideologies and religious discourses – a frank and open debate on the basics of Islam. But to my great surprise, I found that none of Ennahda women was able to analyse a religious text in even the most rudimentary fashion. The women in this party have no training in that respect, so they are not able to interpret the Koran or the classical texts in any modern sense. Unlike some women in Egypt, they have no pretension being religious or judicial scholars (alimaat/muftiyaat). That was a real revelation to me. As an academic, I was sure that some women would be engaged in an international exchange over the internet – interacting, for example, with Islamist scholars such as Heba Raouf in Egypt. However, I found that that was not the case.  

Doesn’t that hurt the credibility of Ennahda Party?
I think Ennahda made a conscious choice not to hold debates on the basis of religious texts. Its people lack the theological competence for doing so, and the party knows it would lose votes if it engaged in religious and methodological discussions. Ennahda is playing the populist card; its message needs to be simple. A few verses from the Koran suffice for that purpose. Ennahda does not want people to think for themselves or ask questions. It wants political power in the name of Islam.

Is gender equality even possible without the separation of religion and state?
No, it is not. That is evident in the current Tunisian debate on the UN Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Discrimination against Women. The minister for religion has commented on it, and clearly stated that he is against equal rights for men and women. He favours “complementarity”, which means partial gender equality. The political discourse and concepts used by  Ennahda and the Salafists include modern terms and concepts such as democracy, civil society, participation, transparency and good governance. They have learned the words by heart. Even some Salafists promote “democracy”. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they have their own special interpretation – an interpretation that differs radically from the meaning that is universally and conventionally accepted in the rest of the world.

Tunisians will elect a new parliament this year. Do you think new elections will end the political stagnation?
I am sceptical. The present government refuses to admit that there are more and more weapons in the country – and a great deal of money. Vote-buying will be a massive problem in the upcoming election.

What do you expect from the EU and Germany?
The EU and Germany support the Tunisian government, although it is guilty of violating human rights and betraying the values of the revolution. I think financial and technical assistance should be made subject to stricter conditions. The EU and especially Germany need to insist more vigorously on the Tunisian government respecting human rights and democracy.

Amel Grami is professor of Arabic and Islamic intellectual history at the University of Manouba in Tunis.
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