Contesting Elite & State Feminism: A New Generation of Tunisian Feminists

By Maro Youssef
Submitted to Session P4955 (Rivalry, Revival, and Survival: Contemporary Algerian and Tunisian Contestations and Reconfigurations, 2017 Annual Meeting
Socio
All Middle East; Arab States; Maghreb; Mediterranean Countries; Tunisia;
19th-21st Centuries; Arab Studies; Current Events; Ethnography; Gender/Women's Studies; Human Rights; Identity/Representation; Maghreb Studies; Mediterranean Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Modernization; State Formation;
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The history of Tunisian women’s activism is well known among Tunisian scholars (Charrad 2007, 2011; Charrad and Zarrugh 2014; Khalil 2014). However, we know very little about the status of women’s rights and associations today (Gilman 2007). Prior to the 2011 revolution, the number of women’s rights associations had fluctuated was fewer than five since the 1980s. As of 2012, the government counted 35 registered women’s rights associations (Ben Amara & Ibtissem Mathlouthi 2012). Tunisian women’s rights had been the most progressive in the MENA region thanks to state feminism and the work of elite feminists who formed l’association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche sur le Développement (AFTURD) and l'association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) (Labidi 2007; Arfaoui 2007). Given Tunisia’s exceptional progress in this area, why did we witness a sevenfold increase in the number of women’s associations starting in 2011? What were their new grievances? Why did newly active women not join existing women’s associations?

In this paper, I identify and shed light on key women’s associations that emerged during the political transition and continue to exist. There is a gap in the literature across sociology and Middle East Studies about these new groups and others like them in different political contexts. Their aims, actions, and funding remain unknown or undocumented. This case study sheds light on the attitudes of leaders of women’s associations in Tunisia. It contributes to the literature on how interest groups capitalize on the insecurity and hesitancy of new governments especially during democratic transitions from authoritarianism. I draw on Alexis de Tocqueville’s and Robert Putnam’s theories of civil society and Max Weber’s work on the state.

Most Tunisian women involved in these new associations reject state feminism and elite secular feminist principles. They operate in a more open political climate where they can establish headquarters, meet publicly, receive foreign funding, and criticize state policies regarding women’s rights. Two organizations--Aswat Nisaa and Ligue des Electrices Tunisiennes—emerged during the Arab Spring and exemplify the new wave of revolutionary women’s organizations. Their primary political objective is to increase women's political representation, including voting and running for local as well as national office. They are actively engaged in creating a democratic civil society. I conducted this fieldwork in Tunisia through participant observation and dozens of indepth interviews at the headquarters of the two key associations mentioned above. The secondary literature on these associations is very limited.