Fulbright TA lectures on remarkable Tunisian women
Nicole Caratas | Monday, April 13, 2015
The Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) hosted an installment of the CWIL Colloquium featuring a presentation by Fulbright Arabic Teaching Assistant Olfa Slimane. Slimane discussed the ways in which prominent female figures have shaped history in Tunisia and helped create a modern society with gender equality.
“The Tunisian woman is a mixture of different cultures,” Slimane said. “She is the Berber. She is the Byzantine. She is the Roman, the Arab, the Muslim, the Christian, the Jew.”
In the early years of Tunisian history, one of the most notable women was Elissa, known as Dido to the Western world, Slimane said. Elissa founded “The Shining City,” Carthage, after fleeing her hometown in Lebanon when her brother killed her husband. She bought the land where she built the city by offering cowhide to locals.
“These women paved the history of Tunisia,” Slimane said of Elissa and several others. “Because of them, Tunisian women gained very strong agency in the society. However, it is strongly felt in society, but it was not written in the Constitution.”
Slimane said before Tunisia gained independence, Tahar Haddad, a modernist scholar, issued a book that offered a modern reading of the Quran, causing it to be censored. He distinguished between Islamic precepts — the timeless beliefs held by Muslims — and Islamic law, which is temporal.
According to Slimane, the book was censored because Haddad viewed women’s education as an integral part of a wider nationalist project to fight colonialism.
“His book was the basis for this CPS, which is Code for Personal Status, in Tunisia, which is a series of rules and laws that secure equality of men and women in certain areas,” Slimane said.
Slimane said after Tunisia gained independence, Habib Bourguiba, the first president, started a nationalist project based on Haddad’s book to build a modern progressive society and a politically and economically strong state by focusing on women’s education and women’s emancipation.
She said the CPS, started under Bourguiba, raised the minimum age of marriage for both men and women and abolished polygamy and unilateral unexplained divorce by men. It also gave women alimony and custody rights, the right to legal abortion or child adoption and the rights to vote or be elected into office.
“The status is very exceptional in the region,” Slimane said. “But it is not appreciated by many Muslim because it departs from the conventional way of viewing Islam.”
Slimane said the situation of women after the revolution changed.
“Women in Tunisia have great agency in society and politics in particular. This was not translated after the revolution election in 2011. One of the ironies of [the revolution] is that while it was a step forward for democracy, it has always threatened to be a step backward in women’s rights. The reappearance of the Islamist party with its more conservative position in the political scene put the CPS in jeopardy.”
“We have a clause in the CPS saying that the woman is equal to men in household, and they wanted to change it to complementary to men in the household.” Slimane said. “This raised a lot of disagreement among people and many women organizations fought in order to keep the CPS untouched and to give women more prominence in politics.”