Two Societal Projects on Collision Course

In this interview with Martina Sabra, the chairwoman of the Coalition for Women of Tunisia (Coalition Pour les Femmes de Tunisie), Saloua Guiga, tells of the Islamists' poor understanding of democracy and the precarious situation for women in her country

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Martina Sabra

Ms Guiga, the World Social Forum in Tunis in March 2013 was the first to be held in an Arab country. The agenda was dominated by the Arab revolutions and gender issues. You were at the event with the Coalition for Women of Tunisia. How would you summarise the conference from a women's perspective?

Saloua Guiga: For us Tunisian women, the World Social Forum was an opportunity to feel like citizens of the world for four days. In line with its charter, the World Social Forum doesn't make binding declarations. But there are platforms that are put together by individual groups. For us, the Forum was a unique opportunity to meet women from all over the world, to discuss, learn and network with them.

You're the coordinator and spokeswoman of the Coalition for Women of Tunisia. The coalition is currently the largest alliance of secular feminist women in Tunisia. How did the coalition come about?

Guiga: We've been legally registered as an association since September 2012. But we started off shortly after the fall of Ben Ali's regime, in January 2011. Many feminist women were looking for a way to get organised at that time: individual women, academics, women from social organisations, but also women from the women's commissions within the trade unions and political parties. Our first joint action was to organise the celebrations commemorating 13 August 2011. This is the day when the reform of the Tunisian Code of Personal Status came into force, the "Code du Statut Personnel" (CSP).

This reform gave Tunisian women a great many rights, and it's important to us that the CSP is not abolished but continues to be reformed to promote greater equality. At the event in August 2011 we realised how much mobilisation potential the subject of women's emancipation has. We managed to get tens of thousands of people on the streets, men and women alike. The sports stadium in Menzeh VI in Tunis was bursting at the seams.

Forging democracy in difficult conditions: in Tunisia, the pressure on women's rights activists and dissidents is growing. The murder of the renowned Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid a few months ago highlighted the widespread violence and the burgeoning democratic crisis in this North African country


What are the coalition's objectives?

Guiga: At the moment, hundreds of new women's groups are being founded all over Tunisia. Some of these organisations are very small, and sometimes they have difficulties making themselves heard. By working together, we can develop our skills jointly, for example, and achieve more.

The coalition now consists of more than 30 organisations. They all work very differently. Some address the specific problems of women in rural areas, where access to education and medical care is often insufficient. Unemployment is also particularly high there. Women are especially affected by all these problems.

Other organisations in the coalition provide political education or lobby for better laws. The common denominator is the gender approach and the universality of human rights. The international human rights conventions are our frame of reference, and that's the joint charter we've passed. Only organisations that sign up to this charter can join the coalition.

Under earlier Tunisian regimes, Tunisian women did have many rights but there was still discrimination, which was justified by Islam. The new Tunisian constitution is still under discussion. What are your demands? How should equal rights for men and women be anchored in law?

Guiga: When the first draft constitution was announced last summer we were shocked. Article 28 said that women ought to be complementary to men (French: complémentaire, Arabic: takaamul). We took several tens of thousands of people onto the streets in protest – including many who aren't members of the coalition. We worked with the women's commissions in the political parties and formulated an alternative to the previous draft constitution.

What makes the term "complementary" so problematic?

Guiga: The term "complementarity" is a term also used by the Muslim Brotherhood, which – just like Ennahda – claims that the nuance between equality and complementarity is minimal, negligible in fact. But the difference between equality and complementarity isn't minimal, it's fundamental.

"The Koran is our constitution": Islamists demonstrating in Tunis: the Tunisian women's rights activist Saloua Guiga warns against Islamists' growing intolerance towards women's rights activists and liberal forces in Tunisia, who are calling for a society built on universal and humanist values


The two terms stand for two different societal projects that can't be reconciled. One project is based on the Sharia, as it's represented by the Islamist parties today. The other, on which we base our work, is built on universal values and international conventions. These are two completely different worldviews. One is restrictive; the other is universal and humanist.

The Islamists invoke Arab-Islamic identity. Can the issue of identity be ignored?

Guiga: These totalitarian identity discourses can only lead to violence. I see two societal projects on a collision course. What I mean to say is that the democratic elite tolerates the existence of the Islamists and their rights. The Islamists, however, see things very differently: for them, there is only one truth. When they talk about identity, they mean a specific worldview that is purely Islamic. But Tunisian society is open; it can't be locked inside an Islamic vision.

In Tunisia we have Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists. In fact, the number of atheists isn't all that small. I personally know a great many. I'm certain there are tens of thousands, if not more. But these people are scared to express their opinion openly. That's why we're asking ourselves: what right entitles one group to force the laws of a single religion upon everyone else?

Some observers feel that after the upcoming parliamentary election, the collective movement Nidaa Tounes (Appel de la Tunisie) and the Ennahda Party might form a coalition. What do you think that would mean for women's rights and the constitution?

Guiga: That would be dangerous; but so far, no official announcements have been made to suggest such a thing would happen. It was the same at the last elections, though. "Ettakattol" initially rejected a coalition with Ennahda, but then changed their minds for reasons of political expediency. But whether left or right, women will always have to fight for their rights.

Interview and translation from the French: Martina Sabra

© 2013

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/