What a 21st century feminist movement should look like in Tunisia?

By Ikram Ben Said

Ikram

Even though we are living in the 21st century, gender equality is still considered a women’s issue, in Tunisia, and policy makers are trying to avoid or postpone the conversation because they are dealing with “more important issues.” Gender inequality has not only been fostered by political decisions, it is also deeply embedded in Tunisians’ minds. It has become the norm and an institution. There is something wrong when women do not feel that they are discriminated against, when they embrace their roles without asking for other options or without challenging this institution, when women just follow the cultural expectations, and when they accept their moral accountability. As I observe the perception versus the reality of gender inequality in Tunisia, I believe that the feminist movement could play a significant role in bridging that gap.

Perceptions vs. Reality

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index 2014 shows that Tunisia ranks 130 out of 142 countries in women’s economic participation with a score of .46 out of 1. The Gender Equality Policy report in Tunisia argues that one of the main reasons is women’s heavy responsibility for household activities, and the lack of social services “making women strongly attached to their traditional domestic roles.” According to Tunisia’s Gender Profile in 2014, Tunisian women spend eight times more than men on housework activities, raising children, and taking care of the elderly.

Another reason for women’s low economic participation is that the public policies are “gender neutral” or “gender blind.” Tunisian women are overloaded in the workplace with a new kind of exploitation created by the capitalist system and, at the same time, are still burdened by household activities and child care. This is due to the absence of family-friendly flexible jobs, and the fact that Tunisia has not considered the new status of working-moms, by not providing reliable public transportation or adequate social services.

Tunisian women must recognize and rise up against discriminatory practices and problems, as they continue to see gender equality as a low priority. In a survey by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Tunisian women were asked what about the major problems they face in their daily lives. Only 0.5% responded, “reconciliation between work and family life,” claiming that “the heavy responsibility rests on women,” while 0.6 % believed “discrimination and exclusion of women” was a major problem.  Nonetheless, major problems do exist for women in Tunisia. National statistics show that almost 50% of Tunisian women have experienced violence (at least once in her life). Although the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood and Elderly Affairs in Tunisia proposed laws to combat violence against women, the first shelter for abused women will open in March 2016.   In the NDI survey, when women were asked if they were satisfied with the State’s role in protecting women victims of violence, over half were either highly satisfied or satisfied with what was being done. These results highlight the gap between reality and perceptions and could explain why Tunisia has not addressed women’s issues yet.

A 21st Century Feminist Movement

When gender inequality is embedded in society and shapes Tunisians’ mindsets and behaviors, some people think that the change will come from the top; similar to what happened in Tunisia in the last 50 years ago, starting when President Habib Bourguiba pushed toward a progressive women and family code in 1956. But today’s government is not doing its best to get rid of the practices that are still used to enforce the lower status of women. From December 2014 until October 2015, the Tunisian Parliament voted in favor of only one bill allowing mothers to get a passport, or any other travel documents for their children, without a permit from the father. Only one bill passed and no other bills were proposed by Parliament regarding gender equality, as noted in this report. Some people will find this data as an opportunity to attack the efficiency of the parity law. Even though I believe in this law, I still believe that as long as our work is electing women in the position of power within existing social hierarchies, we should not expect much change. If the grassroots and top political leadership are not considering gender equality as a top priority issue, who will? I call for a vibrant, 21st century feminist movement.

Let me first emphasize the fact that being feminist is not about personal success as a woman – how smart a woman is or how high her job ranking. It is about joining a struggle that allows all women to overcome the structural barriers rooted in society.

Gender mainstreaming should shape the politics of the 21st century, and the feminist movement should and could make it happen. The gender approach can become part of all ministries and institutions by broadening the conversation about gender inequality. It should be expanded to include not only violence against women or women in the private sphere, but also about health policies, public transportation, urbanism, peace and security. A feminist movement should avoid the “women institutions” that isolate the women’s agenda and leave them without resources and power.

When we bring the broader conversation to the high level of policy and explain the big picture to the public, then gender issues will be taken seriously, from the core of each policy and political decisions to the ordinary, daily institutions’ activities. To do so, a 21st first century feminist movement should educate people about feminism and its objectives. Policy makers know “that it is not just the right thing to do but the smart thing” (Hillary Clinton). To succeed in this mission, feminism should make efforts to rebrand and innovate its own narrative. A 21stcentury feminism – one that is pragmatic, inspiring, inclusive, and constructive, coupled with a down-to-earth narrative, is capable of attracting both young girls and boys. But both the form and the content are very important.

The Tunisian feminist movement should invest more in research and evidence-based policies to learn how to better face hot-button issues and engage a broad audience in taking our agenda seriously. Gender inequality has to be adopted and promoted by political decisions, so feminism should be a political movement that asks the strategic questions that make a difference. It should also conceptualize and push for more reforms to achieve concrete results. These present-day results will give more credibility to the movement so we can advocate for radical fights for more profound structural changes in the future. It is also very important that the feminist movement embrace diversity. No one and no organization has a monopoly on feminist theory, even though they may share the same vision, paths, and strategies.

Feminism is about advocating for more opportunities for women so they can make their own choices and not be judged. It has never been a fight for what a woman should look like or what she must do. The first step is to stop viewing women as a homogenous group. Although all women suffer from discrimination, their experiences, backgrounds, and values differ, which makes each woman experience and react differently to oppression. This is a very important component to take into consideration. Furthermore, women are divided by social classes, and sometimes this divide allows women to exploit other women. For example, there is still much exploitation of women housekeepers who usually receive low wages. In addition, some women in positions of power, internalizing the patriarchy, close doors of opportunity for other women.

I am confident that we can bring new ideas and energy to the feminist movement in Tunisia. We can work hard to make it stronger, vibrant, and a movement of change. Let’s open the door to a new generation, and let’s present ourselves with pride. I am a proud feminist of the 21st century!

Ikram Ben Said is Fulbright Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Policies and Public Administration at University of Minnesota. She is also the founder and former President of the Tunisian NGO Aswat Nisaa (Voices of Women). This article was first published on iKNOW politics.

Advertisements

2016 Borderlands Trip: Cross-Campus, Cross-Perspectives, Cross-Borders

By Clint Arthur, Trinidad & Tobago

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

Arizona Border

Fellows from ASU and UMN looking across the US-Mexico border into Mexico

The cross-campus collaboration overall was a worthwhile experience for me. The collaboration between the University of Minnesota Law School and the Arizona State University offered Fellows from both of these institutions to share in a cultural learning experience. The trip to Arizona offered me a unique opportunity toward broadening my perspective of the cultural heritage of the United States. This is my first ever trip to the United States, and being offered the chance on this program to experience the many different aspects of this great country is like a dream come true. I particularly found that the collaboration offered the Fellows to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the United States. The opportunity to meet with other Fellows from different countries and officials from Arizona State University was a rewarding experience. Through this experience, we were able to share our learnings from our respective fields. I believe that this was an eye opening experience as we got to have a deeper perspective and respect for each other’s roles.

The first three days were really interesting from the perspective that although Fellows from both campuses started off being very cautious with each other, there was a gradual breaking down of walls as we spent more time with each other. It was also interesting because this was the first time the Fellows from the University of Minnesota Law School had spent this long of a time period together since our orientation in August, 2015. The trip offered us an opportunity to bond much closer.

The workshops offered good content; I particularly found the first presentation on sex trafficking in Arizona very thought provoking from the aspect of the differences and similarities when compared with Minnesota’s context. The operations were similar and different in many ways; for example, the victims were somewhat more from Mexico, due to the closeness of that country to Arizona.

Tent City

Fellows at Tent City Jail

The visits arranged also created heated discussions amongst the Fellows, in particular the visit to Tent City. It was my first experience with this type of prison, and I left there somewhat bewildered, as if there was something more to the facility that I wasn’t able to fully grasp. I think that that in particular only served to heighten the awareness of many of us. In particular, some of the human rights Fellows engaged in some heated discussions with the Fellows from a law enforcement background. Interestingly, we were all able to come to some common ground on some issues, while we agreed to have further discussions on some other issues. However, I believe that through all of the discussions there was a deeper appreciation for the role of each other in our society.

The trip across the Mexican border was quite an interesting one from the very start, in the manner we were able to just walk across from one country to the other. Many of us were surprised by that, and even questioned as to how it was so simple. However, on our way back to the United States, we found that it was not as simple as when crossed over to Mexico. Many of the Fellows from Asian and Middle Eastern countries were detained for an inordinate period. In the end, they were finally allowed to reenter the United States without a proper explanation as to the reason for their detention. There are many questions surrounding this unfortunate situation. It is hoped that by the next time this trip comes around, the next Fellows will not suffer the same fate.

2016 Borderlands Trip: The Same Situation The Whole World Round

By Tarek Mkanna, Lebanon

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

Arizona 2016 024

The Crossing from the US into Mexico

Visiting Arizona and crossing the border to Mexico was for me a real life experience where I got the chance to hear from law enforcement officers about the different challenges they face at the border zone and how much crime is evolving over time.

Despite the differences with regard to underlying reasons, when comparing this to what is happening in my country you can learn how similar crime is all around the world.

Law enforcement agencies on borders or behind borders are facing the same dilemma when confronting humanitarian situations correlated with criminal activities. It is a real feeling of distress and anger about the level of inhumanity some human beings have reached.

2016 Borderlands Trip: Making Friends & Overcoming Fears

By Abosede Oyeleye, Nigeria

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

Arizona 2016 314

Hiking Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ

The trip to Arizona and Mexico in collaboration with the Fellows from Arizona State University will remain one of the biggest highlights of my Humphrey year.

It provided good interaction with Fellows from the other campus and even better interaction with my own cohort as a result of being together for more than 16 hours a day. I got to know them better and made new friends.

I also had the privilege of visiting another country (Mexico) and was able to access first-hand the truth about the Mexico/America border. I at least can speak confidently about it now.

Arizona 2016 307

Hiking Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ

Climbing the red Sedona hills was one of my biggest achievements so far, since I am generally averse to heights, but I surprised myself by climbing those several thousand -foot hills (of course with the encouragement of Kristi and the rest of the Fellows).

The Grand Canyon was simply breathtaking and I was glad to be part of such an awesome experience. Hearing or seeing pictures of it is not quite the same as being there.

In all that trip was fantastic. I will always remember it for years to come!

2016 Borderlands Trip: We All Share the Same Humanity

By Ja Aung Lu, Burma/Myanmar

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

The cross-campus collaboration in Arizona was one of the most amazing and intense trips I have had during my stay in the United States. It was the first time traveling with our Humphrey cohort, as well as the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Fellows and the Arizona State University Fellows. This was refreshing, challenging, and a great learning experience.

Arizona 2016 042

Fellows at Grupos Beta in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico

This trip changed my perception of the immigration policies of both the United States and Mexico, as well as the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. It showed me not to judge situations until we see and experience what is actually going on in the entire system. This experience helps me to justify the gaps between duty-bearers (such as academic or policy-making levels and policy implementers) and rights holders (such as policy-affected people). It is also makes me realize the importance of setting mechanisms to safeguard the downsides of policy in order to treat citizens or people fairly.

There are many takeaways for me from these experiences. One of them was from a paper titled “Talking Across Difference” by Keith Woods (The Poynter Institute for Media Studies), which one of the Arizona State University coordinators gave us. I find that these are very important tips for us when we engage with people in order to mind the gaps and be prepared for a productive conversation as a professional or respectful person. The 10 tips are: Acknowledge the fear, Sharpen your language, Check in regularly, Build relationship, Become a student, Be honest, Seek clarification, Challenge with passion, Be willing to change, and Stay in the room. I will share these tips with my other colleagues, or use the same strategy to set ground rules before we start a meeting or workshop.

One of the more mind-blowing experiences of the trip was that of the law enforcement personnel engaging in their work with compassion while fulfilling their respective duties. This gave me the insight that we all share the same humanity, no matter whoever, whatever or wherever we are. Therefore, it is vital for human rights advocates to advocate for and facilitate people in realizing their common humanity and working together for the wellbeing of humankind.

Border Patrol

Fellows meeting with Border Patrol

On the other hand, this trip reminded us of the ill treatment given to people as they are dehumanized, criminalized, and/or put in a lower social status. This doesn’t only happen between law enforcement personnel and criminals, but can also happen among human rights activists when we engage with people who we think are human rights violators. I learned that it is important for us as human rights activists to practice what we preach, which means that we need to treat people equally regardless of their social status, sex, religion, color, or choices.

I want to acknowledge the coordinators from Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota for their hard work and for giving us the opportunity to have this experience, which will truly benefit our efforts to become better coordinators, policy makers, advocates, journalists, and law enforcement personnel. I would like to encourage the coordinators and IIE to continue this type of activity and funding for this project. It is worth it to take the challenges that we faced and that future groups may also face, to help us (the International Institute of Education, the coordinators, and the Fellows) to improve and mature together.

2016 Borderlands Trip: An Overview

By Hamze Haidar Ahmad, Lebanon

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is a  reflection by one of the Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education.

Tent City Jail

Tent City Jail

The trip to Arizona was a fruitful experience for me from a personal and a professional perspective as well. From a professional perspective, this trip clarified for me how difficult is to be successful in enforcing the law and protecting human rights at the same time. Tent City Jail was a great visit for the Fellows, through which we talked to prisoners and law enforcement agents. We asked many questions, some about inmates’ conditions at the jail and others related to Arizona laws. We also had plenty of valuable presentations and meetings after the Tent City Jail visit. From the Borderlands media coverage presentation by Professor Corchega, we learned about the dangerous nature of investigative journalism work, especially for those who are covering war zones. This presentation was followed by a presentation entitled “The Changing Nature of the Arizona-­Sonora Border” presented by Scott Warren, a historical geographer who shed light on the current situation at the border and on initiatives undertaken in order to decrease the number of migrant deaths. We also got introduced to a new filming technique called 360 degrees coverage – this technique will preserve all evidence!

The next day, we had a discussion with Sheriff Tony Estrada, who is responsible for Santa Cruz County, about how he ensures and protects the life of migrants and how he takes care of his county at the same time. This discussion was followed by a Mexican perspective from the Mayor of Nogales, Sonora. Mayor Galindo explained the mutual and effective work that the US and Mexico are doing together to save lives. He also talked a little bit about the socioeconomic factors of migration. Afterwards, we went to the field to the US­Mexico border, where we met with Border Patrol agents. We discussed with them how they secure their borders and how they deal with immigrants. The securitization of the borders is ensured by pedestrian patrols, by vehicle, and by helicopter patrols.

The Mexican side of the border

The Mexican side of the border

The best part of this trip was our entrance into Mexico to visit Nogales and to see how they look at the issue of illegal immigration from a Mexican point of view. My experience in Nogales was unforgettable. We visited a company and talked with employees, then visited a local newspaper and a migration office where we received answers to our questions concerning illegal immigration. We ended the Nogales visit with a lunch at the US Consulate in Nogales. Christopher Teal was very helpful, inviting Humphrey Fellows to his house and he motivating us to keep moving forward with our work.

From a personal perspective, the Arizona trip was a unique experience through which I got to know the Arizona State University staff and Fellows closely and to share personal adventures with them. We were introduced to many professional people and shared contacts with them. Tourism-wise, it was wonderful that we visited the divine Grand Canyon, where I spent a beautiful day in gorgeous scenery. I learned a lot and enjoyed my time as well. Every single detail was well planned, from A to Z. Special thanks to the International Institute of Education and to the Humphrey Fellowship Program coordinators from the University of Minnesota Law School and from Arizona State University for all they did in order to make this trip such a beautiful personal and professional memory.

Fostering Dialogue in the Arab Spring

The topic of “The Arab Spring” is as daunting as it is ambiguous and yet Ikram Ben Said was unfazed as she articulately navigated a group of civil participants through this treacherous topic last Thursday night. Ms. Ben Said used a dialogue that she orchestrated between secularists and islamists Tunisian women to elucidate the larger social tensions that were omnipresent in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain during the Arab Spring. Ms. Ben Said’s presentation dovetailed nicely with that of Dr. Ragui Assad which focused on the violations of social contracts which, he posits, catalyzed the Arab Spring. The question-answer period was particularly fruitful as Ms. Ben Said and Dr. Ragui Assad fielded questions from the audience. Topics ranged from the intersection of the Arab Spring and the presence or absence of oil in countries, the deficiencies of Arab Spring youth movements, the role of women in the Arab Spring, Western media manipulation of on the ground events, and the influence the Sunni-Shia dichotomy. Particularly interesting was an extended conversation on the possibility of a second wave of Arab Spring countries, with Dr. Ragui Assad indicating factors that may spur on this wave and Ms. Ben Said proposing initiatives that may help diminish the possibility of this second wave.