Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Where Are Tunisia's Women?

foto credit: Beirut Spring

Since the Tunisian uprising became global news in the last few days, I've wondered to myself where are the images of protesting Tunisian women across Tunisia? This is not a man's uprising, it is a people's uprising so why are the voices and pictures of women absent from this significant political process? Despite the fact that Tunisia is a modern society where gender equality is legislated by law, women are still marginally represented within the political sphere, because of the patriarchal nature of Arab and Berber culture. However the marginalisation of women from the public and the political does not mean that their voices as citizens of the nation are non-existent, thus as this story of national transformation unfolds, everyone in the country is a part of that story. Everyone has some experience of it, whether as a demonstrator, a bystander, a member of the armed forces or a child. 
Why is it then that the pattern of reporting by dominant international media sources tends to focus on the voices of men ranging from about 21 and upwards, while very little is heard from women, children and the elderly? On Twitter I rely on male and female tweeters in Tunisia for updates and most of the tweets are genderless because most of them are describing what they see or they're calls for solidarity among Arabs. I can understand that. 
But what I can't understand is why the media has focussed on a masculinist narrative? In times of civil unrest it's often the case that because women are not on the front-lines of the battle, their voices are silenced and because they are vulnerable (but not necessarily weak) their bodies become the battleground for discipline and control by warring factions. Their experiences often go unreported or untried by courts of law - and Tunisia has been no exception.
The Guardian reports of police raping women in the poor areas in and around Kasserine, west-central Tunisia:
"Sihem Bensedrine, head of the National Council for Civil Liberties, said: "These were random, a sort of reprisal against the people. In poor areas, women who had nothing to do with anything, were raped in front of their families. Guns held back the men; the women were raped in front of them." A handful of cases were reported in Kasserine and Thala last Monday. Rape was often used as a torture technique under the regime; opposition women report they were raped in the basement of the interior ministry, as were men, too."
In these protests, rape has been used as a tool to cow women and men into fear, to enforce the power of the state and to destroy the community. Whether the perpetrators will be punished or not, remains to be seen. But if the rapists are part of the police that are crushing dissent sanctioned by the newly-forming government then the chances of them being brought to justice are not that high, in my opinion. And how can the stories of women being physically or mentally abused by a variety of rogue and state forces in Tunisia be told if men’s faces and voices dominate the discourse? To what extent is the international media being implicitly complicit with the silencing of women?

Little has also been said about women working as part of the state's security or as government officials, although Leila Ben Ali Trebalsi has become a world reknown femocrat (female autocrat). There have been other female figures important in shaping the events in Tunisia. It was a police woman who mocked and slapped Mohamed Bouazizi as he was refused a permit to sell his vegetables. To date not much is known, within international mainstream media, about the policewoman or Bouazizi's mother, to whom he wrote a suicide note. Only  his sister  has given an interview to a local paper but for non-Arabic speakers, making sense of this Google translated script is somewhat difficult.
 These voices, like the other female voices are absent from most of the news reports outside of Tunisia. From the Middle East to Europe to North America and it's all the same. Men tend to dominate the footage and narrative. What’s surprising is that journalists on location in Tunisia who've had training in equal representation, continue to build on this narrative by letting the stories and images of men become the voice of the people in their reports.
Frustrated by the lack of coverage, I did a search on Google for 'protest Tunisian women' and all I've found so far is the picture above of Tunisia's Revolution Babes (yes, babes, young, pretty ones too!) and this commentary by Tasnim that compares how Neda Soltani became the face of the Iranian movement and how women are absent from this 'jasmine revolution.' The author suggests that this is due to an over-reliance on social media for information:
"What explains this disparity? This was very much a media event, and perhaps this in itself was part of the reason. In the Arab world, and to a lesser extent in French media, there has been a month of in-depth coverage of a developing story, but in English-language media, the real coverage began only as Ben Ali began making concessions. Consequently, there was no narrative to frame events, so a disproportionate amount of the analysis has focused on the new media’s role in the uprising, from Wikileaks to Twitter." 
To me, this is unconvincing. Foreign reporters from all parts of the world have flow in and are booked up in hotel rooms across Tunisia reporting, photographing and tweeting each day’s events. There’s been an overnight role change since the demonstrations have caught mainstream global attention. The 'professionals' have become the primary and the citizen journalist reports published through social media has become a secondary source for news agencies and many international readers.
 The truth is, inadequate coverage of women is a negative symptom of a construction of masculinity embedded in the media that within a male-dominated situation like that of civil protest and political change, tends to silence women.

Rioters carry a woman crying during clashes with the police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemr)
Apart from women, I also wondered about the Black Tunisians (less than 1% population), but I don't know how I'd even begin framing such a question if in Tunisia itself everyone's seen as Tunisian. Having said, that I know that the likelihood that many of the Black migrants and citizens are among the poorer people of Tunisia, so race becomes implicated in class. Perhaps the issue will emerge if there are reports of state violence against Black Tunisian men and women and prejudice is part of the cause for that violence. Other than that I don't know how thinking in terms of race would enrich my understanding of this situation. I've only heard of Mohammed Bouazzizi being referred to as Black on one Rasta website but, I don't know if he identified himself as such. Also, class-race dynamics in Tunisia don't necessarily work the same way as in other parts of Africa or the Arab world so I wouldn't jump to label someone a 'Black Moor/Muur' without knowing how they're perceived in their society and championing his protest immolation as a 'Black thing' yet it's a 'Tunisian struggle thing'. I think I'd prefer to assume that in times of collective stuggle against political oppression, everyone's united across racial, religious, tribal, generational and social lines.


ooeygooey said...

Good question. My answer's probably quite simplistic but I think the lack of coverage of what women are doing in Tunisia is more about women's status in Islam than about the male- centric media. The answer seems quite straight- forward and obvious to me. If the media isn't fully covering women's activism it's because the society enables that approach, I've watched programmes where women say they have been forbidden to speak on TV by their husbands. Ever watched PressTV- the Iranian govt sponsored news station? There's gross under- representation of women.

KonWomyn said...

Thanks for commenting! Hope you're well.
Just to be clear Tunisia is not an Islamist country, it's not even a Muslim country. It's a North African Arab nation and there is a tendency to conflate Islam/Muslims with Arabs.

I think you may be right that the society is an enabler but I think the media have a responsibility to give fair representation to the situation on the ground. The pictures show women are part of this, and in my post I talk about women getting raped and several others. How come these stories aren't being widely reported? The one story of Neda Soltani became the image for Iran's Green Movement, so how can so many different stories of so many women go untold?

To some extent, I think the media is enabling their silencing by not telling their stories.

Jay said...

Interesting, never really thought about women till you said it.

On a sidenote, here's a different opinion on racism in Tunisia from a singer called Salah Misbah:
“The only exception is historical works. Otherwise, they are absolutely excluded from the entire society.”
Misbah said he intended to tackle the issue of racial discrimination in his autobiography which he will call “No brother, no friend… not as Arabs, not as Muslims.”
Misbah, who was once sentenced to jail for assaulting an officer in the Tunisian army, said he is constantly harassed for his skin color and extremely improper racial slurs are hurled at him, the most common of which is calling him “a dirty slave.”
“Racial discrimination does not stop at street harassment, but also extends to the entertainment industry in Tunisia.”
Misbah recounted a story when he held a part at his house to celebrate the release of his second album and one of the journalists recommended that he changes his skin color like Michael Jackson.
“He said that this is how I can guarantee having fans in the Arab world.”

eliza.e.campbell said...

Hi, I'm a research assistant with a project called the WomanStats Database (www.womanstats.org) and I'm trying to do some research on women in Tunisia. Do you know the names or pages of any feminist or woman-centered Twitterers in Tunisia you could recommend? Thanks so much.

Eliza Campbell

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