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Maryam Abolfazli: On Fire

November 23, 2011

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The uncertain future of Tunisian secularism.

By **Maryam Abolfazli**

TunisiaWomen-575.jpgPhotograph via Wikimedia Commons by H. Grove.

Six weeks before the Constituent Assembly will hold elections to create Tunisia’s new constitution, I am in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. I’ve come for work, to understand civil society here, and find myself less than a mile from where Muhamad Buoazizi, the fruit seller, set himself on fire. First, I took a train to Sousse in the North. On the ride, I chatted with two young men in their twenties, and both supported Ennahda, the moderate Islamist political party. One worked in a family business, drank alcohol, and he thought Ennahda was fine with that. The other was a university engineering student who questioned the American two-party system more than he defended Ennahda.

There I found myself wondering what it would mean for Tunisia if Ennahda won. Would the secular laws stay in place, or would conservative, sharia-based laws come into force slowly, while no one was looking? My central question while traveling around was this: now free, would this progressive society regress?

As an Iranian-American, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with this question—progress and regress—particularly in terms of women’s rights. How does a person donning a miniskirt one day become fully veiled the next? In Iran, after the 1978 revolution, everything moved so quickly women and society had little opportunity to reverse the decisions of the government. I looked at Tunisia through this lens. Would women’s rights be the martyrs of revolution? How quickly might the tide turn? Was anyone on the lookout?

After a night in Tunis, I wake and decide to go where the elite are not. I get in a taxi and ask the driver to go to Mousef Bey station. He drives a long while then comes to a stop. Through the window, I see the entrance to a vast depot of parked vehicles. I look at the driver, bewildered. He notices I am in unfamiliar territory, unbuckles his seat belt, and walks me in. He buys my ticket while I wait behind him among swarms of men. Then he accompanies me to the van or louage, as they are known.

In the van sit three veiled young women and a man. I become conscious of my short sleeves. I know I am going south where the culture is conservative. How protected am I in the new Tunisia? Is it just stares that I will receive, or worse? Can’t I serve as a reminder that veiling isn’t required. I had had the same urge in 2003 when I worked in an Afghan ministry. I didn’t veil at work because I wanted to fight the expectation that I should or would.

We take a pit stop in the 3-hour drive and the guy sharing the backseat with me buys me water and an espresso. He speaks Italian, French and Arabic, so none of our languages overlap. He looks about 25, in a pink t-shirt, gelled hair, and jeans. “Cinque Sidi Bouzid,” he tells me five minutes before we arrive. As we drive into town, we see an accident; a louage identical to ours stopped in the middle of the street. A man lies on the concrete surrounded by a crowd.

When we arrive, Nizar, a young, local activist, waits for me. We walk through the town, the surroundings familiar, like a more modernized Kabul. Roads are a mix of pavement and dirt, men are predominant, everyone stares.

While we walk Nizar tells me every day a new girl in the town starts veiling. He calls women with Nigab—the full black face cover—“mailboxes.” He points to a mosque funded by the Salafis. It is not the ornate mosque of centuries ago. Its cupolas look like aluminum foil and the mud walls are unfinished, and unpainted. We walk into a café similar to the many we’d passed on our walk. It is filled with tables of men that play cards, smoke houka, and drink espresso. I am the only woman.

It’s Wednesday at mid-day and I’ve seen dozens of young men, unoccupied. Nizar speaks of the joblessness, saying he can’t get married because he doesn’t have any money. According to most accounts, this common refrain among the youth drove the protests across the Middle East.

Now he explains too that it was a day like this when Buoazizi took his life. “I am jobless, walking around, drinking espresso. Then I hear that Mzbus—that’s what we called him—burned himself. The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, he had the courage that I didn’t have.’”

Nizar is full of stories. We walk by the social security office and it reminds him of a night he went to the hospital because of intense stomach pains. The hospital wouldn’t treat him because he didn’t have insurance. His friend pulled out a camera and filmed the ordeal. At the sight of the camera, the administrator agreed to have him stay at the hospital.

“Facebook power,” Nizar said.

She said the appeal of regressive Islam was due to a need for identity and acceptance. To get a husband you need a veil, to belong, you need a veil.

Nizar drops me off at the house of a woman who started a community organization to promote democracy in Sidi Bouzid. He is quick to tell me that she isn’t from Sidi Bouzid. “We are like a soccer team, we have to recruit women leaders because our town doesn’t have any.”

Faiza opens the door to the gate. Her daughter, Rania, smiles at me as I walk into the house. A retainer fits her mouth, and she is dressed in jeans. The house is large, the family middle class. I stand with Faiza in the kitchen as she prepares coffee for us. A little girl walks in with pink Capri pants and short boy-like hair. Her innocence beams as she wonders who I am. She is Faiza’s youngest daughter, Gazelle.

In the living room, Faiza tells me she is at times optimistic and other times pessimistic about democracy in Tunisia. She tells me she had promised her daughters they will not stay if the law becomes Islamic. But then she took it back.

“I don’t want to leave Sidi Bouzid. I have to stay and build it.”

She worries about the incidents of disorder in the country and tells me stories about hospitals, businesses, and others terrorized for cash.

“I am now thinking Ennahda is nothing compared to anarchy.” It sounds familiar. In Afghanistan an old man told me the Taliban was better than civil war.

Faiza’s husband, Jamel, appears. Handsome, with dark skin, a round face, he wears shorts and a t-shirt. We talk for hours about Iran. At some point the youngest daughter, Gazelle, reappears, sitting. He squeezes her minuscule cheeks, saying, in Arabic, “I can’t imagine your little face in a veil. No way.” The comment expresses a dueling consciousness, an awareness of a potentially negative fate and a need to carry on.

As our discussion stretches into early evening, Faiza and her husband recommend that I not travel the road to Tunis at night and offer their home for me to stay. The image of the man on the road earlier in the day is still with me and I agree. Faiza leaves to prepare dinner. Jamel grabs a beer and plays chess with Rania while Gazelle advises her father on his next moves.

At dinner, the conversation is replete with opinions and ideas; the girls offer their thoughts on many issues, including the poor in Sidi Bouzid. I ask about the joblessness of boys like Nizar. Rania interjects, “He’s not poor.” Only eleven, her mind has clarity about class. She explains that parts of her father’s family didn’t have nice clothes or gel to put in their hair, and that’s how you knew someone was not well off. Since Nizar has both, he wasn’t poor.

As we eat, Faiza and Jamel explain to me that most Tunisian families in Sidi Bouzid don’t drink wine with dinner as they do. Drinking is a man’s activity and done in the company of men. After dinner, Rania and her father wash the dishes. I watch all these seemingly small movements to understand the depth of democratic culture in the house. Iran’s history has taught me that as long as human interactions are autocratic, the political system will be as well. With this egalitarian culture so ingrained in the daily life of one Tunisian family, I wonder how easy it will be to take these rights away.

The next morning, at Faiza’s behest, I take the bus, rather than a louage, to Tunis. Later that afternoon, I meet with a doctor who became an activist in the revolution. She and others in her group show documentaries from France, UK and Canada about the impact of Sharia law on women’s lives. She says the appeal of regressive Islam is due to a need for identity and acceptance. To get a husband you need a veil; to belong, you need a veil. She explains, “We want women to understand where their identity interferes with their human rights.”

After we speak, I take a taxi to my hotel. The sun is setting and a pink glow appears over the city. My flight is in a few hours. In the taxi, I first delight in (then grow intolerant toward) the prayers playing in the taxi speakers. Initially the prayer was multi-toned and as touching as the call to prayer. But then it grew monotone, like a needle poking at my arm without ever going in. Again, my mind flashes back to Afghanistan. I remember my driver telling me about the secret contraption that he built in his tape deck that made it seem like he was listening to prayer tapes instead of music in case a Taliban official stopped him while he was driving.

The prayers stop now, and the taxi driver ejects the tape, flipping it to the other side. The same unchanging sound comes through. Again I wonder, will this progressive society regress? Tunisia revolted for freedom, representation, and social justice. Like Iran, the revolts will continue, even thirty years later, if one of these comes at the cost of the other.

________________________________________________________________________


dos up to the sky.jpgMaryam Abolfazli worked in Afghanistan from 2003-2004 at the Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment, and has traveled to Central Asia, South Caucasus, Southeast Asia and North Africa. She is now a Senior Program Officer at an international development foundation based in the U.S.

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One comment for Maryam Abolfazli: On Fire

  1. Comment by Michael on November 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Thank you for your observations and thoughts on the unfolding dialogue, acted out by motions, in private and in cafes, between Islamism and secularism in Tunisia. I have been in Tunisia for several months doing research and I share many of your thoughts, and concerns.

    The discourse on this issue appears to be as multifaceted within the country as it is in universal debates. There are so many interpretations of Islam and how it interacts with politics and social practice. What is cultural interpretation and what is religious doctrine? For almost every individual I have encountered distinct responses to these topics.

    I particularly appreciate this line:

    “Iran’s history has taught me that as long as human interactions are autocratic, the political system will be as well.”

    I have thought about this same thing here in Tunisia, in relationship to your note about the male dominated custom of cafe culture. The cafe in Tunisia is a space for communitarian participation, it is where Tunisians (men) go to socialize most. If you walk through almost any neighborhood of Tunis, or in cities from Bizerte to Kasserine and Tataouine the cafes are crowded with Tunisian men. While a number of Tunisians with whom I have spoken have lamented this as a fact of underemployment I choose to examine it as an indicator of a different social malady.

    In the same way as you say that in a society where social interactions are authoritarian, so too will its politics be, I have concern for the rights of women as they are represented in most public spaces. Of course women walk around, some in veils and some not, to shop or visit friends in restaurants but the more stationary, the more participatory, the more socially or politically engaged social spaces of the cafes are clearly gender segregated-by social custom. This does not bode well as an indicator of gender perceptions. This kind of exclusionary metaphor of social space has the potential of shifting into the realm of more entrenched social or legislated political norms.

    I have written about this in more detail at http://michaelcaster.com/2011/11/07/a-feminist-transelection-barometer/ I would enjoy reading more on your perceptions and thoughts about Tunisia, considering what I would argue is your unique perspective. Thank you.

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