Arab Spring risks turning into Islamist summer

The people's revolution that swept Ben Ali from power in Tunisia could yet reshape its secular, liberal political landscape and may have far-reaching effects on the rights of women.

Maya Jribi, the head of the Progressive Democratic Party, is undecided about whether the niqab should be banned. "It should be discussed."
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She isn't the first Tunisian to smile at me, but she is the first to do so in broad daylight wearing only a bikini. Behind a thick gate on Abdallah Guech Street in Tunis's old medina are three twisting streets filled with narrow doorways and staircases. Inside every one are Tunisian women, two or three together, in revealing clothes.

These are Tunisia's bordellos and their legal, tax-paying prostitutes, an unusual, almost-unknown world far from the gaze of the media. Tunisia's red-light districts are common across the country, legal since the 19th century, a reflection of a deeply liberal society. Even Kairouan, Tunisia's holiest city and the fourth most revered city in Islam, has a licensed, functioning red-light district.

The Kairouan red-light district has been shut since January and these bordellos in Tunis almost followed. After the revolution at the beginning of the year, in the lawless days after the regime of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali collapsed, several hundred Tunisians surrounded the streets of the brothels, chanting Islamic slogans and demanding they be shut. Some threatened to burn them down. Riot police entered the medina to disperse the crowd and fired into the air, finally stabilising the situation.

That in itself is an intriguing image and one that suggests Tunisia's exceptionalism: armed police and rapid-response helicopters circling the medina of an Arab country to ensure the safety of prostitutes. Since then, the heavy gate has been added, the first time such measures were needed to protect the women, who some see as an integral part of the medina.

Tunisia is in the midst of great changes. The people's revolution that toppled the long rule of Ben Ali unleashed forces that could signal other great shifts for the country. A nation ruled for so long by one person has the opportunity to change direction. Many political factions and arguments are jockeying for influence.

Tunis's bordello attack, apparently by Islamists, can be seen merely as one unusual incident in a country in transition. Yet it speaks to a fear many in Tunisia have, particularly among the secular, liberal Arabs among the elite and in the coastal cities, that a new political order might overturn some of the secular heritage of the country, especially in the field of women's rights. The bordello attack was seen as a sign of things to come, of a minority of increasingly vocal Islamists willing to threaten violence to achieve their social goals.

Secularists - who don't necessarily approve of legal brothels - worry that if Islamists are able to change aspects of society they disapprove of simply by making threats, they may begin to chip away at other aspects of Tunisia's heritage. Islamists are not, of course, the only group that might seek to do that, but by couching their objections in moral and religious terms, they are seen as more likely to arouse passions. In that sense, the scenes outside the brothel were seen as a skirmish in a bigger war for the soul of Tunisia's society.

In particular, these secularists worry about the growing influence of such Islamist parties as An Nahda (Renaissance), who appear to command a large following around the country and are now rebuilding after decades of being banned and hunted by the Ben Ali regime. They fear that what started as a secular Arab spring might give way to an Islamist summer.


Walking around the streets housing the bordellos is a surreal experience. In one way, it is like any other red-light district around the world: seedy, full of furtive glances and a host of ambiguous characters.

It takes a while for what I am witnessing to sink in. These are Arab Muslim women, in an Arab Muslim country, legally selling sex in a way unthinkable in most of the West or the Arab world. They are not just prostitutes; they are legal prostitutes, who get regular health checks and identity cards stamped by the ministry of interior.

Tunisia's remarkable social heritage has been formed by many currents, from Africa, from Europe and from other parts of the Arab world, but the current of history in the region is flowing in a different direction. Political and social changes over the past few decades have emphasised a strand of political thinking that values greater involvement of religion in public life and a greater emphasis on public signs of morality. These are the tides of the region and they may be about to sweep over Tunisia.

Tunisians are used to thinking of their country as exceptional. Rich and free, educated and liberal, for urban Tunisians their secular heritage was always a source of pride. That sense has been inflated by Tunisia's role in starting the Arab awakening and the suggestion that the Tunisian social model might be replicated elsewhere.

The debate on women, as with the debate on politics generally, is often framed in dichotomous terms, as if a liberal, secular heritage is about to be overthrown by an Islamist takeover. This simplistic analysis misses several important issues. It overlooks the fact that Islamism is part of Tunisian society, and that Islamist parties are only reacting to pressure from their electoral bases. It forgets that the parties themselves are not monolithic, that there is constant debate within and without on the best political direction, and that these political trends are always shifting with public opinion and international events. Such a perspective also avoids looking seriously at what the Islamists are saying.

Sitting in the busy downtown office of An Nahda, Monia Brahim, a member of the party's executive committee responsible for women and family affairs, outlines the changes for women she hopes An Nahda will bring to Tunisia's political climate.

"We want to avoid the commercialisation of women and the image of women," she says. "Ben Ali had in the axis of his politics to please western countries in respect of the cause of women ... and Nahda want to stop this commercialisation of women.

"Ben Ali represented himself as the defender of women but today the reality of Tunisian women is that a big part of working women do not enjoy their real rights.

"During Ben Ali's regime there were subcontracting companies where women were working 16 hours a day for 150 dinars, which was nothing. Even in the time of Bourghiba this did not exist. I consider that a women's issue."

This tying together of social and economic issues is a trait of Islamism, a complex analysis that forms a coherent self-referential framework with which An Nahda and their supporters understand society. The commercialisation of women's bodies is not simply seen as a social issue in which female imagery is used to sell clothing, cars and magazines. Women themselves are seen as commodities, traded by more powerful elements in society.

In fact, the Islamists of An Nahda have a very subtle view about the country's political problems. This puts them at a significant advantage. More secular Tunisians (the label "liberal" is misleading because the Islamists also have liberals among them) tend to dismiss An Nahda as a party that feeds on people's emotions and fears. Perhaps in some cases that is true. Yet An Nahda, during the long years of repression by Ben Ali, formulated a coherent framework for politics that stands apart from the politics-without-politics that Ben Ali's ruling party imposed on smaller political parties. One can doubt its analysis, but not its ambition.

This framework is also how An Nahda approaches the issue of legal prostitution. Again, there is something of a Tunisian exception. When the Islamists of An Nahda talk about prostitution, they sound surprisingly like "liberals".

"The women didn't choose this life in the first place," says Ajmi Lourimi, a member of An Nahda's executive committee. "They are victims. No one asked them if they wanted to do this or not. They were compelled to do this for a living."

Lourimi is more than a spokesperson for An Nahda. He is one of the core leadership, a man whose thinking will shape where the party goes over the next few years. The way he thinks about brothels in Tunisia will influence his party's position on it.

"There was a group of people who tried to close these places by force," he says. "We say this is the wrong way to do it. Closing [the brothels] is wrong because it will open other bad issues. It might grow bigger because they will be associated with other bigger crimes. We are not against closing it, but we're not going to stop it being legal." (Again, a Tunisian exception: a leader of the largest Islamist party in the country, a party that sees the Quran as a guiding force, pledging not to ban prostitution.)

"We want to cure the source of the problem. To understand why this happening. It's not a legal problem, it's a social problem. Because it's a social problem, you fix it socially, not legally."

That principle - that social problems require social solutions - says a great deal about An Nahda's position. It is a perspective that recurs repeatedly in discussions with members of the party. It may seem like a small point, but it has vast political repercussions, and helps to explain why An Nahda's views have such traction in Tunisian society.

Take, for example, the issue of divorce. The Tunisian personal status law - one of the cornerstones of the country's secular heritage and a guarantor of women's rights - enshrines legal divorce, so that both men and women have to go through legal channels to end a marriage. Men cannot simply repudiate their wives.

Divorce is a serious problem, says Monia Brahim: "It's a very big issue in Tunisia. It involves children and women and it's a big social problem."


But An Nahda sees divorce as a social problem, rather than an individual issue. It points out - correctly, because few would dispute that analysis - that divorce has an effect far beyond the two individuals. It affects children, relations, families. It is therefore a social problem.

Here is where An Nahda's relational analysis differs from the individualistic perspective held by secular Tunisians. Because it sees divorce as a social problem, they also seek a social solution.

On divorce, says Brahim, An Nahda proposes creating groups "to help youngsters understand the real meaning of family before marriage". These groups would be made of up of "specialists - sociologists, psychologists, people working in law. We would like to revive the real notion of family inside Tunisian society."

Few could object to educating young people about the challenges of marriage. Yet education, particularly for young people, is inherently political. I ask Brahim whether these groups would provide Islamic education or education from a more neutral perspective.

"The Tunisian population is a Muslim population," she says. "What we are calling for is that we should respect the Tunisian cultural background and our traditions."

All the same, education does not have to be religious in nature. I put it to Brahim that the part that makes some people in the country nervous about An Nahda's social project is that there are a variety of ways to be Tunisian, a variety of ways to be Muslim.

"Let us see what is the most dominant way, the mainstream," she says. "We would like to reform these educational programmes because during 23 years of Ben Ali's regime these values were totally erased. The values of the Tunisian society. Faithfulness. Solidarity between the Tunisian people. When I'm talking about these values, I'm not talking about Islamic values, I'm talking about social values."

This is close to the point of disagreement with An Nahda's secular critics. Values such as faithfulness and solidarity are uncontroversially good values that few could criticise. Yet having lived through a period where people got to decide their own way of living, some Tunisians are now concerned that An Nahda's route for reaching these values is an Islamic road map, and perhaps a particular Islamic interpretation they may not share.

"What can I say?" says Brahim, "I don't believe that when we are calling for re-implementing these issues we are using an Islamic way. We are using a normal way."

An Nahda's political solutions typically follow a pattern, a narrowing funnel in three stages. It correctly identifies a social problem, seeks an Islamic solution and then, further, wants a particular Islamic solution as interpreted by the party.

None of this is necessarily a problem. Seeking a religious solution to a social problem is very common across the world. And there's not necessarily a problem with the interpretations An Nahda provides or its solutions. But it is important to recognise that this is not the same solution that secularists might seek, even if they agree with the original problem. Individualists might agree that divorce (as with other social issues) has social repercussions, but ultimately they posit the individual's rights as the indivisible building block of society. So their solutions will be individualist solutions.

Tunisia's secularism reaches back a long way. "Equality between men and women has deep roots in our history and our heritage," says Dalenda Largueche, professor of history and gender at the University of Tunis, who has studied the history of gender relations in the country. Largueche has just returned from a year at Princeton University in the US, where she wrote a book called Monogamy in Islam: the Kairouan Exception, focusing on reviving a unique Islamic marriage contract that flourished centuries ago in Tunisia.

Largueche's research on Tunisian society of the 18th and 19th centuries - "even into the 17th century" - reveals a long history of interaction between the sexes. "Women were very present in the life of the city. Not all women, of course, but the idea was present, the idea that women gave money to the city, to build schools, to religious charities."

It was under the rule of President Habib Bourghiba that such roots were codified into law. "The society was prepared, but maybe not more prepared than Algeria. But Algeria didn't have a president like Bourghiba: the personality and charisma of Boughiba was very present in ... enshrining it in law."

The chief gains of Tunisia's secular heritage for women are equality in employment and education, the personal status code enforcing legal divorce and the success of women in the public sphere, across all professions. It is this heritage that some are keen to defend. "It is possible these things could be threatened by Islamism," says one politician. "We're not sure, but it's possible."


If on some women's issues the Islamists can sound like left-wing liberals - allowing legal prostitution, worrying about the effect of divorce on society - on at least one issue the liberals sound like conservatives. That issue is the veil.

The veil, both the hijab and the full-face niqab, have been contentious issues in Tunisian society for many years. Under Ben Ali, the veil was banned in public schools and public offices, a serious infringement of rights aimed at curbing the spread of political Islam. These days, during the interim period post-Ben Ali, those laws are still in place, though no longer enforced.

Almost everyone agrees - perhaps reluctantly - that the ban on the hijab was a bad idea and should be revoked. But the niqab is a different matter. Liberal and secular Tunisians would like a ban, seeing the garment as repressive. But that sits oddly with the liberal commitment to individual freedom.

Largueche, who has studied this issue, says the niqab is alien to Tunisian society. I ask her if, in all her research on the history of women in Tunisia, she has ever found evidence of the niqab or something like it. She is emphatic: "Never, never, never. I've never found any link with our heritage. The niqab is from Afghanistan, from Iran, from the Gulf. It's far away from us. It comes from a particular interpretation of Islam and a particular political movement."

Yet she admits she doesn't know what to do about it. "It's really problematic. I can't answer it. I would like a law against the niqab - but I can't support such a law."

Even legislators are confused about what to do. Maya Jribi, leader of the Progressive Democratic Party, the main opposition party during Ben Ali's reign and the best political hope of the secular republican tendency, admits she does not have a decided view.

"If we are for freedom, we cannot forbid a person to wear what they want," she says. "But really the niqab is something else and could pose a problem. You cannot work with a woman wearing niqab or interact with her."

She is undecided over whether to ban it. "It needs to be discussed. Right now, it's not really a problem." She uses the example of the niqab ban in France to show how it's possible to create a bigger problem through the law. "The French are creating problems for themselves. There are really very few who wear the niqab, so they created a big issue by making it a legal issue."

Meanwhile the Islamists of An Nahda have a clear, coherent view: they would not restrict either the hijab or the niqab. Indeed, not only do they have a clear headline position, they also have a philosophy that underpins it, though it is a philosophy with which many Tunisians would vehemently disagree. For An Nahda, there is a clear correlation between the way that women dress and what they have in their hearts.

"The appearance of a woman is very important, it reflects her personality," says Monia Brahim. "Because the external thing, her behaviour, her way of talking, is a reflection of her inside."

An Nahda's analysis goes further. While the secularists cannot give a clear answer on the veil, An Nahda does and then moves on to minimise it as a live political issue.

"When we are out of Tunis, there are education problems, employment problems. These are the kinds of problems we have to deal with," says Brahim. "There is the participation of women in the political sphere. These are the most important issues."

One of the reasons why An Nahda finds such support among ordinary Tunisians is that they speak to the real economic problems that people face. The secularists are fighting battles over what women wear and their freedom to interact with others - serious issues with important consequences, but ones that don't always resonate outside of the coastal cities. Because An Nahda has clear answers for both sets of problems, it can focus on the latter. As Brahim says: "I don't see the importance of talking about girls having boyfriends or not while I'm not giving her the appropriate education." This, in essence, is the dilemma for the secularists keen to defend women's rights in Tunisia: they lack a coherent framework. Islamists have a vision of what they want Tunisia to look like. They are setting about making the argument and soon, perhaps, remaking the society. Individualists, liberals, secularists - whatever the eventual coalition of interests might be - are constantly on the back foot, forced into a defensive stance, trying to justify part of a despised legacy: to keep the political heritage of the past, while breaking with the politicians who shaped it.

It is not an easy balancing act and they have been forced into awkward positions. They defend the right of women to choose what they wear, but are unable to speak convincingly about the niqab. They want to protect the right to legally mediated divorce, but they are unable to explain how to slow the rate of failed marriages. They want to defend Tunisian secularism, without explicitly defending prostitution.

The roots of Tunisia's secularism go far back into the past and deep down into society. The Tunisian exception is not about to end, for both Islamists and secularists are inheritors of it.

But like the army defending the medina brothels, the secularists are so far only defending the status quo.To safeguard the gains of the past, they need to attack with their own political vision. That will mean tackling some tricky arguments, including explaining where Arab women selling themselves fits into modern Tunisia's political jigsaw.

Faisal al Yafai is a columnist at The National.