Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Sovereignty from Below: State Feminism and Politics of Women against Women in Tunisia

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Sovereignty from Below: State Feminism and Politics of Women against Women in Tunisia

Article excerpt

This article proposes a model of women's rights in Tunisia that transcends the law-focused state sovereignty paradigm that many gender scholars associate with state feminism. Instead, it theorizes an insurgent, dissociative feminist sovereignty paradigm, drawing inspiration from the figure of the dissident Tunisian woman-in-uprising. This alternative sovereignty paradigm has three traits. First, it reveals a critical understanding of the Tunisian state, both before and after the Arab uprisings, as deeply and structurally patriarchal, rather than an emancipatory apparatus more feminist than the people. Second, it is committed to feminism based on claims of popular sovereignty made through non-governmental and civilcollective networks. These claims diverge from state-clientelist avenues for legitimation-networks of lawyers, policymakers, and legal codes-and create broad linkages between mobilized people and public spaces. Third, it performs insurgency through daily life, direct action, the occupation of public space, and diverse forms of expressive femininity. This alternative, insurgent feminist sovereignty rejects normative, reductive, and monolithic representations of the Tunisian nation and its gendered public bodies. It emerges from the geography of the recent uprising and the history of diverse forms of feminism in Tunisia and the Arab world.

The uprising that began on 14 January 2011 was a singular moment in Tunisia's postcolonial history in which popular sovereignty insisted on reshaping the space of the body politic. Women's presence alongside men protesting in the streets was probably the only thing that did not shock observers. After all, according to popular conceptions, Tunisian women enjoy one of the most progressive sets of gender policies in the Arab world. This claim that Tunisia's legal and policy framework for gender equality is exceptionally enlightened and "modern" is one of the most powerful myths about feminism in Tunisian politics. Analyses of women's empowerment and feminist achievement overwhelmingly focus on Tunisian family law, particularly the Code of Personal Status (CPS). In doing so, they have reproduced the conflation of Tunisian feminism with statefeminism, a clientelistic and disciplinary state project that has sought to "raise up" and "modernize" the gender order. The 2010-11 uprising upended this order. Women's heavy participation in protests challenged the regime's claims about Tunisian women's exemplary condition. Women's exclusion from political leadership, rampant rates of gender-based violence kept invisible by the regime, and the state crackdown on protesters-which did not spare women-revealed the hollowness of the state's narrative of women's rights in Tunisia.

Some protesters affirmed gendered and embodied forms of sovereignty that troubled state feminism and its normative notions of the woman's body and her "modern" role in society and polity. The rebellious women who protested did not resemble the state feminist model women: Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's coveted, self-satisfied daughters. Throughout the Arab world, a generation of female rebels appeared to push the boundaries of women's rights, including Manal al-Sharif in Saudi Arabia, Bahraini civil rights activist Esra'a al-Shafei, Kuwaiti poet Maysoon al-Suwaidan, activist Samira Ibrahim, blogger Aliaa Elmahdy, and many others. Feminists discussing Tunisian gender politics have tended to focus on state policies, and with good reason. By October 2011, the Islamist Ennahda Movement, which had articulated its opposition to the CPS as early as the 1980s, had returned from exile and risen to power, and many feared that Tunisia would lose its state feminist policies. But this focus on the state's articulation of personal status law marginalizes women's political dissidence, mobilizing strength, and creativity. Women's rights have somehow become unanimously associated with state feminism. Although state feminism has empowered women and enhanced their participation in different spheres, it has also made them vulnerable in several other ways, particularly in relation to autonomy and political agency. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.