Tunisia, Elections, & Women’s Rights

Today Tunisians vote to elect an assembly charged with drafting a new constitution that may help bring the hopes of the Jasmine Revolution of last February to fruition by creating the basis for a truly democratic state.  The fear is, of course, that the better organized & financed religious groupings — locals such as Rachid al-Ghannouchi & his “Renaissance Party” & their supposedly “lite” version of Islam, or the foreign-financed Salafis, much more extreme sharia enforcers — will manage to get to power & thwart such hopes. This could easily lead to a reversal of some of the achievements of independent Tunisia, especially as far as the situation of women is concerned. Indeed, it is fascinating to realize that the first attempt to gain equality for women in Muslim societies goes back to Tunisia in the late 1920s (interestingly enough, that is nearly twenty years before women were given the right to vote in France, the colonial power that controlled Tunisia). It was the Tunisian intellectual & writer Tahar Haddad (1899-1935) who did so in a book called Muslim Women in Law and Society. In Diwan Ifrikiya, the anthology of Maghrebi writing to be published next year by the University of California Press, Habib Tengour & I include excerpts from this book, which I’ll post below. After the excerpts you will find our commentary on Tahar Haddad.

from: Muslim Women in Law and Society


Woman is the mother of all mankind; she carries the child inside her and in her arms. It is from her that he gets the character that will manifest itself later on in life. She suckles the child at her breast, nourishing him with her blood and soul. She is a faithful companion and a wife who fills a gap, and takes away her husband’s loneliness. She sacrifices her health and comfort to satisfy her husband’s needs, helps him overcome obstacles and showers him with love to ease all hardships and sorrows. She infuses him with life and rejuvenates him. She makes up half the human race and half the nation, fully contributing to all aspects of human activity. If we despise woman and ignore her humiliation and degradation, we are in fact showing contempt for ourselves and are satisfied with our own humiliation and degradation. However, if we love and respect her, and endeavor to help her achieve her full potential, this is a demonstration of love and respect for ourselves in our quest to fulfill our own potential.

We are accustomed to viewing women as being separate from men, as though they do not play a role in shaping man’s character and life, or, more specifically, their social development and failures. In doing so, the bitterness of disappointment is seeping into all aspects of our lives. Unless we identify the underlying causes of this growing failure, we will be unable to eliminate them.

Woman is viewed in two different ways in society today: there are those who support her and those who oppose her. However, in the West they look at things differently than in the East.I2O Indeed, the differences are as great as those between their women and ours. In Europe, they attach a great deal of importance to the upbringing and education of women, and the sexes work together so that women can perform their tasks in the home as well as raising the children. As women enjoy civic freedom they are able to fully develop their talents, both materially and morally, for the good of the family and society as a whole so that they can fully participate in life’s pleasures. Both women, themselves, and European society as a whole have benefited from their activities. European women are different in that they have progressed equally alongside men. They have an equal share in the nation’s economic output and governance. They share all burdens with men and are their equal in everything. This has become an increasingly powerful trend among Western women. Opponents argue that this means women are neglecting their traditional role as housewives, child bearers and educators. They believe that a woman’s involvement in public affairs will undermine her efforts at home since she will have no time left for anything. Furthermore, opponents argue that women competing with men in the job market has contributed to an increase in unemployment in various countries across Europe, even though in their view a woman is not capable of doing men’s work, or at least not as well as they do. Supporters of women, on the other hand, regard their activities during and after the Great War as clear evidence of future achievements. Success on the part of women should be regarded as a success for the nation and as adding strength to its thriving productivity both economically and morally. This constitutes a clear benefit as long as it does not affect the children. Indeed, if the fact that a woman works outside the home affects the upbringing of children, which is a specifically female task, we should establish more nurseries in order to alleviate women’s domestic responsibilities until they are eventually removed. European countries have heeded this and have enabled women to become Members of Parliament and take up leading public office.

Conversely, in the East our women continue to live behind a veil.12′ Those among us who support women’s emancipation realize that education and instruction in the sciences of life is the only factor that can improve their lives. It will help them accomplish their duty in the home and towards the family, and enable them to give birth to children who will grow up to have jobs that make their country proud and allow them to achieve success in life. The proponents also consider that it is a woman’s natural and lawful right to use her civil freedom in a way that directly benefits her and, like men, to seize the opportunities that life has to offer. The opponents of women, on the other hand, regard this amount of freedom as exceeding the bounds of isolation that is necessary to prevent temptation and inhibit intimacy with men. They also hold that in order to live and do their duty, women only need a small amount of knowledge, restricted to the family domain, which does not require the establishment of various scientific institutes. The advancement of the nation does not depend on man being forced to grant women social freedom. In support of this, they cite as evidence the rise of Arab civilization which depended merely on men’s efforts.

This is our attitude towards woman in the East, and our view on her advancement. In Tunisia, we have failed, more than any other Eastern country, to raise the status of women in any way. While some of us at least talk about this, the majority of the people are completely indifferent to it. Some influential people among them believe, however, that we can advance ourselves as a society without woman, as was the case in Arab civilization in the past. If we look at the position of woman beside Arab-Muslim men when they were conquering kingdoms, we can see that it was women who filled men with the spirit of greatness that was the driving force behind the success of that civilization. Some people believe that this was the secret of success, rather than the knowledge of religious sciences and literary genres, such as poetry and prose. However, women would have had a greater impact on this civilization if they had been more educated, cultured and had enjoyed more freedom. Perhaps this spirit of the past still exists among us men. While women advance in their honorable tasks, in order to save their country and defend it, they instill both life and courage in us men. Yet, we persist in foolishly looking backwards while we see other nations advancing and being granted victory in life.

If we examined the origin of our tendency to deny progress to women, we would see that this is primarily due to the fact that we regard them as an object to is@ our desires. While we may choose to exaggerate in denying women’s rights ignore the overall good that we will all gain through their progress, the trend progress is marching on forcefully, and neither we, nor women can stop it. amen are proceeding along this path, without guidance, which increases the uprooted and complicated sense of chaos. We ought to abandon this futile stubbornness and instead work together to salvage our lives by establishing comprehensive grounds for the advancement of women which, in turn, ensures the avancement of society as a whole. In so doing, we will purify the water of life :fore it becomes putrid, and destroys life.

The French authorities here in Tunisia have, for some time now, been investing Tunisian women’s progress, in accordance with a policy based on setting up educational programs for Muslim girls in primary schools specifically for [em. The government also seizes every opportunity to pave the way towards enhancing the development of Muslim women. How can we then remain silent, bewildered and resentful in this sweeping current? Are we waiting to be swept own the drain?

It is essential to introduce social reform in all aspects of life, and it is particularly indispensable when it is related to our own existence. I, without a doubt, do not consider Islam as an obstacle in the way of progress. In fact, Islam is completely innocent of the accusations leveled against it as being a factor in delaying reform. Nothing could be further from the truth inasmuch as Islam is the endless source and strength of this reform. It is the fantasies of our own beliefs that are the cause) four destruction, in addition to dangerous and abominable customs that have stiffened our necks against change. This is what has made me write this book on women in the shari’a and society, to show who is right, and who has gone astray. In doing so, I hope I have discharged a duty which I owe first to all men and second to my nation.

 Tunis, 10 December 1929


 The removal of the veil constitutes a real benefit for both women and men, as we have explained above in the part on the development of modernity. However, most of the authors who have dealt with the issue did so in terms of the role of women, the possible influence on their lives, on that of the family and on society as a whole. Some are pessimistic, others optimistic, while a third group has not made up its mind yet. It is not surprising to find these differences between people if we take an objective look at our sick society, which has been invaded by an unknown modernism that completely assimilates us into a European trend predominating our current situation. We can only emerge from this if we cling to our inherent strength and reflect long and hard before taking action to save ourselves and our way of life.

The removal of the woman’s veil is a new phenomenon in our lives which has been triggered by Western civilization, under the influence of various impulses that have emerged in the course of history. However, in studying this issue, we usually restrict ourselves to mentioning the shortcomings, claiming that it is the result of an infiltration of European morals we have blindly imitated without thinking about whether women are obliged to adopt these morals in the same way as men. We do not know how to cope with this trend, or even whether it is possible. Does the answer lie in returning women to their former state and confining her to the home, or should we resort to other means that should be carefully examined in order to draw the right conclusions to ensure the most productive outcome?

More and more women are removing the veil, regardless of whether we complain about it or not, or whether or not we pay due attention to the education and upbringing of women as we should. However, our focus on the issue greatly alleviates the evil of this naive modernism, devoid of safeguards, and whose strength may sweep us away towards the chasm.

By the way, I should like to say that the removal of the veil that is imposed on men and women has had, and continues to have, an adverse impact on the weaving industry and other sectors in this country. The manufacture of traditional wraps made of wool and silk, foutas and takritas continues to stagnate as a result of the influx of European fabrics that now cover us from head to toe and which have flooded the entire kingdom. This situation will continue to deteriorate while we are arguing about the pros and cons of removing the veil.

If we return to the main disadvantages to removing the veil according to its opponents, we see that they consider it a frightful source of immorality, which has been opened up as a result of our mixing with Europeans. Yet, unveiling the face does not cause immorality; rather, it is the result of psychological factors we cannot reasonably avoid talking about when discussing the removal of the veil.

If we are sincere about pursuing the purity of women, we have to take issue with the dissolute behavior of men, and avoid any instances of jealousy which break a woman’s heart, and thus avoid fornication, homosexuality, polygamy, forced marriages and the fact that men can divorce their wives whenever they feel like it, without being accountable for it. There are also men who like to have several types of women and leave their families because they are not, or badly, prepared for marital life, or those who divorce their wives against the latter’s wishes – sometimes even without their knowing it – for no reason other than to satisfy their lust. Consider the stupidity of the girls’ guardians who have made a business out of marrying them off to anyone they wish. Unfortunately, there are plenty of men like these.

Immorality may, in fact, have other, more widespread and dangerous causes than the ones mentioned above, such as poverty. This is especially true if it affects the heads of families since they not only have to take care of their own children and wives, but in many cases, also of the grandparents. If the father has remarried he is often unable to provide for the children out of his new union. In addition, the household includes every relative of the husband, as well as sometimes those of the wife, such as uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces. This phenomenon affects all Tunisian families who are forced into this situation due to tradition and cultural legacy for which we still have no remedy. Whatever the income of the head of the household, he barely earns enough to buy the bare necessities, never mind luxuries like decoration, which are increasingly considered important. And then, we are not even talking about working-class families who earn meagre wages. It should be clear to us that it is these factors and others relating to the general living conditions that actually cause the spread of immorality, and not the unveiling. However, we are used to looking at the exterior and to attempt to remedy what is wrong with it without reflecting upon the real underlying causes of our weakness.

We would only be able to remove the veil if it were lawful, decent and moral. If it exceeds the bounds of what is required and leads to nakedness, revealing all limbs, the face, neck, chest and breasts, with the adornment of these parts with dye, perfume and jewelry, accompanied by elegant movements and enchanted glances full of meaning and innuendo in public in front of other people, this will lead to lust, undue attention and pursuit. This is the path taken by many young European women who want to be the cynosure of all eyes because of the beauty of their appearance, their elegance and exquisite demeanor. It has a huge influence on the feelings of our young people and the way they are prepared for the future.

Women are being prepared by us, or are preparing themselves in order to face the duties and responsibilities they will be faced with. It is hardly seemly and respectful that they should appear before men as an object of temptation, inciting lustful feelings; women should always be treated with decorum when they are in the company of men. To be sure, a woman should remain feminine, graceful and attractive, but this should be achieved through cultured feelings and by soothing the souls filled with toil and pain, by being a muse to poets and artists and the melody to musicians by which they convey various emotions such as pain, joy, beauty, desire and awe. However, this cannot be achieved through vulgar and wanton behavior in the street, where public life and work are mixed. This kind of behavior also hampers women in the exercise of their duty and delays their progress. It also means women cannot be taken seriously as productive members of society if they arc responsible for excessively and dangerously inflaming the feelings of young men.

This trend that affects European women under the influence of Western culture has been one of the main causes for the chaos in marriage, which has become almost an incurable disease in Europe. If the Europeans – who are the most powerful -have been defeated by this problem, despite the efforts of scholars and men of letters to find a remedy, how can we tackle this issue which is imposed on us by Western culture by way of modernity if we do not prepare ourselves, just as other nations do?

Despite the reverence women used to have for the ḥijāb, we are not able to extinguish the desire for change in their lives, no matter how much we want to. It would not be the right remedy for women who today have to be there for their homes, children and people. The only thing left to do is to go to the heart of the matter and apply the ointment on the place of injury and pain through constructive reforms in upbringing and education, as well as in the judiciary.

There is no point in declaring our love for purity by clinging to the ḥijāb. This question, which is a source of pain, requires sincerity in words and action; it is not about advertising ourselves to the man in the street, who is in greater need of guidance in order to avoid delusion and temptation. I, personally, am not hopeful that the solution to our problem lies in defending the hijab, which today has been defeated as the arguments against were more powerful than those in favor of it, irrespective of the price of this victory and the methods used in order to obtain it. What we are in need of is unity in the education and upbringing of women in order to enable them to develop, instead of engaging in sterile arguments to wile away our spare time.

 from: Muslim Women in Law and Society, Annotated translation of al-Tahir al-Haddad’s Imra ‘tuna fi ‘l-shari’a wa ‘l-mujtama’, and with an introduction by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman


  1. Tahar Haddad was an author, scholar & reformer born in the medina of Tunis in 1899 to a family of poor shopkeepers; from very early on he worked in the souk to help the family make ends meet: these toils would leave an indelible mark & shape his future political stance & involvements. He attended the Great Mosque of Zitounia from 1911 until his graduation in 1920, then became a notary-public but left this career to join the political party Al-Destour, which he left in turn when unsatisfied with the leadership. The need for modern education would remain a leitmotiv in Haddad’s thought, together with an interest in workers’ and women’s rights. In the 1930 book Our Women in the Shari ‘a and Society (extracted here) — arguably the first Muslim feminist treatise in history — he advocated expanding women’s rights & criticized contemporary interpretations of Islam inhibiting women. He died of tuberculosis in 1935, with his work falling into oblivion as criticisms of his radical ideas condemned his thinking as heretical & anti-Islamic — until, after Independence, Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, who was an admirer of Haddad’s, implemented some of his recommendations.
  2. Tunisian scholar Baccar Gherib wrote in early 2009: “Haddad’s approach is magisterial, and to this day nothing else has been discovered that would reconcile modernity and Islam. This is indeed a foundational text. Tahar Hadda is one of the founding figures of the reform in our country, and his place is in the pantheon of the modernist movement. At a time when Tunisian official kowtow and roll out the red carpet for the representatives of a frozen and obsolete Islam frozen, it may not be amiss to recall that this country produced a reformist of Haddad’s stature. His thought remains at the heart of a possible modernity.” It will be interesting to observe what will come of Haddad’s thought now that Tunisia’s youth — including women — has brought about an “Arab Spring” whose aims are not far from his.

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