Women’s movements in Morocco and Tunisia are at a crossroads. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.
Moroccan and Tunisian women’s movements have encountered both institutional and individual level resistance from state and society following the recent Arab Uprisings. The question at hand is how women’s movements in Morocco and Tunisia will utilize the current revolutionary climate captivating the Arab world, in order to leverage their potential political clout in the direction of groundbreaking transformation of gender equality and civil rights.
The Uncertainty of the Arab Spring
It might seem self-evident that participating in popular social movements would advance women’s equality. However, counter intuitively, protesting against the government (in the case of Morocco) and uprooting the government (in Tunisia) may have put the women’s movement at a greater disadvantage than before.
In Tunisia especially, the conservative Islamist political faction has emerged as an influential actor against the secularization of state and society, which has the potential to virtually regress or erase the civil liberties that Tunisian women have enjoyed for the past half-century. This includes the availability of reproductive resources, diminishing the openness of the public sphere to women, and reverting the context of Tunisian sociopolitical culture from "progress" to "tradition."
Tunisian women — Muslim women, in particular — are caught between two utterly dissimilar worlds that are juxtaposed within their own and are simultaneously occupying two identities: the progressive politics of the past and the uncertainty of the future.
Moroccan women must counter a different brand of resistance, one that encompasses state and society alike. Moroccan (male) society has thus far adopted the position of the government. Therefore, the less the state recognizes women as equal citizens, the more likely we are to see women treated the same way in the non-political sphere as well.
However, Moroccan women have proved ingenious at responding to the subtle resistance they face at the state and social levels. The Moroccan female ingenuity "has repeatedly proven its ability to 'realize' and 'impose' itself whatever the system, and at all cost." Moroccan women have observed that small victories reap longer-term rewards; over time, we have seen policy become more and more inclusive as women place constant pressure on the state to reform.
The issue of uncertainty lies in the future of the Moroccan and Tunisian women’s movements — where do they go from here?
Tunisia: Wavering State as Ideal Setting
In Tunisia, the women’s movement no longer has tight ties with the state. Activists are free to associate with whoever will lend them support. Thus, they have split up between the conservative, right-wing Islamists, the moderate Islamist party in power, and the secular, left-wing radicals.
The most immediate question concerning the newly divided women’s movement in Tunisia, is whether this is a turn away from the Western model of socialization that the Tunisian state pursued before the revolution, or merely a way of asserting their own identities in a newly established state. In reaction to the various demands of the opposing forces, the moderate government pushes vague, easily misinterpreted policies in order to buy time and quell immediate remonstration.
Different strategies for supporting the various struggles of women in Tunisia are important in order to understand that the women’s movements’ goal “is not to erase differences among them[,] or to play down the basic distinction between secular and Islamist visions.” Rather, it is to highlight different forms of identity, so women are not relegated to one identity or one way of life, as they were under the previous regime.
Using momentum from the 2011 revolution and the wavering state as the ideal setting, Tunisian women’s groups have the resources, education, and training (from the previous regime) to initiate a significant show of force against the government. This time, however, with women in contention with other women over the nature of Tunisian women’s rights.
Just recently, women took to the streets in Tunisia in protest of the ambiguous wording of the earliest drafts of the new constitution — "the Islamists wanted language in the constitution to say that the roles of men and women are 'complementary.' The secularists, fearful of ceding any ground, insisted that men and women should have the 'same rights and duties.'" With so much at stake, neither side will yield until the government meets their demands; thus a new battle for freedom is arising in Tunisia — this one, amongst women.
Morocco: Continuation on Slow-Moving Path?
Moroccan women, though not quite as divided as Tunisian women, have more immediate concerns about their sociopolitical status. Why do Moroccan women’s movements continue on the slow-moving path to political freedom that the state has created for them?
Moroccan women’s groups remain in the fringes of the political scene because the government begrudgingly hands the women’s movement concessions any time they show signs of political dissent. The movement disappears into the backstage of society, until the next time they foster the momentum to re-air their grievances.
Women’s groups in Morocco are not state-sponsored in the way that they were in pre-revolution Tunisia; they have the freedom to act independently, without the fear of losing government support. With the momentum gained from the February 20 Movement — as well as regional influence from other major shows of civil resistance — Moroccan women have a small time window to leverage the momentum from the Arab Spring as a catalyst for their own social revolution.
Where to Go from Here?
The Moroccan and Tunisian women’s movements are a work in progress, constantly evolving with new developments in political life as well as with the capricious demands of society. At this moment, just after the second anniversaries of the February 20 Movement and the Tunisian Revolution, Morocco and Tunisia, respectively, have reached a crux — in a broad sense, not enough progress has been made in either case.
In Morocco, the monarch has passed vague constitutional reforms that essentially reworded his position as absolute authority in a more politically correct manner. The February 20 Movement that was born out of the sandstorm of social media movements in the Middle East and North Africa has dwindled to a few hundred activists, as opposed to the many thousands that originally participated. The women’s movement is in essentially the same position they were prior to the revolution.
This raises the question, should we be looking at the Moroccan women’s movement in the short-term or long-term? The long-term goals are obvious: universality of civil liberties, political rights, and social standing. However, knowing Morocco’s political past and the tendency toward gradual change, we can better predict the short-term.
Though arguably menial, the 2011 reforms of the Moroccan constitution may be a "foot in the door" for women to nudge their way into the spotlight of the political scene. Over time, Moroccan women have learned to be opportunists. The new constitution granted women equal political and economic rights as well as an adjustment to gender quotas. With these newly gained rights, women have the chance to seize any political opportunities that are available to them.
It is safe to assume that there is a natural progression from achieving some rights to endeavoring to achieve all rights. In this sense, Moroccan women are missing their "moment of drama" — a specific act of protest or activism that launches the debate on gender equality to the forefront of Moroccan sociopolitical discourse.
Just after the second anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, Tunisia’s political life is in quite a different position than Morocco’s. "The political feuds, violence, and attendant narratives of insecurity and mutual exclusion are now derailing the democratic process inaugurated in October 2011. Instead of democratic breakthrough, the birthplace of the Arab Spring is now experiencing temporary breakdown."
Revolutions, historically, create a fresh start for nations to start the democratic process through "ethical, legal… and popular means of self-regeneration." In Tunisia, however, this process has been slow and tumultuous. Shortly after a leader of the secular movement, Shokri Belaid of the Popular Front, was assassinated in an apparent show of force against the secular movement by Islamist advocates — and, some suspect, with involvement by the Tunisian interior ministry — the then-prime minister of the post-revolution government, Hamadi Jebali, resigned.
Following the assassination of Belaid and subsequent resignation of Jebali, the newly appointed prime minister, Ali Laarayedh from the hardline-wing of the Islamist Ennahda party, issued a statement reassuring Tunisians that the primary objective of the revolution would be upheld: "We are going to enter the phase of forming a new government that will be for all Tunisian men and women, taking into account the fact that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities."
Tunisian women are now placed in a position where their future, neither long-term nor short-term, can be predicted. The moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, was the Tunisian women’s movement’s final assurance that despite the contention between the bipolar opposition — composed of far-right Islamist actors and far-left secular activists — the government would remain a neutral force, seeking to maintain stability and carry out the goals of the revolution: equality and freedom for all Tunisian citizens.
Today, however, "street politics" between opposition forces are taking center stage and major institutions such as the Constituent Assembly are being relegated to the margins. What does this mean for Tunisian women? The Tunisian women’s movement, no longer cohesive nor supported by an external actor, is in a position to take measures to support itself using the momentum from their past prominence in Tunisian political life.
Tunisian women have the resources, education, and training to propel themselves into the political sphere and assert that women’s rights maintain equal importance in "New Tunisia." What is important is that Tunisian women do not forget their place in Tunisian political life pre- and post-revolution. A participant in the Tunisian revolution stated: "Just look at how Tunisian women stood side-by-side with Tunisian men. They came out to the streets to protest in headscarves. They came out in miniskirts. It doesn't matter. They were there."
Much can be learned from the Tunisian and Moroccan women’s movements; not only from their similarities, but from their differences as well. Both movements can act not only as models for other equality movements across the region, but also as incentives for other marginalized groups to take action to gain equal rights. Though neither movement has reached its peak of success, both are in progress to achieve their objectives of gender equality and the creation of a diverse dynamic of discourse concerning women’s rights, freedom, and equality.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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