The Arab Spring and Women’s Rights in Tunisia

By on September 4, 2013   

Women have been central to the events that have shaken Tunisian politics since the Arab Spring in 2010-11. They have played roles as protesters and politicians, activists and academics, journalists and photographers, and whether poor or privileged, urban or rural. Tunisia has long occupied an important position in the Arab world since the historic promulgation of its progressive family law in 1956, which placed the country at the forefront of the Arab world in regard to women’s rights (Charrad 2007). In an extensive comparative survey of Arab countries in 2009, Freedom House ranked Tunisia first in the major categories that concern women’s rights, including “autonomy, security, and freedom of person,” and “political and civic voice,” (Kerry & Breslin 2010).

In this article, we address two related questions. In the first section, we consider how Tunisia came to occupy a premier position in regard to women’s rights through the promulgation of its Code of Personal Status (CPS) in 1956, well known throughout the Arab world, and the continuous amendments to the CPS over a half-century since then. In the second section, we discuss some of the current debates on women’s rights in Tunisia following the Arab Spring, including the mobilization of women around the controversial Article 28 in the draft of the new constitution. By “women’s rights,” we mean women’s rights in the law as it concerns personal status and family law. We focus on this aspect of the law because family law is, as lawyer and human rights activist Asma Khadar (1996: 2) stated unambiguously, “the gate of freedom and human rights for women” in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. Family law has significant implications for women’s lives, including their ability to make life choices freely and to pursue educational and professional opportunities.

Code of Personal Status: A Post-Colonial Expansion of Women’s Rights

Family law, which encompasses rules and regulations concerning marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, continues to be the site of some of the most fundamental differences in women’s rights across the Middle East and North Africa. In Tunisia, the newly formed postcolonial state initiated reforms of family law following the country’s independence from France in 1956. This was an action from above, or a top down policy, which occurred in the absence of an organized women’s movement. As Charrad (2001: 219) has shown, the CPS was “not a response from the state to pressures from a women’s mass protest movement.” In promulgating the CPS, the government made decisions for the society as a whole without engaging the community or facilitating the perspectives of the citizenry through popular referendum or other channels of popular expression.

The reasons behind the promulgation of the Code in the 1950s are complex and a full analysis is beyond the scope of this paper. Charrad (2001: 201-232; 2007; 2011) has argued elsewhere that the CPS was part and parcel of an overall strategy of state building that targeted patriarchal networks, clans, and tribal groups. At the same time as they promulgated the CPS, members of the postcolonial leadership also abolished collective property that had been key to tribal networks, created a new form of administration throughout the territory by ignoring tribal allegiances, and advanced a discourse that was unabashedly anti-tribal. An inherent part of the project to create a national state that stood above local, kinship, sect or community loyalties, reforms of personal status law aimed to generate a new form of citizenship in which individual allegiances went to the nation-state. Women benefitted from this conception of citizenship in that they gained individual rights before the law and thus were less subordinated to the whims of husbands and kin.

Tunisia’s new CPS introduced significant changes in family law such as the abolition of polygamy, the end of men’s privilege of unilateral repudiation as a way to terminate a marriage at will, the ability of a woman to file for divorce, and the enhancement of women’s custodial rights over children. Inheritance laws, for which there are strict and clear provisions in the text of the Qur’an itself and thus constitute an especially sensitive issue, remained the least modified legislation. These reforms, mediated by nationwide institutions and a national court system rather than local authority structures, provided state protections for women. Even though educated women were in a better position to take advantage of the law, much knowledge about the CPS percolated through different strata of society, giving Tunisian women at large the possibility of utilizing what the new laws had to offer.

Reforms beneficial to women continued during the regime of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali who paraded women’s rights as part of a general portrayal of Tunisia as embracing modernity on the international scene. The reforms again were largely a top down policy, although women’s rights advocates started to make their collective voice heard in defense of women’s issues in the 1980s. Their actions were severely restricted, however, as were those of other associations in the 1990s and 2000s. Furthermore, women’s associations were composed of urban, elite women in Tunis whose interests were disproportionately represented in Ben Ali’s policy formulations to the relative exclusion of poor women (Khalil, forthcoming). Nevertheless, meaningful reforms occurred during that period. For example, as recently as in 2007, the minimum age of marriage was raised to 18 for both men and women, who could marry as early as 15 under the prior legislation (Charrad and Ha, forthcoming). Other reforms initiated under Ben Ali in the 2000s expanded women’s rights in regard to marriage contraction, alimony, and custodial rights over children.    

A long history of top-down policy formulations concerning women’s rights in Tunisia was abruptly interrupted in 2011 when Tunisia witnessed the collapse of the Ben Ali regime and the engagement of multiple sectors of society, including Tunisian women from diverse socioeconomic and political backgrounds.

The “Jasmine Revolution”

On January 14, 2011, former President Ben Ali resigned from office following weeks of protest across Tunisia. The self-immolation of a twenty-six year old Tunisian vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, on December 17, 2010, started the uprising in the rural district of Sidi Bouzid. Protests then engulfed larger cities in Tunisia, including the capital of Tunis. By early January 2011, mass demonstrations were being regularly held in the name of freedom, an end to corruption, and in demand of Ben Ali’s immediate departure from office. Popular media dubbed the ousting of Ben Ali, and the protests that preceded it, the “Jasmine Revolution” (Arieff 2011).

A resounding feature of the protests was the presence of women who demonstrated as professionals, students, and citizens. Women participated as organizers and demonstrators and, consequently, gender equality has been central to discussions of Tunisian politics, most eminently as it relates to elections and the drafting of the constitution (Beardsley 2011). In the case of the former, a quota to include women on party lists for the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly (NCA) election was instituted into law by the transitional government (Dasgupta and Bangham 2012). This measure, drafted and supported by Tunisian women’s civil society groups, attempted to enhance gender parity in representation though it was limited because the law did not specify how high on party lists women were to appear. Consequently, many parties ignored the spirit of the law by meeting the requirement to include women on party lists but offering them the lowest positions on the list (Associated Press 2011).

Regardless of their position on party lists, women were nevertheless successful candidates in elections and ascended to positions in the NCA in 2011. The Islamist party Ennahda acquired the largest number of seats in the assembly and boasted 42 female candidates of a total of 49 total women elected to the 217-member NCA (Byrne 2011). Ennahda Executive Council member Mounia Brahim emphasizes the mixed trajectories of Islamist women in politics by saying, “Look at us. We’re doctors, teachers, wives, mothers – sometimes our husbands agree with our politics, sometimes they don’t. But we’re here and we’re active” (Marks 2011). The election results and the Islamist women’s leadership call our attention to the diversity of women’s organizations, efforts, and affiliations. They should lead us to question the religion/secular binary as a lens by which to understand women’s interests and movements in Tunisia. The involvement of Islamist women in politics in Tunisia resonates with studies that show how women who identify with Islam regard it as a significant source of their political engagement and subjectivity in other parts of the Arab world (Deeb 2011; Mahmood 2005; Salime 2011).

Following Ennahda’s electoral victory in Tunisia, widespread concern was expressed about whether the power of parties not only sympathetic to but actively supportive of a more extensive role for religion in Tunisian jurisprudence might imperil the liberal legislation in place since the 1950s and enshrined in the CPS. There were tenable fears that Ennahda’s success at the polls in 2011 heralded a broader influence of religion in the country to establish what Hamad (2013) called “Tunistan,” or an Islamic state. The preeminent presence of women, particularly Islamist women, in the newly elected assembly profoundly shaped the tenor of debates about the constitution that was drafted over the course of the following 16 months. It has been in the context of the constitution drafting that we have witnessed a transformation of Tunisian politics from actions from above to a public debate about gender in which Tunisian women, Islamist and other, have been central figures.

Debates about Gender in the Constitution: Article 28

Heated debates in Tunisia regarding gender have concerned political representation and, most recently, references to women in the newly drafted constitution. The popularly elected NCA had as one of its mandates to draft a new constitution, drawing on elements from the preexisting 1959 constitution. The draft of the constitution became the site of struggle, popular outcry, and national dialogue in a way that signifies a restructuring of Tunisian politics and illustrates the significance of a burgeoning civil society. Article 28 entitled “Women’s Rights,” constituted one of the most debated and disputed articles in the first draft of the constitution, which was released on August 13, 2012. The article was generally translated as deeming women’s roles in the family as “complementary” to that of men (Draft Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia 2012; emphasis added).

Although multiple translations may be offered to intimate the meaning of “yetekaamul,” the Arabic term in contention, the term “complementary” (or “complémentaires” in French) has been the most frequent translation. In response to the first draft released in August 2012, thousands of women organized protests in the capital city of Tunis with a twofold purpose: to celebrate the 56th anniversary of the promulgation of the esteemed CPS and to sharply contest the vocabulary of Article 28 (Ghanmi 2012). Opponents of the “complementary” clause of Article 28 argued that the clause defined women only in relation to men and, in addition, only recognized women as married, further negating the multiple and diverse lifestyles of Tunisian women. The use of the term “complementary” inflamed many.

Women associated with organizations such as the Democratic Women’s Association, La Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme (LTDH), and L’Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche sur le Développment (AFTURD), among others, pursued a variety of avenues to express their grievances with the article and to advocate for alternatives (Karam 2012). From demonstrations with dynamic slogans to the circulation of an online petition that acquired more than 30,000 signatures, women openly critiqued the draft and called for revisions to protect what many regarded as gains acquired during the post-colonial period (Avaaz 2012). Rights enshrined in the CPS became a reference and symbol of what could be threatened by the terminology of “complementarity.”

The range of Tunisian women’s activism was exhibited in turn by women supportive of Article 28. Islamist women, particularly Ennahda members in the NCA, voiced their support for the article. Some women argued that misunderstandings of the article prevailed in part through misrepresentation of its contents by opposition parties (Babnet 2012). Among the staunchest defenders of the article, Ennhada Executive Council member Farida Labidi declared that “One cannot speak of equality between man and woman in the absolute” (Cavaillès 2012). The multiple positions advocated by supporters and opponents of Article 28, and the nuanced conversations that ensued about the specific meanings of terms like “complementary” and “equality,” illustrate the ways in which women’s organizations and activists asserted themselves in debates in Tunisia during the post-revolutionary period in a way that departed significantly from top-down gender policy promulgation that prevailed in earlier eras (Charrad and Zarrugh, forthcoming).

As a sign of the efficacy of women’s organizing in Tunisia’s emergent civil society at this time, the “complementary” clause of Article 28 was omitted from the second and third drafts of the constitution released on December 12, 2012 and April 30, 2013, respectively. Ennahda made another concession in these latter drafts by excluding specific references to Shari’a law as the official and primary source of legislation in the country (Hamad 2013). In discussions of the final draft of the constitution, ambivalence continues to be expressed among opposition political figures who claim that articles still contain references to Islam as the state religion and limit freedom of expression (Al-Jalassy 2013). Until a final constitution is adopted, the status of women remains unclear. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that popular organizing, persistence, and an optimism about the possibilities for change encouraged both supporters and opponents of Article 28 to voice their positions not only to influence the reformulation of one of the country’s most foundational texts but also to articulate anew women’s status in contemporary Tunisia.


At the heart of this burgeoning civil society and activism following the Jasmine Revolution is the historical status of Tunisia as the bulwark of women’s rights in the region. Contemporary women’s rights discussions in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Muslim world cannot be understood outside the context of family law and personal status codes. In Tunisia, the liberal legislation of the post-colonial CPS continues to structure the arguments around women’s rights and status in the post-revolutionary constitution of Tunisia in 2013.  A major shift has occurred, however, even though we do not know how long it will be felt. From the outset of the protests in Tunisia in December 2010, there has been a structural change in Tunisian politics, particularly as it relates to gender. The mass demonstrations that witnessed the extensive participation of Tunisian women were a preliminary sign of the transformations to come through their participation in popular elections, their ascension to political power, and the debates to which they contributed in regard to the drafting of the constitution and contentious discourse as reflected in Article 28.

Whether Tunisian women continue to participate in public debates and what will be the fate of women’s rights in the country in the years to come remain as questions.  Although the door appears open to the possibility of Tunisia retaining its prominent place in the Arab world in regard to women’s rights, the opposite is also conceivable, depending on which political forces hold power in the state in the long run.

Mounira M. Charrad is Associate Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. Her book, States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco (University of California Press, 2001), won several national awards, including the Distinguished Book Award from the American Sociological Association and the Best Book on Politics and History Greenstone Award from the American Political Science Association. Her articles on state formation, law, citizenship, kinship and gender have appeared in scholarly journals. She has edited Patrimonial Power in the Modern World with J. Adams (2011), Patrimonialism, Global History and Imperial Rule, with J. Adams (forthcoming), Women’s Agency:  Silences and Voices (2010), and Femmes, Culture et Societe au Maghreb (1996).  Her recent publications include: “Equal or Complementary? Women in the New Tunisian Constitution after the Arab Spring,” with A. Zarrugh, Journal of North African Studies, forthcoming; and “Gender in the Middle East: Islam, States, Agency,”Annual Review of Sociology, 2011.  She received her undergraduate education from the Sorbonne in Paris and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. 

Amina Zarrugh is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. She has co-authored “Equal or Complementary? Women in the New Tunisian Constitution after the Arab Spring,” with M. M. Charrad, forthcoming in the Journal of North African Studies. Her research interests center on gender, nationalism, and religion in North Africa and the Middle East from a postcolonial perspective. Her dissertation focuses on regime violence in Libya and the mobilization of women in a family movement that developed in response to a contested prison massacre at Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli in 1996. She received her undergraduate education in sociology and government from the University of Texas at Austin.


Al-Jalassy, Mohammad Yassin. 2013. “As Constitution Talks Start in Tunis, Opposition Speaks Up” (Original: “Tunisia: Starting to Discuss the Constitution Amid Disagreements in the Constituent Assembly”). Al-Hayat. July 2, 2013. Date accessed: July 26, 2013. Translated Joelle El-Khoury.

Associated Press. 2011. “Few Tunisian parties risk running female candidates in top positions.” October 21, 2011. Date accessed: October 23, 2011.

Arieff, Alexis. 2011. “Political Transition in Tunisia.” Congressional Research Service. April 15, 2011. Date accessed: April 29, 2013.

Babnet. 2012. “Tunisie: La société civile dénonce l’art 28 de la Constitution comme une régression des acquis de la femme.” Babnet, August 13, 2012. Date accessed: April 17, 2013.

Beardsley, Eleanor. 2011. “In Tunisia, Women Play Equal Role in Revolution.” National Public Radio, January 27, 2011. Date accessed: April 30, 2013.

Byrne, Eileen. 2011. “The women MPs tipped to play leading roles in Tunisia’s new assembly.” The Guardian, October 28, 2011. Date accessed: April 30, 2013.

Cavaillès, Thibaut. 2012. “Amertume et colère des femmes tunisiennes.” Le Figaro, August 14, 2012. Date accessed: August 28, 2012. Translated by the authors.

Charrad, Mounira M. 2001. States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, University of California Press: Berkeley.

— 2007. “Tunisia at the Forefront of the Arab World: Two Waves of Gender Legislation.” Washington and Lee Law Review 64: 1513-1527.

— 2011. “Central and Local Patrimonialism:  State Building in Kin-Based Societies.” Pp. 49-68 in Patrimonial Power in the Modern World, Annals 636 (1), edited by J. P. Adams and M. M. Charrad.

— and Hyun Jeong Ha. Forthcoming. “Sustained Reforms of Islamic Family Law: Tunisia under Authoritarian Regimes, 1950s to 2010.” In Family Law and Gender in the Modern Middle East, edited by A. Wing and H. Kassim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

— and Amina Zarrugh. Forthcoming. “Equal or Complementary? Women in the New Tunisian Constitution after the Arab Spring.” Journal of North African Studies 19 (1).

Dasgupta, Riddhi and George Bangham. 2012. The New Constitution of Tunisia: Choices and Decisions: The Wilberforce Society University of Cambridge. Booktango (ebook).

Deeb, Laura. 2006. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University.

Draft Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia. 2012. Chapter 2, Article 2.28. Draft of August 13, 2012. Unofficial translation (from Arabic) by International IDEA. Language: English. Date accessed: April 20, 2013.

Ghanmi, Monia. 2012. “Tunisian women march for their rights.” Magharebia, August 15, 2012. Date accessed: May 25, 2013.

Hamad, Shukri. 2013. “Despite Flaws, Tunisia’s New Draft Constitution Promising” (original: “When Tunisia Is Made with Words: Is the Draft Constitution Revolutionary?”). As-Safir. June 26, 2013. Date accessed: July 26, 2013. Translated by Al-Monitor.

Karam, Souhail. 2012. “Thousands rally in Tunisia for women’s rights.” Reuters, August 13, 2012. Date accessed: May 15, 2013.

Kerry, Sanja and Julia Breslin (eds). 2010. Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance. New York: Freedom House.

Khadar, Asma. 1996. Quoted in the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies Newsletter 10, (4): 2.

Khalil, Andrea. Forthcoming. “Tunisian Women in the Arab Spring.” Journal of North African Studies 19 (1).

Marks, Monica. 2011. “Can Islamism and Feminism Mix?” New York Times, October 26, 2011. Date accessed: May 13, 2013

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.

Salime, Zakia. 2011. Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


e-International Relations (

Indepth Article: To Be or Not to Be, Nude! The Predictable Feminist Outrage

To Be or Not to Be, Nude! The Predictable Feminist Outrage

By Swati Parashar on June 10, 2013

Feminism seems to be tracing its step back, and perhaps all for a good cause. The anxiety about location, positionality and authenticity, which feminists had thought was all resolved at the onset of the third wave and its emphasis on diversity of women’s issues and feminist voices, has resurfaced in no uncertain terms.[1] At the International Studies Convention in San Francisco (April 3-6) this year, many panels and round table discussions were devoted to feminism’s ongoing intellectual dilemmas and interventions around diversity, difference and authenticity. One significant argument that emerged out of such discussions was how anger can be instrumental in shaping feminist politics and its radical positions. After all, you don’t study, read feminism, you ‘do’ it, ‘live’ it. Feminist anger is very much in focus these days, but all for the wrong reasons. It is doing the job it does better than defending women: stifling debate, condemning and criticising a group of women activists who choose to protest in the most radical of ways, by going nude (ie. only if you think nude protests are radical in the first place!)


FEMEN and Its Critics


In March 2013, Tunisian student, Amina Tyler posted topless photos of herself on Facebook, with the slogans “Fuck Your Morals” and “My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honor,” painted on her body. Her cause was further taken up by the Ukraine based feminist group, FEMEN with whom she shared her activism. In support of Tyler’s plight, FEMEN labelled 4 April 2013 as “International Topless Jihad Day” and organized bare breasted protests across Europe. The provocative protests have led to reactions from many left-liberal and Muslim feminists worldwide who have argued that the mode of protests purely represent an attention seeking mentality devoid of feminist ethics and solidarity. “This is prejudice, racism and imperialism, dressed up in the apparently scant clothing of women’s rights”, wrote Susan Carland in her article on the ABC. Naheed Mustafa admonished in her Foreign Policy article, “Basically, ladies, keep your tits out of my fight. And put your shirts back on.”  Chitra Nagarajan cautioned against imposing values on communities by arguing in the Guardian that “FEMEN’s obsession with nudity feeds a racist colonial feminism.” Sydney based writer, Ruby Hamad, in a slightly more nuanced analysis cautioned how protests must be culturally appropriate and how Amina’s protest “simply has no relevance, no point of reference, in an Islamic society.[2] Several more writings and analyses continue to dominate social and popular media, expressing outrage at FEMEN’s nude tactics as a direct insult to Muslim women fighting sexism in their countries.


Offense taking in the name of anti-racism, anti-colonialism and against cultural imperialism is becoming a feminist obsession that generates disproportionate reactions globally.  This is indeed puzzling given the backlash on women’s rights everywhere and especially in the Global South where the fight for women’s equality and freedom not only necessitates solidarity across borders but an understanding of the diversity and differences in the language and metaphor of protest and resistance. The serious questions emerging from the responses to FEMEN’s nude protests are: what constitutes legitimate protests? What is legitimate solidarity that a feminist group is allowed to demonstrate and who gets to call the shots? Where are the boundaries of such legitimacy and of offense taking in general? What might be legitimate articulation to one group might always be potentially offensive to another. This politics of ‘offense-taking’ and ‘victimhood’ is becoming increasingly popular and is devoid of any nuanced understanding of issues at stake; it is actually insecuring courageous women who take unpopular positions against their own societies, families and cultures, at a great risk to their personal safety and well-being.[3]


Nude Protests Are Not New


What should have been most obvious to feminists particularly interested in women’s resistance strategies, and who seem deeply troubled by nudity as a mode of feminist protest, is that this is not the first time women bared it all. In July 2004, a group of women participated in nude demonstrations in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Manipur, a state in the north eastern part of India. They were protesting against the brutal murder and rape of Thangjam Manorama, who was charged with being an insurgent and taken into custody. The nude protestors shouted loudly “Indian Army Rape Us! Kill us! We are all Manorama’s mothers!” The pictures were shocking although one did not witness any strong debate on whether the nude female body was the best weapon of protest. The protestors’ outrage was targeted at the Indian army and the impunity it continues to enjoy in conflict areas of India. The protesting women stood in solidarity with Manorama and drew attention to her cruel fate with their bold action.


More recently, at least 31 people, including women, clashed with the police and protested semi-nude against South Korean steel major Posco’s plant in the Indian state of Odisha in March 2013. Hundreds of bare breasted, semi-nude women protested in Osogbo, capital of Osun state in Nigeria against increase in the activities of ritual killers in December 2012.  Nude protests are, in fact, not unknown in several parts of Africa including Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya and Uganda for over a century. According to Trishima Mitra-Kahn, Policy Officer with the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), many women globally, “have all laid claim to this time tested feminist repertoire of registering protest and dissent within different temporal spaces using the (nude) body.”[4] This makes it difficult to fully grasp the critiques of FEMEN. Again, I share Trishima’s angst, “Is the feminist outrage more about nudity itself being used to register symbolic and performative subversion or about ‘who’ was using nudity and on whose behalf?”[5] If the latter is more of a concern here, it speaks of an anxiety borne not out of genuine respect for diversity and understanding of positionality, but out of a superficial and unconvincing sense of anti-racism, anti-colonialism that does not recognise/prioritise gender politics.


Amina’s Story


The fact that a Tunisian female student started the protests, and went into forced isolation after being openly threatened by Islamists, faded into the background. Disproportionate amounts of intellectual discussion, instead, remain focussed on FEMEN’s nudity and its (un)intended messages for/to Muslim women and other ‘women of colour’. Amina Tyler’s family feared the worst for her and hoped she would leave Tunisia. Amina said in an interview before going underground that she believed she would be beaten or raped if the Tunisian police found her. Media reports suggest that she has gone on trial in the city of Kairouan, Tunisia with religious conservatives protesting outside the court, accusing her of insulting Islam. None of this seems to have been seriously considered by defenders of cultural rights and anti-racist, anti-colonial politics. Tunisia’s revolution has emboldened religious radicals, as we have also witnessed in the case of Egypt, Libya and Syria. Women have been rendered particularly vulnerable to threats, intimidation, physical attacks and state sponsored sexual violence against them. It is then, puzzling that feminist solidarity is uncritically extended to cultures and societies where oppression of women is an everyday practice. What is so fundamentally radical about any feminist position (including that of FEMEN) that cultures and religions oppress women; why does this articulation in any form of protest unsettle and outrage feminists?


Chitra Nagarajan writes, “a more holistic and nuanced approach would consider how patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world.” I argue that this is unhelpful in understanding how patriarchy and even misogyny work in societies that are supposedly ‘non racist’ (after all race is not just about skin colour and operates in different forms of ‘othering’) and have been victims of colonialism and global capitalism. Oppression and marginalisation of women operate in complex ways in all societies. I have elsewhere argued (reflecting on the Indian situation after the Delhi gang rape)[6] that non Western societies have alarming levels of gender based violence (especially against women and girls) which is normalised and culturally acceptable; and states are unable to adopt stringent measures to deal with them, despite legal and constitutional provisions. I am concerned that anti-race politics is obfuscating some of the deep rooted gender based violence in the Global South.


The Politics of ‘Legitimate’ Storytelling


The Arab world and Muslim societies are no exceptions when it comes to oppression of women and minorities and to gender based violence. The racism of the Arab world is not a matter of distant academic discourse but the lived reality of millions of migrant workers from South Asia, subjected to worst forms of human rights violations. The appalling treatment of women migrant workers is not a unique story in the Arab world where women are second class citizens anyways. So, is the problem seriously about who gets to say all this, from what location? FEMEN doesn’t; Amina Tyler doesn’t; Mona Eltahawy doesn’t. Who is included in the ‘legitimate’ storytelling?


There is no doubt a diversity of women’s experiences and resistance strategies in Muslim societies. Feminist posturing, worried about the unintended consequences and racism of FEMEN’s unrest leave no space for those Muslim/non-Muslim women who may feel empathetic towards Amina Tyler and towards FEMEN,[7] just as those defending the Burqa as an assertion of cultural rights and individual agency leave no space for those who find it symbolic of patriarchal control over and policing of women’s bodies. Ironically, the anti-racist, anti-colonial brigade find themselves on the same side of the debate as radical fundamentalists everywhere, especially on the issue of women’s rights: that cultures and religious groups get to decide how women should be represented, what protest is culturally acceptable and what the ‘authentic’ voice of women is. Amidst this outrage, one needs to revisit Cynthia Enloe’s vital feminist question, just WHERE are the ‘WOMEN’?


Kiran Grewal’s insightful engagement with Ayan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Somalian-Dutch feminist can serve as a conversation starter on some of these issues about authenticity and positionality. Grewal argues, “….it is we who assert a commitment to both anti-racism and feminism that must find appropriate ways to respond to her (Hirsi Ali). This is partly in order not to fall into the very trap of doing what we have so long worked to critique: silencing a different and challenging voice.”[8] FEMEN is that different and challenging voice, as are many others. Neither belligerent censorship nor animated outrage against them can be an appropriate feminist response.


Sorry, all ye who take offense to the bare breast. If anything, it has a huge place in feminist resistance and struggle world over.  I am reminded of Golshifteh Farhani, Iran’s biggest film star who bared her breast in a French video, only to be banished, threatened and hounded out of the country. Her bared breast triggered a ‘cultural earthquake’ as the Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2012. Her parents were threatened by a man claiming to be an official of the supreme court of the Islamic Republic of Iran who said that their daughter would be punished, that her breasts would be cut off and presented to them on a plate!  There is everything radical about the breast (traditionally considered the site of nurture as well as the erotic male gaze) becoming a feminist tool of protest. Wendy Squires, in another ‘breastly’ context, puts it really well, “perhaps, if we show a little more tolerance in regards to the small and petty, we may have more focus on the relevant and necessary. Let’s try to keep our powder dry for the big issues, and not blow it on bozos and boobs.”



Swati Parashar is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She teaches and researches on Feminist IR, Political Violence and South Asia.


[1] For the concerns within third wave feminism, see Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2002, vol. 28, no. 2. The US based online feminist forum, The Feminist Wire recently hosted a forum on “Across Difference, Toward Liberation: An Introduction to TFW’s Forum on Race, Racism, and Anti-Racism within Feminism”.

[3] Christine Sylvester has articulated this position of feminists insecuring other women really well. See Sylvester (2010) “Tensions in Feminist Security Studies”, Security Dialogue, vol. 41, no. 6

[4] Trishima Mitra Kahn made this comment in a social networking debate on facebook on the issue of FEMEN’s tactics.

[5] Ibid

[6] See “Violence Against Women: India’s Winding Road Ahead” in Asian Currents (Feb. 2013) (pages 19-20); “The Delhi Rape Case: Rethinking Feminism and Violence Against Women” in e-International Relations (Feb. 2013); “The Silent Feminism”, ABC Drum Opinion  (accessed 3 June 2013).

[7] This has been articulated well by a facebook group called Muslim and Exmuslim Women for FEMEN  accessed 3 June 2013.

[8] Kiran Grewal (2012): “Reclaiming The Voice Of The ‘Third World Woman’”, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 14:4, 569-590 (pp 589).