Monday, September 2, 2013

Battling Lost Memory: Tunisian Women Write the Revolution

Tunisian women demand their rights

Guest contributor, Dr. Douja Mariem Mamelouk, who recently returned from conducting research on women writers in Tunisia, is a professor of Arabic and French at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

Before the Tunisian Revolution ignited on 17 December 2010, women writers did not produce politically charged texts that explicitly discussed political matters, fearing censorship.  However, after the toppling of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, following his 23 year rule[1], women began documenting and writing the 2011 Revolution. 

This article investigates the reaction of writers such as Fethia Hechmi, Messaouda Boubakr and Amel Mokhtar to the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution, which has yet to be examined by either Arab or Western scholars. Although not a literature of resistance (it could develop into one depending upon the local political environment), it is a literature rooted in reality and linked to daily politics.

In my interviews with authors, questions pertained to pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary writing practices and the influence and involvement of the writers in political life.  The authors I interviewed contend that they must document the Revolution in their texts where reality and fiction intertwine. 

These authors'  uniqueness stems from the fact that progressive Tunisian women writers offer various perspectives on the Revolution as they expose the issues that face Tunisian society in a post-Revolutionary era.  By doing so, I believe that—whether they are conscious of it or not—they present a new feminist discourse that supports nationalism in post-Revolutionary Tunisia.

Rather than being the subject of others’ writings, they consciously choose to be active participants in documenting the Tunisian Revolution.  That way, their perspective is not a lost memory but instead they become the creators of new nationalist discourses that derive from their conceptualization of feminism.  For these Tunisian women, writing plays the role of a defense mechanism against the possibility and the attempts at silencing them by the populist religious narratives and discourses.  

During my research, I interviewed ten women novelists and short story writers for approximately two hours each.  Eight of the ten women wept when describing the effect of current political events in Tunisia on them and their disappointment with the new government that has failed to offer security and economic stability to its citizens.  In the past six months, there have been two political assassinations, while the National Constituent Assembly has yet to present Tunisians with a completed draft of the new constitution. 

Furthermore, the interviewees agreed that they no longer feel safe living in Tunisia and are haunted by the uncertainty of the future.  The intensity of these women’s frustrations with their new reality surfaced when I asked questions such as: “What do you think of the current political scene?,” or “How do you foresee the future of Tunisia?”

Another query that provoked an emotional response was: “Did the Tunisian Revolution incite nationalist and patriotic sentiments in you?” All the writers agreed that the unexpected Revolution of January 2011 inflamed their sense of patriotism.  Amel Mokhtar[2] declares, “I felt so happy and proud.  Tunisia received international recognition for toppling the dictator Ben Ali who had appeared immortal to us.” (Interview July 23, 2013).

On July 25, 2013, Tunisians celebrated Republic Day, which has been commemorated every year since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.  Under Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, as well as under Ben Ali, such national holidays were observed in an excessive manner, with celebrations and events throughout the republic. 

However, for the past two years, and since the rule of the Troika (the three-party alliance of Ennahda, Ettakattol and the Republican Congress Party), Tunisian poet and novelist Fethia Hechmi[3] maintains that we no longer see Tunisian flags raised on the streets to celebrate national holidays, which had solidified even further her sense of national belonging. She feels that the new government is attempting to erase an important part of Tunisia's national memory.

Worse yet, on July 25, 2013 Tunisians were faced with the second political assassination in their country.  A National Constituent Assembly (NCA) deputy, Mohamed Brahmi, was shot in his car in front of his house at 12:10pm according to Tunisian radio[4]

As with everyone else in Tunisia, women authors were affected by the second political assassination within less than six months, especially when it was learned that the same gun was used in both assassination.  Suddenly, violence shifted from being a random occurrence to becoming part of  post-Revolutionary reality. Although she is unable to predict what the future will offer to herself, her family and the rest of the nation, Fethia Hechmi revealed that she remains hopeful because without hope there is no life.

After the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, Hechmi headed to the National Constituent Assembly to protest along with her daughter, who is an artist.  I interviewed her on the morning of July 29, 2013 and her eyes were still swollen from the tear gas that police shot at them despite their peaceful assembly.  She told me that she and her daughter were surprised to see their skins turn pink from the effect of the toxic gas.  She confessed that at times she joins protests in secret and doesn't inform her family, because she is diabetic and family members worry about her health. 

Tunisian novelist and short story writer Amel Mokhtar believes that the Revolution of 2011 should continue in the political space of post-Revolutionary Tunisia as well as in written words.  Having started a novel before the Revolution, she found herself unable to write between 17 December 2010 and 14 January 2011.  All she could do was observe the protests in the streets of Tunisia and glue herself to the al-Jazeera television channel. 

In my interview with her on 3 July 2013, she explained that in her latest novel, Dukhan al-Qasr (The Palace Smoke, 2013), she altered her writing style to reflect the revolutionary atmosphere. The characters in her novel call for a sit-in and threaten to "fire" her from her job as a writer.  She quickly resumes writing and returns to her plot in a post-Revolutionary Tunisia where the characters are divided according to their various party allegiances, just as the Tunisian people are divided between religious and secular orientations.  This is a social, cultural and political cleavage that she contends has become the reality of the so-called democratic Tunisia.  

Another innovation that Mokhtar brings to her novel is her encompassing the pre-Revolution along with the post-Revolution eras. The author interrupts the narrative line with personal accounts of the revolution. In fact, in Mokhtar’s novel, threes of the twenty-seven chapters are her record of a crucial period in Tunisia’s history. 

Messaouda Boubakr[5] informed me that the title of her latest collection of stories, Adhal ahki (I Continue Narrating, 2013), was her response as a writer to a young man who approached her while protesting in front of the National Constituent Assembly.  She says: “He told me that to shut up and go home to my kitchen where I belonged”.   
In my interview with her on 3 July 2013, she declared that her latest collection is a response to anyone who attempts to silence her.  She says that only death can silence her and it appears that she is not the only one.  All Tunisian women novelists have vowed to speak up, to break the silence and to continue the Revolution until they establish a democracy that satisfies them.

The interviews I conducted this summer reveal the unanimous stance that Tunisian women authors take in confronting their discontent with current political developments in their once peaceful country.  The lack of security, the fear and unpredictability of the future, along with mistrust of the current government are a few elements that have inflamed these women’s pens. 

The Revolution of January 2011 was a historical and joyful moment in their lives.  Yet, the contented feelings were transformed into those of frustration and disenchantment.  The possibility of Tunisia becoming a true democracy where women are equal to men, not only in the Tunisian constitution but also in everyday life, is a question that women authors cannot answer today, although they remain hopeful that a democratic civil society will eventually prevail.

Interestingly, when I interviewed these authors in 2008, they consented that they were not feminists.  When I interviewed them in the summer of 2013, they expressed that the new political environment in Tunisia has compelled them to becoming feminists.  Once they sensed that the public space was transforming into a forbidden space for women, Tunisian women writers not only took a stance in writing but they also became political active in demonstrations and in civil society organizations.  
Never did these women imagine that the public space would become negotiable over fifty years after the Personal Status Code (PSC) went into effect.  Unlike under Ben Ali’s regime, Tunisian authors today, threatened or not, are no longer returning to self-censorship while seeking the approval of those in power.  They all agree and shout out: “No more fear after today”, a slogan that was repeated during the Tunisian Revolution and yet is still repeated today.
[1] In his article Tunisia: the Fall of the West’s Little Dictator, Esam Al-Amin says: “What took 54 weeks to accomplish in Iran was achieved in Tunisia in less than four.  The regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali represented in the eyes of his people not only the features of a suffocating dictatorship, but also the characteristics of a mafia-controlled society riddled with massive corruption and human rights abuses.” (58: 2012) excerpt from Sokari Ekine and Firoze Manji’s African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions. Fahamu Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford, 2012.
[2] Amel Mokhtar is a Tunisian novelist, short story writer and a journalist in the Tunisian newspaper al-sahafa.  She publishes parts of her works and short articles on her facebook page:
[3] Fethia Hechmi is a poet, short story writer and novelist.  She published her first collection of poems entitled al-Uqhuwan al-maslub ala al-shifah in 2002, Hafiat al-ruh (novel) in 2002, Minna mawwal in 2007, Mariam tasqut min yad Allah in 2009 and al-Shaytan ya‘ud min al-manfa in 2012.  She can be found on her facebook page:
[5] Messaouda Boubakr is a Tunisian novelist and short story writer.  She became a political activist in civil society organizations after the Tunisian Revolution.  She has published a collection of short stories Ta‘m al-ananas in 1994, her novels Laylat al-ghiyab in 1997, Trushqana in 1999, Wada‘an Hammurabi in 2002, Juman wa ‘anbar in 2007, al-Alif wa al-nun in 2009 and Adhal ahki in 2013. One may find some of her writings on her facebook page:

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