September/October 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 6

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International Perspectives

The University as an Open Space: the World Social Forum

Val Moghadam, Northeastern University

Young anarchists protesting in Tunisia.

Young anarchists protesting in Tunisia.

The Arab Spring of 2011 began in Tunisia, following the self-immolation of a young street vendor whose frustration at his inability to ply his trade in the face of bureaucratic obduracy seemed to symbolize the loss of dignity of an entire population. The Dignity Revolution, as Tunisians call it, was a call for economic, political, and civil rights. Citizens demanded jobs, a stronger welfare system, and an end to cronyism, police surveillance, and excessive presidential powers. After President Ben Ali’s departure, a relatively smooth transition period of elections and constitution-building followed. The new president formed a coalition government, and 28 percent of the constituent assembly is female.

Still, Tunisian society appears to be polarized and divided between Islamists and secularists, with divergent political, economic, and cultural goals. At the center of the debates lie issues of the place of religion in public and political life as well as gender relations. After a lengthy trial that gripped the nation, a Dean at the University of Manouba, was acquitted of charges that he slapped an Islamist woman in niqab (veil) when she and a friend entered his office, “ransacked” it, and demanded the right to attend class fully covered, which he considered inappropriate. Also, the assassination of the noted lawyer and secular political figure Chokri Belaid—attributed to radical salafists who emerged seemingly from nowhere—was a shocking display of violence.

An Open Space for Democracy

It was in this context of political and cultural contestation that the World Social Forum (WSF) took place in Tunis, convening at the University of Tunis, el-Manal campus. The local organizing committee included the longstanding feminist groups Femmes Démocrates and AFTURD along with several newer groups formed after January 2011, the large trade union UGTT, and several human rights and student groups. For five days, the University was an open space for deliberative democracy as numerous workshops addressed questions ranging from the future of the World Social Forum to more immediate questions of women’s rights, economic rights, and environmental protection.

The WSF opened with a Women’s Assembly at the Amphitheatre of the Law Faculty, which was filled to capacity with perhaps one-third of the audience being men. As I looked around, I could see feminists from Algeria as well as Tunisia, Marche Mondiale des Femmes (with purple flags), Mexican activists protesting femicide/disappearances of women, and representatives of ATTAC (an international group calling for a tax on financial speculation).

Ahlem Belhaj, president of Femmes Démocrates, speaking in both Arabic and French, cited the feminization of poverty,  violence against women, and “an economic system that exploits women and men” as the main challenges facing the world’s women. She called for international solidarity to end these realities. Turning to the “complex situation” in Tunisia, she referred to “a war against women in the form of violence in the public space and in political space.” Belhaj reminded the audience that the Islamists in the constituent assembly had tried to replace the constitution’s language of equality between the sexes with “complementarity,” but “we insisted on equality, and we won.” Women were determined to struggle for equality and constitutionalism, she said, adding that they were “well mobilized to confront the counter-revolution.” She ended saying that the presence of so many people at the WSF from across the globe “is an enormous resource for us” but emphasized that “la lutte [struggle] continue.”

Feminists and Activists

I have been to Tunisia on research trips or to attend policy conferences many times, and I know many Tunisian scholars, feminists, and left-wing activists. During the WSF, however, I was struck by the unprecedented open atmosphere that prevailed throughout Tunis. The Women’s March proceeded through the city center and ended at the Olympic Stadium. At the University, I saw groups of young Tunisian anarchists and others waving communist flags; I met women members of the main trade union and members of the constituent assembly; I attended a workshop on secularism in the Maghreb that openly discussed the right of people to change or discard religion as well as practice it. There, one speaker said that “we need to be mindful of what kind of secular state we want. What we should strive for is a state of its citizens that guarantees the universal and fundamental rights of citizens to life, health, schooling, expression, equality.” 

Everywhere, Tunisian feminism was vocal and visible. At one informal group discussion, one woman said “I cannot understand the Western fascination with Islamist parties or moderate Islam; the agenda is the monopolization of political power and the fusion of religion and politics.” At a Femmes Démocrates workshop on violence against women, speakers demanded an end to polygamy and unequal inheritance as well as constitutional guarantees of equality and freedom from domestic violence. A woman from the Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc spoke of the Springtime of Dignity campaign to reform the penal code in favor of women’s bodily integrity. An Algerian feminist lawyer explained how “during the years of terrorism, women were always the defenders of the Republic, and we fought, without international solidarity. We then demanded our rights as women, and achieved some progress.”

Law professor Hafidha Chékir of Femmes Démocrates described how Tunisian feminists were working for parité and for consistency with all international conventions. The Islamists in the constituent assembly may have agreed to withdraw their insistence on a reference to Sharia as a source of legislation and settle for “the fundamentals of Islam”, she said. But the problem was that in the fundamentals of Islam, a family may be polygamous and there is no equality in divorce. Interestingly, she said that “the Islamists want a reference to egalité des chances [equal opportunity], but this is not the same as real equality.”

The WSF was an eye-opener for international participants previously unaware of Tunisian—and the Maghrebian region—social movements and coalitions. Sociologist Rose Brewer: “I was moved by the spirit of young radical Tunisian women. They are incredibly committed to gender justice and social transformation. To share space and time with them was powerful.” For the Tunisians intent on building a new state based on economic, civil, and political rights, the WSF was an important demonstration of international support. To this observer, Tunisia is an incubator for the redefinition of democracy and equality, accompanied by issues of the role of the university, free speech, religious freedom, academic freedom, and the rights of women.

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