Tunisia’s secular women fret over the rise of Islamism

October 27, 2011

(Womens' rights supporters protest against hardline Salafists in Tunis, October 16, 2011/Zoubeir Souissi)

When hundreds of Tunisians drove through the capital sounding their horns and waving scarves this week to celebrate the election victory of an Islamist party, there was little jubilation in the Ennasr neighbourhood. With its chic boutiques and upmarket cafes, this suburb is a bastion of a segment of Tunisian society left feeling marginalised and even a little fearful by the election result.

Areas like Ennasr are home to middle-class, urban professional women who for decades have been living a lifestyle that in many ways has more in common with Europe than the Arab world. Now they worry that that is going to change. In Sunday’s election Tunisia, birthplace of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, handed the biggest share of the vote to Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that was banned under decades of autocratic, secularist rule.

“We’re afraid that they’ll limit our freedoms,” said Rym, a 25-year-old medical intern sitting in “Gringo’s”, a fast-food outlet in Ennasr. “They say they won’t but after a while they could introduce changes step by step. Polygamy could come back … They say they want to be like Turkey but it could turn out like Iran. Don’t forget, that was a very open society too.”

This group is not typical of Tunisian society.

The majority of women in this former French colony are less well-off, they are conservative, they wear the hijab or Islamic veil and, unlike women higher up the social scale, they are more comfortable speaking Arabic than French. But middle class, secularist women matter to Tunisia’s prosperity because their layer of society traditionally provides its lawyers, bankers, marketing executives and creative minds.

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