S. Saifuzzaman


On Saturday December 17, 2016, Tunisia celebrated the six year anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution which was sparked off by the self-immolation of Bouazizi that started in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in the center of the country. The revo­lution in Tunisia led to a regional wave of uprisings spreading rapidly to Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Syria. For over half a century, Tunisia lived under a dictatorial re­gime with a single powerful political party. The other par­ties, allowed in-between, had no power, being restricted in their movements and actions and only served to make the world believe that Tunisia was indeed democratic, as daily reported by Ben Ali’s media. Since the independence of their country from colonial rule in 1956 Tunisia sustained major progress in relation to women’s access to health and education services and the labor market; maternal mortality and fertility rates were halved, girls’ enrolment in secondary school more than doubled and women were increasingly in paid employment. Moreover, despite the limited democratic space, the number of women in government grew significantly and women’s organizations began to play a role in shaping social and political transformation. This paper argues that women’s empowerment in Tunisia is largely rooted in the particular features of the elite post-independence bargain, early political choices regarding state–society relations and the associated policies in the areas  of education, health and labor, which increased women’s access to resources. It also highlights the interaction between changes in law, policies promoting gender equality and women’s capacity to mobilize. Women’s increasing individual and collective agency in both the public and private spheres explains the existence of opportunities to consolidate women’s empowerment in contemporary Tunisia. Cumulative change in different spheres has been mutually reinforcing, and may also have created resilience regarding potential reversals associated with the political changes brought about by the ‘Arab Spring’. Tunisia’s progress in women’s empowerment provides valuable lessons on how women can obtain access to new resources and the way in which politics and power, and the struggles, dynamics and contestation that these generate can be used to challenge gender and social power relations. It demonstrates the importance of locating political paths of change – such as processes of women’s empowerment – in the context of wider political settlements.


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