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Journey from repression to the Tunisian parliament

From female Islamist activist fighting under repression to a parliamentarian standing up for women’s rights, Middle East Monitor speaks to Yamina Zoghlami.

“The fight for women’s rights continues,” explains Zoghlami, a middle-aged parliamentarian, when we sit down for tea at the Bardo parliament in the capital Tunis. In 1985, at the age of 15, Zoghlami was excluded from high school for wearing the headscarf. “The headmaster at the school didn’t allow us to wear a long skirt either,” remembers Zoghlami who explains that it was considered a sign of religion.

For Zoghlami wearing the headscarf became an act of principle. Her mother tried to convince her to remove the hijab however, after consulting both the headmaster and her father, she decided to quit school. “This was one of the toughest periods in my life,” explains Zoghlami, who turned to private lessons.

The way that the state intervened in people’s private lives was shocking to Zoghlami, who joined Ennahda – or The Islamic Tendency Movement as it was called back then – one year later. “I was influenced by the ideas of Rachid Ghannouchi [Ennahda’s leader and founder] and I read a lot from him, especially about women and the state,” explained Zoghlami. “That was before the books were all banned,” she adds.

Tunisia became independent from France in 1956 and its first president Habib Bourguiba called the headscarf “an odious rag” and during the holy fasting month of Ramadan the leader drank juice on live television. Some people believed religious understanding would improve in 1987 when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took over, however, after the 1989 parliamentary elections, in which some Ennahda members ran as independent candidates receiving more than seventeen per cent of the popular vote, the repression intensified (*seventeen per cent according to the official results, which the party considered severely underestimated and rigged).

“It got worse during Ben Ali’s reign,” explains Zoghlami of a period when it was difficult to take part in any political party. Ennahda had been banned and dismantled through a court decision and many members fled the country to live in political exile in France or England. Ghannouchi left Tunis in 1989 for a conference, then was advised by the party to stay abroad as crackdown had started.

During the darker days of the repression any contact with the political party resulted in tens of thousands of members and supporters being arrested and others being forced into exile. “If someone helped an Ennahda member they were thrown in prison,” remembers Zoghlami. Her husband, who was not an Ennahda member, but was politically active, was imprisoned when they were both in school. According to Zoghlami he was accused of wanting to overthrow the government by the school’s “police” and sentenced to six years in prison.

“Everyone in prison was under surveillance,” describes Zoghlami, “nobody could speak about politics.” When visiting the prison she was asked to take off her veil and the women visiting their husbands were harassed, remembers Zoghlami.

“Ennahda fought a huge battle not only for its members but for all Tunisians,” she says. The repression was against all those who were politically involved as well as artists, journalists etc. “There was never any use of violence,” she notes, “sure we made some mistakes along the way but never violence.”

Zoghlami’s fight continued. After receiving a degree in history and a Master’s in literature, she became a teacher. However, as a woman wearing a headscarf she was not allowed to teach in public schools and had to take on assignments at a private school in Kef. Like many others, Zoghlami was under surveillance but she never hesitated to continue.

She says being excluded from school and work because of her clothing made it the toughest period of her struggle. “I felt like I wasn’t a citizen of Tunisia, it felt very unjust.”

She is still convinced of the fight for women’s liberties and their right to wear what they want without being judged.

Around 2004, Ennahda slowly begin to mobilise. “It was when some executive members such as Ali Laarayedh and Abdelhamid Jelassi were released from prison that the party started to reconstruct itself,” explains Zoghlami. One of the first steps was to establish a committee to help families with relatives in prison.

After the revolution and 23 years of Ben Ali rule, Ennahda quickly gained ground and the party received the majority of votes in the country’s first free and fair election.

“Ennahda was well structured and had a clear vision.” However, the post-revolutionary period was unstable, unemployment rates continued to be high and the security situation deteriorated. In the country’s second election its opponent Nidaa Tounes received the majority of votes, leaving Ennahda in second place. “People lost faith in Ennahda,” explains Zoghlami.

Today as a parliamentarian Zoghlami’s fight for Tunisian women continues, the work on parity and quotas continues. “I want Tunisian women to fight more for their rights.”

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