– Fawzia Zouari: « There can be no Eastern or Western feminism »

Fawzia Zouari: « There can be no Eastern or Western feminism »


Born in Tunisia to a sibling of six sisters and four brothers, Fawzia Zouari is a doctor of French and comparative literature at the Sorbonne. Journalist and columnist at Jeune Afrique, she is published in the international press. A prolific novelist and essayist, she has written numerous books, including three on the Islamic veil: The Islamic veil: history and current events, from the Koran to the headscarf affair,This veil that tears France apartand I am not Diam’s. She organizes the parliament of French-speaking writers.

French version here


« Tunisia has always existed through its women – its history includes exceptional female figures such as Queen Dido or Saida Mannoubia. And it has always taken extraordinary decisions: it was the first « wilaya » to challenge the authority of Baghdad’s Caliphate, as early as the 8th century, because it refused to pay taxes! In the 12th century, it instituted the Kairouanese contract, which did not exist in any Islamic country and which guaranteed monogamy for women. I felt myself growing claws when I knew that everywhere in the land of Islam, sheikhs were insulting and spating at us, claiming the « heretic » nature of the Tunisian Commission for Individual Freedoms and Equality’s report (Colibe), whose revolutionary proposals are specifically aimed at protecting these freedoms and eliminating discrimination against women. According to rumours, imams and theologians shocked by this report want to « take Tunisia out of the Arab world’s map ». How is that possible? They’re going to cut us up and throw us into the sea? Pack us up and push us further north into « unfaithful » territory? I looked at the map and asked about the past. The bearded men’s threat is pointless. Geographically, we have never been part of the Arab borders. We are a country of the African continent and the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, our roots are multiple: Berbers, Romans, Carthaginians before the Islamic conquest (…) While some Arab regions still formed tribes, we were a nation. The one that adopted the first secular constitution in the Arab world and abolished slavery in the 19th century. Established a pact to protect minorities. Gave birth to Bourguiba, the man who drafted the Personal Status Code, which, before many other countries in the East and the West, consecrated gender equality, the abolition of polygamy and the right to abortion. Has allowed women to drive cars and planes for decades, while some kingdoms have waited until 2018 to set in motion the first gear of a façade emancipation. He bet everything on education and not on weapons and never massacred his opponents like did other Eastern despots. Dared to rebel against the head of state without provoking a civil war, even if it meant being reduced to poverty, because its people and its elites have always been reluctant to bow down. Today, if the Islamist government has been defeated, if the El-Nahdha party is given evidence that Tunisia is not an easy prey, we owe it to women.

So, you, obscurantists all over the world who want to exclude Tunisia, know that the Colibe’s report only anchors it in its tradition of the Enlightenment and in no way opposes its Constitution. It reiterates the refusal to treat women as objects and minorities as slaves. It is reluctant to consider Tunisians as believers above all, because they are first and foremost citizens free to choose their religion, identity and sexual partner. If that’s why you don’t want us anymore, we don’t want you either! Tunisia will come out of your fold with pleasure. For it intends to be one of the free and just nations, while you have made submission and punishment the basis of your justice and power. In the meantime, continue to bully your people, lock up your women, behead your freedom activists and stone your homosexuals. All this in the name of a religion that no longer recognizes itself in you. And which will be honoured to reach the universal thanks to a very small country, which, if you look closely, makes its way on another map and walks in the direction of history. »


« There are, of course, secular men in Arab countries who fight alongside women and willingly give them a share of power. But if you look back at history, at dogmatic sources and at the Muslim unconscious, there is always this male war to control female sexuality, whether under the veil, behind the walls or through patriarchal injunction. In this way, Muslim history can be read as a succession of veiling/unveiling women, accepting/rejecting the emergence of the female body in the city. A female body that still struggles with getting rid of its designation as « temptation », to emerge simply as « social body » (…) No society can claim democracy and freedom without including gender equality. And how? Obviously by legislating outside religious law. Therefore, as long as the Arab revolutions do not decide to opt for secularism, as long as they draw from the religious referent, there is no hope of liberating women, or even the Muslim individual. The day when there will be a desire to separate the mosque from the State, to legislate according to secular laws, to agree to free women’s bodies, will be the day of the real revolutions of the Arab-Muslim world. »

Cultural relativism and the accusation of Islamophobia:

« I deplore a certain discourse of the French left that makes Muslims victims or protected persons. I reject the pleas of some public defenders who want to see us as the new damned of the earth. Because it prevents us from saying what’s wrong with us. Because it takes away our responsibility and subjects those of us who call for self-criticism to the accusation of Islamophobia. Because it prevents us from becoming actors and subjects of our History. Insidiously, this attitude of solidarity only institutes a kind of omerta on Islam, obscuring the « Muslim question » and excluding us from the debate. The most serious thing is that the regressive revolution in women’s rights is spreading to Europe. There are areas where women’s hands are not shaken, where you cannot sit on the terrace of a café during Ramadan. We are in a secular country, where status equality is real, where the mixing of genders is mandatory. When you find yourself in certain districts as if you were in the medina of Tunis, you think to yourself: but why did I make the trip? I wrote a short text on secular Muslims’ loneliness. We feel lonely. French feminism is tested by Islamists. In a recent radio debate, out of four women, I was the only one speaking against the Islamic veil (…) Paradoxically, it is not in Europe, but in the Arab world that tongues are loosened, and courageous voices are born calling for self-criticism and the need to put words on our societies’ evils. It is in the Arab world that new readings of religious sources and struggles for secularism are emerging. But the West prefers to play the « supreme thinker » with hints of Christian compassion. It prefers its own discourse about us Muslim intellectuals, and that discourse confines us to a sort of reverse essentialism. Yet we support the West without being alienated from it, our desire for openness to the Other being only an expression of self-confidence and a sovereign spirit. Our criticism of our co-religionists is in no way a denial of our world but a desire to include it in the universal destiny. We have entered resistance. We have an enemy called Islamism. And a bloodthirsty beast named Daesh. In our words, as in our works, we must be warriors. »

‘’White’’ feminism, « Islamic » feminism:

« This is the latest fashionable « colonization trial ». It attacks the « colonization of feminism », just as yesterday we attacked the colonization of minds, languages or lifestyles. Feminism, in its classical conception and by its Western origin, would be marked by racism and Islamophobia; at best, self-centrism and maternalism. It would be thought by white women for white women, bourgeois women on top of that. We are advised to be wary of it and to change our reading grid. To anchor the theme of women’s emancipation in culture diversity and open it to other conceptions of women. I am not part of a « Western and certified » circle, but these words make my hair stand on my head – not veiled of course. How can we not see in this trial calling for the rejection of « white feminism » a relay, conscious or not, of the « green feminism » that is spreading in Islam as in Europe. In other words, behind the arguments of « diversity », « globalization » or « specific cultural tradition » put forward here, we are witnessing the return of a patriarchy that is all the more insidious as its spokespersons are women and all the more dangerous because it reinforces the attitude of an ideology nostalgic for the past and for which the West remains responsible for all the world’s misfortunes. »

« You will tell me, it is normal that there is a questioning of a « one size fits all » feminism. And this is explained more in the Arab-Muslim context affected by Western offensives, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, national disenchantment, the emergence of the Brothers and other defeats. Women then defended the idea of an « Islamic feminism » which aimed to demonstrate that it is not only the dynamics inspired by the West that lead the process of breaking with traditional Arab society and which, it must be recognized, had the advantage of opening, in part, the doors of female exegesis and serving as a passport for a certain access to public space. However, the idea that Islamists, to whom it will be necessary to add the new defenders of cultural relativism, define themselves as feminists, is a sham. The very use of the word « feminist » in this context is an aberration if we define feminism as a universal and uncompromising struggle against male domination. And because feminism cannot privilege the difference among women over the universality of their rights. To reconsider their status from a tradition standpoint is to submit it to patriarchal law. Moreover, how does this « feminism » advance the cause of women when it imprisons them in ‘’avant-garde’’ struggles such as the veil, non-mixedness or complementarity? Is it bringing « the contradiction that enriches » to want to reintroduce the religious referent under the name of « transcultural » approach? Can one be a feminist and defend any prescription of constraint on the female body, even if it is claimed by the woman concerned? No one forces women to be the same, but no real feminism can ignore their bodies’ integrity or accept to reverse their achievements under the pretext of a hierarchy of struggles. No one should interfere with women’s beliefs, but no one should alienate their freedom from immutable doctrines, nor hide the question of their emancipation under facade advances. »

« Let us stop saying that the veil does not stigmatize the female body or that it does not designate it as prejudicial to the city’s order. Let us stop pretending that the defence of women must attack their economic and social domination and turn a blind eye to the most insidious signs of this same domination. Pretending that there would be no other way out for those who are resistant to the classical feminist model, and more precisely for the practicing Muslim women in France, than to return « home », insinuates that Islam is reduced to its external appearances at the expense of its spirituality and that it would be unable to adopt universal values, even those inspired by the West. I do not believe that the space of tradition and religion is a space of freedom. I refuse to speak of a « new invention of modernity » for an approach that, basically, considers modernity as a Western evil. I think I hear the moralizing stamp that equates the female individual’s freedom with a dissolution of morals. I ask the question: what would a « decolonized feminism » be if it is a feminism offloaded of most of the gains made? By what right can we decide that certain laws, such as the ban on the veil in France, are « anti-Muslim », even though millions of Muslim women around the world are fighting against it. Why should the defence of the veil be placed at the same level as the fight against rape or domestic violence? Who of those fighting against radicalization and those fighting for the hijab are more useful to society? How can we accuse of ‘’materialism’’ a feminism that has been struggling for decades to make women free from all forms of guardianship? Isn’t materialism rather about flattering difference and victimizing the Other? To generate an Islamist feminism that is on the verge of sowing discord between women? Do the denunciators of « colonized feminism » not dream, after all, of an « indigenous feminism » and do they not renew with yesteryear’s orientalism? I want identity to be mobile and mutant, but this mutation must not be allowed to undermine women’s achievements. If particularism can be big at the universal level, I am wary of it when it is invoked about women because it often cuts into their freedoms.

Can we talk about an « Islamist feminism »? The formula is surprising when it does not shock. And the association between the secular/western referent, on the one hand, and the religious/Islamic referent, on the other, seems irreconcilable. However, it is important to question this phenomenon rather than reject it outright. The « Islamist feminism » movement has had the merit of bringing women’s issues out of domestic or elitist confidentiality and exposing it in the open, raising centuries-old latent or unresolved debates on gender mixing, the veil, the sharing of public space. It highlighted the dilemma of Muslim societies experiencing a form of « schizophrenia » between modern progress and tradition, between the call of the century and the fear of losing one’s soul. It also claims to have a say in the religious sources it uses to support its speech. However, Islamist women activists are very often contradictory. While defending a place and a role for women, they deny them equal status. They refuse to be qualified as victims but justify the power of men as masters. They want to enter the field of work but sign the « sharia » contract that relegates them to lower positions. They do not oppose technological progress, but they refute modernity and designate themselves as the symbol of Muslim identity. They show themselves in the public space while claiming the right to hide under the veil. They want to be self-sufficient and take care of their husbands and families, without questioning religious rules such as the one that forces them to inherit half as much as men. This is where « Islamist feminism » becomes, more than a paradox, fraudulent, for can one claim to « exist » without considering oneself as a person in their own right? Can we claim to free ourselves from the weight of the body through the veil, when it keeps pointing out the woman as a body above all? Can we defend femininity and at the same time want to eliminate sexual difference in the public space through the hijab? This means that the idea of « Islamist feminism » is turning short. It seems impossible for this movement to succeed in changing the traditional balance of power between the two sexes, or to give birth to the « individual woman » in the land of Islam. Looking back, « Islamist feminism » institutes a reverse evolution of the law. Any female freedom that goes beyond dogma would be considered sacrilegious. Not to mention that the idea of a rejection of so-called « Western » feminism is part of the same attitude that opposes the East/Muslim to the West/Christian and ends up producing a feminine version of the famous idea of « clash of civilizations ».

About the veil:

« I am part of the first generation of women who went to school. It was a new Tunisia that was being born. There was a president who, after all, had put most of the budget into education. It was rare, usually money was put in the army. He told our parents, « Let them study, and I will give them a job’’. And he kept his word. At the present time, it’s different. Women go to school. But unfortunately, we are still facing a regression of women’s rights. We are faced with a paradoxical situation of women who are veiling themselves. While our fight was to unveil ourselves. The symbolic gesture was to say: « We went out. We’ll never go home’’. And here I see with bitterness and sadness that our struggle has not been successful.

Obviously, these centuries of tyranny against women that I inherited and of which I could have been a victim have shaped my personality and my future. When one has been raised like me by a mother whose neck, throat, leg curvature, or the slightest hair no one could ever see, or when one has had sisters like mine cloistered in the name of a law prohibiting their bodies, one can understand my reaction to the veil, in its suffered and imposed practice, even more in its claimed choice. I forgive my mother who has never been to school and to whom no one has explained the injustice of a tradition in which she wanted to confine us too. But I cannot excuse such behaviour on the part of anyone who is educated and aware of the century’s issues. I cannot defend a sign that, in our societies, has always relegated women behind the walls. I can’t do that. I cannot accept that we voluntarily veil ourselves and pretend that we are not condemned to supporting roles. I can’t accept that we choose to be subjected. Just as I remain cautious before those who honour God to measure our faith by the length of our dresses and the number of locks escaping from our clothes. Would they matter more, these dresses and hair, than the love we carry in our hearts for Him? Would the veil be the only way to ensure our salvation in His eyes – otherwise we would be worthless? All these questions, I already asked myself when I was a child. And here I am now half a century later asking them again. I ask them to a young woman (Editor’s note: the singer Diam’s) who thinks she’s doing well when she’s hurting me. Who lives in a country where my sisters would have loved to live and enjoy the same rights, starting with school. A young woman who forces me to ask myself: why did I travel to France, if Diam’s has the power to resurrect the spectre of my old fears? »