– Sophie Bessis « Keep on being against the veil, which remains a sign of subjection and confinement »

Sophie Bessis « Keep on being against the veil, which remains a sign of subjection and confinement »


Sophie Bessis was born in Tunis in 1947 to a Tunisian Jewish family. A History Associate and former Editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique, she became an associate researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris and Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights. She has long taught political development economics at the Sorbonne’s Department of Political Science and at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations. Consultant for UNESCO and Unicef, she has carried out numerous missions in Africa. A prolific author, she has written a biography of Bourguiba, as well as numerous books including : Femmes du Maghreb : l’enjeu(Paris, Jean-Claude Lattès, 1992), Les Arabes, les femmes, laliberté(Paris, Albin Michel, 2007), La Double impasse : l’universel à l’épreuve des fondamentalismes religieux et marchand(La Découverte), ou Les Valeureuses : cinq Tunisiennes dans l’histoire(Tunis, Elyzad, 2017).

French version here

Women in Tunisia:

« It is clear that Tunisian women have much more advanced rights than in other Arab countries. Their legal status makes them adults and grants them several rights since the promulgation of the Personal Status Code in 1956, four months after independence. This code has been continuously improved since then. A year ago, a ministerial circular, quite iniquitous in 1973, which established that Muslim women were not allowed to marry non-Muslims, was repealed. So, all this means that Tunisian women have a legal status that is in no way comparable with that of other Arab countries. In Morocco, for example, polygamy is legal, even if it is subject to difficult conditions, and abortion is not allowed unlike in Tunisia. Tunisia is taken as an example by all the feminist movements in the Arab world. They say, « Since this is happening in Tunisia, why not in our country? » But each country has its own modernization trajectory. Tunisia’s historical experience is not that of Saudi Arabia. Is Tunisia a unique case or an avant-garde in the Arab world? This is an open question. I would tend to say that this is a singular case, but the fact remains that today, women in the Arab world are fighting everywhere and claiming their rights. Tunisian women have on average fewer children than in the past, they marry later, they study. Their lives are very different from those of their grandmothers or mothers. They are everywhere in the public space: health, education, justice… But there are real inequalities and the patriarchal tradition prevails over the law in rural areas. »

The uniqueness of Tunisia:

« Geography partly determines history. Just look at a map to see that Tunisia is a country largely open to the sea with more than 1,200 kilometres of coastline and very close to Southern Europe since only a hundred kilometres separates Cape Bon from Sicily. This strait of Sicily also separates the eastern Mediterranean from the western Mediterranean. Tunisia is at the intersection of these two Mediterranean worlds. Finally, it is a low mountainous country, unlike Algeria and Morocco. There are no impassable reliefs preventing the crossing of Tunisia. And throughout its history, people have been passing through it a lot! « Tunisianity » is also a historical construction forged by Habib Bourguiba, among others, who was in power from 1956 to 1987. The first head of state of independent Tunisia considered that the Tunisian personality could not be summed up in its Arabness and that its history had to be traced back to the founding of Carthage in the 9th century before our era. For Tunisia, the use of history is also a way of situating itself politically. To distinguish itself from Arab nationalism and to establish its policy of secularization, Bourguiba has been part of a long history that began long before the arrival of Islam. He made Punic Hannibal and Numidian Jugurtha the founding heroes of official history. Ben Ali, who remained in power from 1987 to 2011, has claimed more of an Arab-Muslim legacy without breaking with the Bourguiba narrative or the notion of Tunisianity. From 1956 to 2011, Tunisia is part of the same historical sequence. The Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes were both authoritarian, although their modalities of exercising power differed. What has changed since the 1970s, since before Ben Ali’s arrival at the head of the state, is that there is a reflux of the left as the main opposition to the regime and the emergence of movements stemming from political Islam, in parallel with a powerful current of the religious returning to society in a very conservative way, under the growing influence of Gulf’s monarchies. Like the other Arab regimes, which relativizes its singularity, the two successive regimes in Tunisia have led from that period a brutal repression of Islamists while enhancing the country’s Islamity, thus attempting to appear to opinions as the only legitimate guardians of religion. This bias was more pronounced under Ben Ali than under Bourguiba. He used the historical depth of his country when it seemed necessary to present it as an open and plural country. What is ultimately interesting in this notion of Tunisianity is that no political tendency can override it since it has been largely internalized by society. Even Islamist leaders have resigned themselves to invoking it. Whereas when they came to power in 2011, they had tried to impose their vision of Islam as the supposed rule of the public sphere and society, believing that the religiosity and conservatism of a large part of Tunisians amounted to adherence to their ideological project, they were forced to evolve. They have, in a way, « tunisified » by taking up the rhetoric of the 3,000 years old history. Today, the national narrative is widely accepted. After the 2011 revolution, it is the only Arab country that has experienced neither the Libyan chaos, nor the atrocious Syrian war, nor an authoritarian restoration as in Egypt. The negotiating ability of its elites may be due to the old traditions of urbanity to which they are committed.

Since ancient times, Tunisia has been more urbanized than its neighbours, and the trading traditions of coastal cities are not very compatible with war. This habitus, like the seniority of the State, has probably played a role in this ability to avoid violent conflicts… Tunisia is a country where the State is old. From the second half of the 19th century, the need to transform the beylical regime into a constitutional monarchy became apparent to the elites who had formed what was called the « Reformist Movement ». The Constitution promulgated in 1861 was the first in the Arab world. It was suspended after only three years, but Tunisians remain proud of this precedence. It is no coincidence that the first Tunisian party born after the First World War in 1920 was named Destour, « Constitution » in Arabic, one of nationalists’ main demands. When Habib Bourguiba created his party in 1934, its name was Neo-Destour, keeping the term. After the 2011 revolution, most of the population felt that the creation of a Second Republic must necessarily involve the adoption of a new Constitution. Everyone has taken up this project, and it can be said that the 2014 Constitution has been debated everywhere, in parties, civil society associations, demonstrations and cafés… »

Religious and commercial fundamentalisms:

The first thing to point out is that the liberal economic order has always adapted to fundamentalisms. From the 1930s onwards, and even more so during World War II, successive US governments moved closer to Saudi power, the most fundamentalist of the Arab states, as part of their power strategy in the region and against the backdrop of US companies’ access to the kingdom’s oil resources. Today, no fundamentalism on the planet is opposed to the capitalist liberal order that reigns supreme. Whether in the Arab-Muslim world, in India where Prime Minister Narendra Modi defends a radical Hinduism, but organizes a neoliberal capitalist society, in Poland where ultra Catholics are in power, nowhere is there any opposition to the rule of trade. The Polish Government opposes the European Union only on issues relating to what you call democratic ethos, which is part of the universal, that is, an aspiration for human freedom and equality between free thinking subjects capable of producing their destiny. I am referring here to the universal profane as formulated by the British philosophers of the seventeenth century. This profane conception of the universal is then radically new insofar as it endows the subject with rights inherent to the human condition and not granted by a divine authority. However, the moral universalism carried by all religions remains anchored to a posture of obedience to God’s commandments. The neoliberal individual is reduced to be an addicted and solitary consumer. Human beings are no more than atomized fragments of a whole that encompasses them without making them exist. Neither the political collective nor humankind as a collective are any more horizons of thought. The current absolute hegemony of the term ‘governance’, borrowed from the business world’s lexicon, testifies to this deviation. That is why I speak of market fundamentalism, because it destroys the free individual as much as religious fundamentalism does, by preventing us from conceiving freedom as the freedom to form society. Religious fundamentalism absorbs the individual into an organic group, market fundamentalism destroys their ability to think of themselves as social beings. »

The veil:

« I believe that Westerners’ interest in the issue of women is rhetorical. It is in this specific place that the democratic ethos could be claimed. We would indeed touch the patriarchal order as an obstacle to real democracy, or if you prefer, the patriarchal order could be destroyed and stopped from obstructing. If we touch women’s status, we touch the heart of all societies, everywhere. However, Western democracies do not care about promoting this issue when doing business in the Arab-Muslim world or elsewhere. It is never a conditionality. Veiled women do not bother businessmen. In the West, in France for example, the question of the veil is not raised in the same way as in Arab-Muslim countries. But, in general, to accept the veil as the singularity of a cultural group is to continue to accept that the patriarchal structure adorns the supposed inferiority of women with symbols. That is why it is important to continue to be against the veil, which remains a sign of their subjection and confinement. This does not mean being against veiled women because, today, their reasons for wearing the veil are very different in different environments and contexts. In fact, the veil has changed its meaning. It once meant a relationship to tradition rather than religion. Only urban women were veiled, not rural women. In the 1960s, a vast movement of modernization and secularization of Arab societies led women to no longer veil themselves. Abandoning the veil meant becoming modern but not unbelieving. These women without veils did not cease to be Muslim. Islamism’s prowess has been to move the veil from the realm of tradition to that of religion. And the injunction was successful beyond all expectations. The veil has become a sign of religious affiliation to Islam for women and no longer a traditional obligation. Unlike the veil of yesteryear, the hijab is a « modern » veil. Hence its great ambiguity and the endless debates it has generated. »


Moderate Islamism is an oxymoron invented by Westerners to accommodate political Islam to their interests. Islamist ideology rejects the democratic ethos, because God’s law is always superior to that of men. All fundamentalisms are based on this premise. However, a distinction can be made between political Islamism and belligerent Islamism. The first wants to come to power by legal means, having realized that the seizure of power by force was almost impossible. A democracy reduced to elections is then accepted as long as a social project can be enforced. The best example is Erdoğan in Turkey. In 2002, when the AKP came to power, it had the same fundamentals as today, but the West, unable to afford to break with Turkey, transformed Turkish political Islam into Muslim conservatism. In Turkey, as in other Muslim countries, it was also believed that by co-opting so-called moderate Islamists into the democratic camp, it would be possible to separate them from the so-called extremist Islamists. In belligerent Islamism, indeed, it is force that brings power, but the ideological fundamentals are the same in both cases. This does not mean that political Islamists are indifferent to any influence or democratic development. But when leaders or individuals become sensitive to democratic principles, they cease to be Islamists. Islamism is not a moderate ideology. For the analogy with Christian democracy to work, there should be conservative parties with moral values from Islam that accept that political legitimacy comes from popular sovereignty and no longer from divine dogma. »

Arab nationalism:

« In the 1950s and 1970s, there were secularizing nationalist ideologies. Arab nationalist ideologies were secular but not lay. Religion was instrumentalized as a last resort of legitimacy, but schematically Nasserian nationalism or Baathist nationalism were secular nationalisms. Bourguiba is the Arab politician who has gone the furthest in this secularization process. It should not be forgotten that this type of nationalism was then built against pan-Islamism and was intended to convey the idea of the nation-state beyond religious affiliation. This is why many ideologues of Arab nationalism were Christians who could identify themselves in a national community and not in the Muslim ummah. These secular nationalisms repressed political Islam: Nasser hanged the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad did the same with methods of unprecedented violence. But the defeats of nationalist regimes, in particular the 1967 defeat against Israel, spelled the end of their hegemony and political Islam replaced them as a hegemonic ideology, helped moreover by the emergence of oil monarchies as central actors in the Arab political scene. Arab republican dictatorships, however, needed to compensate for their lack of legitimacy with an increasing recourse to religious rhetoric while converting one after the other to economic liberalism. As a result, a liberal economic discourse was born while the political discourse became more and more confessional. The religious paradigm of identity rhetoric used ad nauseam by dictatorial regimes is therefore perfectly compatible with the neoliberal economic order. »

The universal:

The paradox of Western universalism is that it was immediately misled by its creators, who excluded from its benefits women and slaves first, and then colonized peoples. However, these excluded people are the chance of the universal because they are the ones who claim it to obtain the rights and the benefits of the universal from which they had been deprived. What is interesting is that in a configuration as terrifying as that of the current world, the excluded continue to appropriate it through emancipatory political demands. There is therefore no reason to be pessimistic. The debates within the former colonized worlds are working towards this de-Westernization, this universalization of the universal, first from the margins, but then in a very transversal way. There is no place today where we do not debate democratic aspiration, principles and the universal, it is true in China, in the Arab world, or in sub-Saharan Africa in the face of regimes that hide behind specific identity-based characteristics to establish their monopoly on power. The specificities invoked are not always of a religious nature and may call for other repertoires. Thus, for example, a rhetoric of « Asian values » is carried by Chinese leaders against dissidents opposing them with universalist demands. What is important is that this is no longer the old North/South debate in which the West acted as a model, but a South/South debate that works for all these societies. Entire sections of them, and not only intellectual minorities, compare their ways of conceiving democracy and freedom, political equality and freedom of opinion today. These collectives use the debate to choose between different social projects, as the Tunisians set the example in the controversies that accompanied the drafting of the 2014 Constitution. There have been heated discussions on how to choose its leaders and how to dismiss them. An anti-authoritarian democratic will has been made explicit, religious identity paradigm’s advocates have been forced to confront themselves not with others, with the foreign West, but with their own within their own society. »


« Syria is now a place of disaster, not because Syrians refused to discuss democracy and the universal, but because Syrian democrats have had little influence on geopolitical power relations. The democratic claim of 2011 was quickly undermined by a double militarization, that wanted by the oil monarchies that came to the rescue of the Syrian jihadist movements and that wanted by a regime determined to destroy its people rather than give democracy a chance and which appealed to Russia and Iran to do so. Indeed, the advent of a democratic era in the Arab world is a nightmare for many: for dictatorships, of course, starting with the Gulf monarchies, whatever their disagreements, for Islamic-jihadist movements, and for countries such as Russia and Iran. Syrian democrats, or what remains of them, are in tragic solitude. As for Western countries, they first supported Arab dictatorships, taking their immobility as a guarantee of stability in this strategic region, which enabled the Assad dynasty to last for half a century. Then, once chaos broke out, their only concern was to fight against the « Islamic State » that their policies had helped bring about. The problem is not whether they should have intervened in Syria since they have been militarily present there for years, but whether they should have intervened against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Human rights are not the compass of Westerners, and the absolute dichotomy between ‘saying and doing’ that they have always practiced is one of their policies’ hallmarks. From now on, it is about rebuilding after the chaos. War has the positive side for the capitalist system that after destruction, it is necessary to rebuild. So, let’s get down to business and it doesn’t matter, given the colossal amounts at stake, with whom we must negotiate to win the contracts! »