One of the ironies of the 2011 revolution in Tunisia is that while it was a step forward for democracy, it has always threatened to be a step backwards for women’s rights. Many Tunisians are socially and religiously conservative, and the fall of the autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali gave them a political voice in their country for the first time. In the first free elections in the country history, in 2011, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party took more than a third of the votes, more than four times its nearest rival.
And so when Ikram Ben Said set out to create an organization dedicated to women’s rights that year, it was clear to her that she would have to be inclusive if she was to be successful. Her organization, Aswat Nissa — or Voices of Women — is not the first in the country dedicated to women’s rights, but it’s the first to involve Tunisian women politicians regardless of where they fall of the political spectrum. “Feminism for me is not imposing my choice, my vision of society,” says the 34-year-old activist, who is president of Aswat Nissa. “Feminism is helping women achieving their dreams and assuming their responsibilities and their decisions.”
Tunisia is progressive by the standards of the Arab world — the country was founded in 1957 with a Turkish-style project of modernization that included a commitment to women’s rights unparalleled in North Africa and the Muslim Middle East. In central Tunis, a woman is just as likely to be wearing jeans and a tight top as she is to have a scarf concealing her hair. But activists like Ben Said say the country’s laws still leave much to be desired. In matters of inheritance, sons and sometimes other male members of the family are favored over daughters. In a household, the father is the legal head of the family, giving him control over his wife and children. Muslim women can’t marry non-Muslims, a restriction that isn’t imposed on men.
One of the first events that Ben Said organized after forming Aswat Nissa was a conference at which participants discussed women’s political participation in Arab and Muslim history. “I strongly believe that God didn’t create me to be discriminated against and be massacred,” she says. “You can be Muslim and advocate for women’s equality. It’s not against Islam. This is what we try to explain to people.” Later, she launched a campaign to encourage women to vote, organising outreach efforts in rural areas and working class neighborhoods in particular. “There are a lot of very effective activists who can galvanize rooms, but usually they can galvanize rooms of activists,” says Hala Hanna, an associate director at the World Economic Forum, who has worked with Aswat Nissa in a private capacity, teaching women politicians. “What’s interesting about Ikram is that she’s able address all sorts of audiences.”
Before the revolution, Ben Said volunteered in a shelter for single mothers, a group that often faces discrimination in Tunisia. She would sometimes spend nights in the shelter, bringing friends to cook and dance and sing. The experience provided Ben Said with a window into the lives of the women she was helping, but also a crucial insight: the women she was working with didn’t just need charity, but a change in the social and legal environment in which they were living. “Laws can change the mentality,” says Ben Said. “So we have to work with politicians.”
Over the last two years, Aswat Nissa has organized courses for women politicians, including several from Ennahda, training them in the basics of politics and governing. “She’s an example of the modern Tunisian woman I’d like to follow: courageous, hard working, professional and also sweet,” says Ahlem Saidani Gharbi, a member of Ennahda. “Personally I have a lot of respect for her. I respect her neutrality.”
Ben Said has a regular job — her position at Aswat Nissa is unsalaried — as a senior program manager at Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit agency. There, Ben Said has conceived and created a program orchestrating conversations between women groups that might normally be at odds. “In the U.S., you would say she can reach across the aisle,” says her boss, Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri. “She’s equally accepted by the seculars and the Islamists.”
Ben Said grew up in a family on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Like many Tunisian women she doesn’t wear a headscarf, but her mother and her two sisters do. Her father was a military officer, with whom she often disagreed. “I learned from him that different opinions can live under one roof,” she says.
Asked where she sees herself in ten years, Ben Said answers that, depending on the circumstances, she could see herself in politics or in civil service, in Tunisia or abroad. Her friends and supporters and those she works with do not hesitate to say that they hope she will enter politics. For now though, says Ben Said, she will put any political or other ambitions on hold: her campaign to increase women’s participation in Tunisian politics is far from over.