Portrait of a Schizophrenic Society: Sex, Gender & Censorship in Tunisian Women’s Novels

Inès Saâda is a French Tunisian second-year student at Sciences Po Lyon in France, currently studying Political & Social Sciences. She will be joining King’s next year as a Study Abroad student, but already serves as the incoming Treasurer for Women & Politics. She is also an ambassador for the Tunisian foundation “Wallah We Can!”, which supports childhood & gender equality. Inès is tenaciously committed to reclaiming women’s autonomy over their own bodies, actions and words.

[Featured Image: is an illustration by Anna Wanda Gogusey for Arte Radio “Un podcast à soir”]

“Women cannot be summarised or restricted to one dimension. They, however, suffer from double marginalisation, in their societies and in the world of fiction”, stated Syrian novelist Rosa Yaseen Hasan at the 2018 Tunis International Book Fair dedicated to Tunisian women. 

Of the 183 novels in Arabic & French published in Tunisia between 1983 and 2001, only 17 were written by women. How can one explain this under-representation of women’s literary work in a country which claims “the cause of women to be the pivotal drive for the progress of Tunisian society”? Is censoring a work of fiction that touches upon the body and sexuality owing to the fact the pen is held by a female novelist really worthy of Tunisia’s internationally-attractive status as the leading Arab Muslim country on gender equality? 

Just as drawing a veil over women’s marginalization in rural areas and the neglect of southern regions does not eclipse the ugliness of their reality, boasting about the already-liberated modern woman fails to hide Tunisia’s anxiety over Tunisian women’s rights. 

            Praising  “boldness” (al-jor’a) as the measuring tool for transgressing structural taboos in contemporary Tunisian society, namely politics, religion and sexuality results in a narrow conception of literary modernity (al hadatha) that traps the full potential of female writers, as opposed to their male counterparts, discharged from the same complex symbolic quest for social approval and literary recognition. The reminiscences of the erotic heritage of classic Arab literature, the will to strongly oppose any values deemed as Islamic and conservative, as well as the prompting to assert French as the legitimate literary language in the post-colonial era, often constitutes the strict and limiting framework for Tunisian women’s writing on the body and sexuality. This should not be so because let’s face it: pressuring novelists to push the boundaries of what can be said in terms of body and sexuality as a mean to “increase their symbolic capital” not only denies their freedom to create but also to claim their own unbounded mental space:  just as the effect of censorship does.  

            “Tunis the matchmaker, whose vast boulevards contain exposed navels and veiled tresses, misfits, intellectuals, pedestrians, insolents, civil servants, anachronistic lovers, bodies that brush against or bump into one another. Confusion of senses and desires. Desires that the narrator cultivates in the backdrop of the streets for someone she will end up both idolizing and defying. A boldly– emerging voice in the Tunisian literary landscape.”

            The back cover of Kaouthar Khlifi’s novel written in French and published in 2008, Ce que Tunis ne m’a pas dit, (What Tunis didn’t tell me) well reflects the endorsement and promotion of “boldness” valued in terms of depicting characters with “transgressive” sexual practices, regardless of any feminist orientation. Thus, in his 2009 book The Tunisian feminine novel, dealing with the work of contemporary female novelists in Tunisia, Bouchoucha Ben Jom’a praises the evocation of prostitution, homosexuality or premarital sex as the proof of the women writer’s emancipation and daringness to tackle controversial topics and breaking conventional social norms. However this enhancement tends to be a double-edged sword as expectations of critics and peers lead them to brandish the lack of bold sex scenes as the embodiment of puritanism, as it was the case for Amel Nkhili’s 2006 book upon its publication. Such criterion of modernity is not only a creative-killing process that denies women the ability to imagine, reflect and invent, ultimately hindering what Julia Kristeva describes in Le Génie feminin as: 

            “What I would like to think is the invention of each subject in their intimacy and in the shaping of their own specific gender: that is precisely where genius lies, which simply is creativity.”

but it also discriminates the work of women’s writers as one reduced to their gender, submitting them to the a phalocratic society of overly male literary critics that dictates “sexual transgression as the yardstick for measuring the modernity of a text” in what should be unchartered territories of freedom and narrative invention!

            Tunisian women writers are still facing widespread forms of censorship, either state or administrative and to a larger extent, non-politicized social censorship practiced by spouses and close members of the family circle. 

Albeit censorship does not officially exist in Tunisia in virtue of Article 1 of the Tunisian Press Code which provides “freedom of the press and publications”, and Article 8 of the Constitution stating that “the liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication are guaranteed within the conditions defined by the law”, an initial censorship still exists as the “legal deposit” requirement imposed on all publishers, writers, and printers must be enforced based on a receipt issued by the authorities, that is the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Culture, and the National Library, prior to any publication released or marketed.  

            According to sociologist of gender and sexuality Abir Krefa, “In recent years, at least two extremely well-known women writers in the national literary scene have been victims of state censorship”, namely Fadhila Chabbi’s 2008 novel, El ‘Adl (Justice), that tells the story taking place in an unspecified location of a general who by mistake signs an order to castrate the entire army, and Amel Mokhtar’s novel, El korssi el hazzaz (The Rocking Chair), which should have been published by Éditions Cérès in 2002 but was not made available until 2008 as it was judged “pornographic” due to the description of rape suffered by the narrator during her childhood. 

            Another form of insidious but equally intrusive censorship that subjects women’s writing is the one exerted by close relatives and particularly men, either husbands, fathers or brothers, who act as “family censors, ostensibly to protect the family name”. A female novelist described her husband’s reaction when she informed him she was going to embark on a literary career: 

“My husband was afraid that my writing might breach a certain moral code, and would reveal family secrets. He was scared that I would let myself go and write for a slightly lewd audience. People always said to me, “throw in a bit of eroticism and porn in your books and they’ll sell better,” but I never wanted to do that.”

Censorship on issues of sexuality, which is exclusively exercised by men against women, reflects the paradox between Tunisia’s ideals of women’s liberation against the anxiety over liberated Tunisian women’s supposed excesses of freedom. This can be explained in part by over-investing a woman’s body as the custodian of the group’s honor which stands as the cornerstone of the patriarchal system, as Sophie Ferchiou points out: “the virtue of women forms the essential support for the group’s honor and it is the men who are vested with the required authority to control this dangerous sexuality.” And often, the consequences of non-compliance are bitter as one novelist confided, “I remember that novel, what it cost me”.

            If Tunisian women writers were required to develop “strategic identities” through pseudonyms in order to break free from the threat of tarnished family honour permanently hovering over them, it’s because of the country’s impasse between the discourse of liberated womanhood and the fear of “too much” liberation for “their own good” as a consequence of Tunisia’s gender-power hierarchy. The fear of Islamists and “moving backwards” combined to the instrumentalization of women’s rights for political purposes led to reforms that empowered only those who fell under the state’s definition of a modern Tunisian woman. The truth is that Tunisian “exceptionnalism” only exists for a minority, leaving behind working-class women, women’s labour exploitation and patriarchal domination throughout social institutions such as the literary field. 

One might wonder how Tunisian women novelists manage to write on body and sexuality in the face of such constraints, but in fact these conflicting injunctions are really, beyond the literary scene, the mirror of Tunisian schizophrenia over women: a country that has long and still continues to praise itself as a model for democracy in the Arab world for its advanced and unique stand regarding women’s rights compared to neighbouring countries, but deals with severe societal anxiety concerning women’s sexuality and power. From the 1956 Code of Personal Status, the proud legacy of Habib Bourguiba as it is considered one of the most progressive in the region, guaranteeing access to higher education, the right to file for divorce, and certain job opportunities, to the landmark law on the eradication of violence against women on 26 July, 2017, Tunisia continues the navel-gazing thanks to its significant gains on paper, albeit the country is deeply entrenched into patriarchal norms which continue to impede women’s access to political parties and socio-economic rights, as “poverty is practically feminising.” It is the lack of genuine concern for gender equality and justice that is the root of women’s ongoing oppression in Tunisian society. As long as women continue to be held-back by a strictly male-dominated culture that devoids them of nuance, free expression and creativity, marginalizes women’s daily struggles in rural areas, does not take seriously school dropout among girls before the age of 16 and favours resting on its laurels rather than unflinchingly facing the real struggles, it will remain pointless to boast about THE liberated Tunisian woman as it will continue to be a lie for the 49% that make the 50.44% of Tunisian women. 

Sources: 

Mainly based on sociologist of gender and sexualities Abir Krefa’s paper composed of about 30 interviews of contemporary female Tunisian writers and an analysis of books published by female writers:

Kréfa, A. (2011). The Body and Sexuality in Tunisian Literature : Issues Surrounding the Recognition, Costs, and Effects of “Transgressing”, Travail, genre et sociétés, no 26,(2), 105-128. doi:10.3917/tgs.026.0105.

The wonderful blog « Chaml » created by young Tunisian feminists with the aim of deconstructing the myth of “THE” Tunisian woman 

https://collectifchaml.wordpress.com

Ben Jom’a, Bouchoucha. 2009. Erriwaya ennissa’iya ettounissiya. Tunis: Self-publication.

Ferchiou, Sophie. 1989. “Pouvoir, contre-pouvoir et société en mutation: l’exemple tunisien.” Peuples méditerranéens 48-49: 81–92.

Kristeva, Julie, Le Génie féminin, Paris, rééd. Gallimard, coll. « Folio essais »: 1. Hannah Arendt, 1999

Khlifi, Kaouthar. 2008. Ce que Tunis ne m’a pas dit. Tunis: Éditions Élyzad.

Belghith, Safa, February 2018. Tunisia: selective feminism and the marginalization of women’s struggles.openDemocracy. 

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/tunisia-selective-feminism-marginalization-of-women-s-struggle/

Bajec, Alessandra. March 2019, Tunisian women move forward but gender equality remains distant hope, TheNewArab. 

https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2019/3/14/despite-tunisias-progress-gender-equality-remains-distant-hope

(This is a brilliant podcast to understand Tunisia’s current situation:) 

Arte Radio, Luttes féministes et LGBT en Tunisie, Un podcast à soi (20) https://www.arteradio.com/son/61662296/luttes_feministes_et_lgbt_en_tunisie_20

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