Mirror Image: Part I - Conversations with Tunisian Women

I started writing
this blog at Doha
Airport in transit, and continued after a week in distance from the
hectic madness that is Tunis. It can be difficult to reflect on an
event in the midst of grappling with the many strains of issues and
conversations that are simultaneously happening. Here, I am
attempting to regroup some of the thoughts and experiences that I
collected during that one week, and offer a four part blog on some
post-WSIS reflections.


I changed my route to the Palexbo on
the last day (18 November) and found a café between where the
taxi dropped me off to the security line. The woman who managed the
place spoke to me in English, and since I was the only customer, we
started chatting.


I asked her what she thought of the
Summit, and she responded, “I don’t know. I’m not there. Why
don’t you tell me about the Summit?” Good point =) I started to
tell her about the two documents produced as outcomes and was about
to fill her in on what they entailed when she cut me off by stating,
“I am only interested in expression. I want to know whether I can
have freedom to express in connection with religion”.


I was slightly taken aback by this, and
asked her in what ways does she not have freedom to express what she
thought about religion. She spoke to me about her right to wear a
head scarf, in some places known as the veil, and the Islamic
principles that she adhered in relation to this.


Strange for me since it is almost the
other way around in Malaysia. Muslim women are tacitly coerced into
wearing the hijab through normative policing. The best tactic to
discredit women politicians or other public figures (like those in
the entertainment industry) would be through their practice of
wearing a headscarf (known as tudung in Malaysia). But I
completely empathised with her passionate frustration of not being
able to speak freely about her beliefs.


Although the actual practice/norm is
different, the heart of the matter remains the same: a material
restriction of personal thought, opinion, behaviour and ability to
live one’s life to the fullest.


I spoke to a couple of women with
Amnesty International about Muslim women’s rights in Tunisia,
during the href="http://www.genderit.org/en/index.shtml?apc=f--e--1&x=91880">Tunisian
League for Human Rights press conference
. This being
an issue I am also engaged with, I was interested to know to what
extent Muslim women in Tunisia could organise themselves and advocate
for their concerns using ICTs, and what challenges they faced. As
far as I know, the legal rights for Muslim women were quite
progressive in Tunisia.


They confirmed this but added, “On
paper, it all looks very good. But in reality, it is not so simple.”
As an example, they explained to me about women’s safety in public
spaces, “Right now, the streets are very ‘safe’ because of the
Summit. Police are everywhere,” – which is true since there were
at least 30 plain-clothed police officers hanging around the place at
the time of the press conference – “but usually, women cannot
walk alone in the evening or at night. If they do, they might get
assaulted. Only the other day it happened to me.” It is evident
that public spaces are very male-dominated, with a very small number
of women, if any, in cafes where men gather and watch football, play
card games or smoke shishas, drink coffee and exchange silences or
news.


When asked if they could organise,
apparently SMS messages and phone calls are intercepted by the
authorities. Messages will not reach the intended recepients until
much later or sometimes not at all, and mobile phone calls have
unexplainable echoes or time lags. As we know by now, websites that
are not approved by the authorities href="http://www.apc.org/english/wsis/blog/index.shtml?x=2436066">are
blocked
within the country and cannot be accessed.


When physical spaces are already
limited for mobility for women, it becomes even more urgent that
digital spaces are opened up to enable connections, gathering of
information, community building etc. This can be seen from examples
of domestic violence survivors whose mobility are severely monitored
and curtailed by their intimate partners. It can’t be easy to try
and struggle for autonomy and shaping of rights against this
backdrop.


Yet, the passionate and indubitable
demand for her rights that the woman at the café demonstrated,
clearly shows that it is a materialising force to be reckoned with.
Not the sort of token empowerment that governments seem fond of
advertising (when leaving the airport, the main street had rows of
banners that proclaimed loudly the elevation of women’s rights and
status in Tunisia), but a demand for real commitment to change.