This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
Considered as the leader of the women’s renaissance in Tunisia, Bchira Ben M’rad marked the feminist movement. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were hardly visible, as their lives were severely controlled by social and cultural norms. Current events taking place throughout the country had paved the way for this formidable event to take place in spite of male domination and the fact that women’s lives were controlled by Shari’a law. Cases of women suing close relatives for wrongs inflicted on them were probably the seeds of the feminism that Bchira Ben Mrad was to espouse and work for.
In those decades that marked the early 20th century, Tunisian women lived in the intimacy of their home. The men went in and out, but women had to stay home. Women’s worlds were concentrated on housework, cooking, sewing, breeding children, and reading the Qur’an. When they happened to go out, they were veiled. They were also often illiterate. Some, however, were lucky to have an open-minded father, brother, or husband and had private tutors at home. Bchira Ben Mrad (1993–1913) was one of those lucky women. She was the daughter of Salouha Belkhodja and Mohamed Salah Ben Mrad, a Hanfi Islam Sheikh. She was hardly ten years old when her mother died. A well-learned and open-minded man, her father had his four daughters tutored by the best teachers of El Zeituna who taught them “fikh” (philology), grammar, arithmetic, and Farabi’s logical reasoning and syllogism.
In 1936, set on devoting her life to women’s emancipation, she founded UMFT (Muslim Union of Tunisian Women), the first in Tunisia and the second in Africa and in the Arab world. Bchira chaired this organization until its dissolution in 1956 by Habib Bourguiba, who then founded the UNFT (The National Union of Tunisian Women), regretfully never acknowledging the work she had done. Bchira took her inspiration from the Egyptian Huda Shaaraoui and the Tunisian princess Aziza Uthmana. She used to say that women’s education was necessary for the development of a country, a statement used later on by Bourguiba. During twenty-five years of relentless fighting, Bchira spared no efforts to provide for girls’ and boys’ education.
Bchira and the other activist women who had founded other organizations had opportunities to establish contacts and acquire knowledge as well as trainings from other women they were able to meet, for example, when they attended an international Women’s Congress in Paris, the Women’s International Democratic Federation, on May 26, 1945, following which, March 8 became Women’s Day from 1946 to 1952 in spite of strong opposition from the French authorities that were ruling the country.
At independence from France in 1956, Habib Bourguiba promulgated the Code of Personal Status (CSP), establishing a fundamental principle: the equality of men and women, which was to accelerate the development of the country. However, because this initiative had been “a reform from above,” and not from a movement initiated by women, it became currently known as “state feminism.”
Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate.
Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones.
Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore.
However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
The Maghrebi tradition of historical literary production extends back to the early centuries of Islamic expansion and conquest in North Africa and comprises a rich corpus including dynastic chronicles (tarikh), biographies (tarajim), and hagiographies (manaqib/rijjal), and, since the 20th century, positivist national histories as well. While this tradition had evolved since its inception, 19th- and 20th-century Maghrebi historical production both influenced and was influenced by the extension of European military, economic, and political power into the Maghreb. Grappling with the legacies of colonialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism, among others, Maghrebi historians continue to sow the rich terrain of historical literary production in the postcolonial period by absorbing, reacting to, and building upon new trends in the historical profession.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project.
Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”