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date: 16 January 2018

Bchira Ben M’rad, Leader of the First Tunisian Feminist Movement

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.”