In a Worried Corner of Tunis

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Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party, Tunis, June 28, 2011

Outside Tunis one afternoon in late September, I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. The center is located in a whitewashed two-story house in the suburb of Borj Louzir, not far from the ruins of Carthage. It’s a gritty and sun-baked neighborhood of mosques, small shops, and cement-block bungalows, with battered cars parked in the alleys. A sewing class had just ended when I arrived, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk to me about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23.

In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted, and the prospect of an Islamist plurality in the constituent assembly—which would give the party major influence in shaping a new constitution—has heightened anxiety across Tunisia, one of the more liberal countries in the Arab world.

Many women in the sewing circle, though, seemed pleased by the prospect of an Ennahda victory. “Ennahda is the party of Islam,” said a fortyish woman, her head wrapped in a beige headscarf, who gave only her first name, Laila. (The legacy of fear instilled by the ousted dictatorship remains strong in Tunisia, and many people I spoke to worried about being publicly identified.) During the Ben Ali years, when open Islamic observance was discouraged in daily life, women were banned from going covered in the workplace and in school, and Ben Ali’s hated security police periodically harassed and even arrested women wearing the hijab on the street. Mosques were always closed between prayers, and women and young people who attended Friday prayers were closely watched. “I don’t want to vote for a party that does not consider Islam,” Laila said, as half a dozen women in the classroom nodded in agreement. “We need to take care of our religion.”

Maherzia, a woman in her twenties who went uncovered, shook her head in disgust. Ennahda spoke with two voices, she said, offering mild public pronouncements while also espousing extremist sentiments, including support for sharia law. “I’m worried that they’ll force me to wear the veil before I go outside,” she told me. “I’m worried they might force women to stay at home, and not go to associations like this.” Maherzia recalled the group’s violent past: in 1991, Ennahda militants attacked the ruling party’s headquarters in Tunis, killing one person and splashing acid in the faces of …

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