Co-authored by Gini Reticker
It is now two years since street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, triggering a revolution in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then president, and a series of revolutions and political change throughout the Arab world. Women were at the heart of that change and today they find themselves at the battlefields of a war of ideologies post Arab Spring.
We started the journey of exploring Arab women voices for a new documentary on the role Arab women played before, during and after the Arab Spring -- or revolution, as it is called in the region -- by meeting the woman who contributed to the one event that led to the Tunisian revolution: Fadia Hamdi, the infamous city inspector whose confrontation with Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi led to his self-immolation. What we discovered in her home was a larger story, telling of what is going on in the hearts of most Arabs and definitely many Tunisians.
We didn't know quite what to expect as we made the long drive from Tunis to Sidi Bouzid to meet Hamdi. The world knows her as the epitome of all that was wrong with deposed president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, while most Tunisians view her merely as his scapegoat. She claims that it was destiny that brought her and Bouazizi together for that explosive moment. She stood waiting to greet us outside her family home when we drove up the quiet dusty road. No longer sporting her police uniform with its snappy, pilot-like cap, she now was wearing a modern headscarf. The small house behind her was bursting with energy. Her numerous nieces and nephews were running around the small front yard, her sisters were in the kitchen cleaning up after a family lunch, and her brother was gently rocking his 6-week-old son, the newest addition to the clan. Fadia's mother, now an old woman with henna orange hair and facial tattoos in the old traditions of many rural women in the Arab world, was enjoying the afternoon breeze, clearly proud of the seven children she raised and made sure were educated. Fadia explained with a smile, "my mother refused to practice any family planning. Though my father always wished she would agree to it. It was my mother, believe it or not, who refused. She is a traditional mother who kept old village values."
By all appearances, Fadia is the strong figure in the family. While she speaks in a commanding voice, Fadia's sisters murmur with laughter, saying "She is one powerful woman." Fadia is fully aware of her historical role both as a product of a system created by the old regime that ensured women's rights to education and work, as well as a system that created much oppression, suppression of political views and disregard for the poor. She is clear about how the old regime used her as a scapegoat rather than acknowledge its failures to create jobs and provide freedom to its citizens. At the same time, Fadia is fiercely proud that she was one of the first women in her town to take on the role of city inspector in the streets of Sidi Bouzid.
When asked about why she began wearing the headscarf after the revolution, she dismisses the question with the lightness most Arab women do when asked about the hijab: "I was always an observant Muslim and wore the hijab after my work hours in the old times. I was not allowed to wear it at work before the revolution. Now, I wear it all the time. I am an unmarried woman in my 40s and it is the practice here to do that. It's not an issue."
Fadia's decision echoed what many other Tunisian women expressed: pleasure at now being able to wear the traditional headscarf without fear of discrimination. Yet Fadia went on to passionately attack the current political tendency that wants to Islamize the country, many fear at the expense of women's equal rights.
"Woman in Tunisia should not be fighting for what they already have. Today, some politicians call for polygamy as the solution for decreasing the number of single women. Others believe that women should be denied the opportunity to work as a way to decrease unemployment. Some people even call for legalizing child marriage, which I find absolutely animalistic and degrading to women!"
After our interview, we sipped tea in the front yard with the family. The discussion drifted to America and what it did in Iraq, when they learned Zainab is Iraqi. Fadia's brother Ali had studied in Iraq in 1989 before the First Gulf War interrupted his studies. He spoke with nostalgia of the good old days, when Iraq was the glory of the Arab world. He asked about Baghdad's neighborhoods and Iraqi dishes that he missed as he hit his hands on his forehead as a way to express his pain, tearfully repeating "They destroyed Iraq. The American's destroyed Iraq." And as almost every Tunisian we met, he uttered Saddam Hussein's name only in glory, no matter how much we tried to explain the horror he had imposed on his own population. "Yes", Ali said, "but he was a man who stood against America to defend his country and died with pride and dignity." While that sentiment may disquiet many Americans, it is one Zainab acknowledges she has heard repeated steadily across the region. Saddam's unfinished trial and rushed execution turned him from the villain to the victim in the minds of many across the Arab world.
Fadia's mother becomes nervous as her son continues to mourn what America did to Iraq. She begins hushing him, pointing to director Gini Reticker, fearful of offending an American or just fearful of expressing anything political lest the walls have ears. This sense of fear is familiar to almost every Arab household from Iraq to Morocco. As if to underscore the arrival of a new era that has broken with that fear, her children ignore her admonishments and continue to openly express their political views.
As we say our goodbyes we realize that the home of the woman who contributed to a historical change in the Arab world continues to symbolize the current Arab sentiment: a combination of pride for overthrowing dictatorships, residual of old fears that continues to be carried by her mother and fear of what is to come next with new religious-leaning governments. Women and Islam have become the heart of the current debate as post-revolutionary Arab countries struggle to define their new identities. Getting lost in this debate is the discussion of poverty, jobs and dignified life -- the very reasons that the uprisings occurred.
While experts on the region are divided between a vague sense of optimism and pessimism, no one doubts that the stabilization of the Arab world is of larger interest to the rest of the world. But without such basic understanding of its reality and focus on what is of real relevance to the region: developed economies, jobs and stability, an active civil society and the protection of civil rights and equality for all women and men, efforts will be washed to waste and seen as part of a larger conspiracy to destabilize the region. This may be a time of tension, but it is equally a time for opportunities to create a new, stable and prosperous future in the region.
Zainab Salbi is an author of several books, including her upcoming book If You Knew Me You Would Care, founder of Women for Women International and is currently working on a documentary film on Arab women with Abby Disney and Gini Reticker. Gini Reticker is an award winning documentary filmmaker known for her focus on women and individuals' struggles for social justice. Her many films includes Asylum, a 2004 Academy Award®-nominated, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and Women, War and Peace.
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