Despite valuable steps toward security sector reform and ramped up counterterrorism efforts, Tunisia continues to struggle with radicalization. The government lacks the experience and resources to address security concerns and resolve the country’s severe economic crisis simultaneously. Civil society actors, especially women’s associations—whose targeted beneficiaries are arguably among the most disenchanted and vulnerable groups in Tunisia—are stepping up to provide assistance on combatting extremism. However, ideological differences and competition within the women’s movement for resources and recognition have overshadowed their efforts to address radicalization effectively.
Some radicalized Tunisian women choose to “fight for the cause” abroad. Analysts estimate that up to 7,000 Tunisians have joined terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Libya since 2011, including about 700 Tunisian women according to the Ministry of Women, Family, and Children authorities. These women take on combat roles, provide sexual comfort through urfi (informal) marriages, and recruit new fighters, but most are engaged in community organizing and administrative tasks such as managing finances, overseeing educational curricula, and onboarding new fighters. Other Tunisian women choose “fighting for the cause” from home, which Tunisian authorities see as a more immediate security threat. In May 2018, Tunisian authorities arrested a woman in Tozeur for communicating with terrorist cells abroad and for possessing jihadi propaganda on her personal computer. More recently, on October 29, 2018, 30-year-old college graduate Mna Guebla detonated a bomb in downtown Tunis, killing herself and injuring several Ministry of Interior officers. The event shocked government officials and civil society, reminding them that homegrown terrorism is not restricted to uneducated young men from the interior.
As much as what drives the radicalization of young men, economic disparities, high unemployment and disenchantment with the democratic transition also drive women’s radicalization. For example, Mna Guebla was from a rural area near the coastal city of Mahdia and was unemployed even though she had a university degree in Business English. Even though reducing regional disparities was a major demand of the Tunisian revolution, successive governments have failed to make substantial investments in marginalized areas with higher risk of radicalization, especially to support women’s employment. Unemployment rates are much higher among women (22.7 percent) than men (12.5 percent). According to Abdellatif Hannachi, a history professor at the University of Manouba and a researcher on jihadi women, such dire economic strains have allowed terrorist groups to recruit young women to join jihad in Syria and Libya by promising (but usually not delivering) payments for sexual services.1
As the trust in the government’s ability to deal with these challenges shrinks, new non-state actors have stepped in. For many women’s and feminist associations, preventing radicalization is at the core of their philosophy and work, given their ultimate purpose of serving women’s needs. There is a strong correlation between protecting women’s rights and deterring extremism. A few organizations tackle extremism indirectly as part of efforts to oppose domestic violence. For instance, the Women, Peace, and Security and Combatting Violence Against Women projects run by Aswat Nissa include outreach to female religious leaders to encourage them to perpetuate peaceful social values.
More broadly, women’s associations also see women’s inclusion in society as key to preventing marginalization that could lead to extremism. By lobbying for gender equality and representation, cultivating civic engagement, and providing women with better economic opportunities, women’s organizations thereby reduce the risk of radicalization. For example, associations such as Aswat Nissa, Tounissiet, and the League of Tunisian Women Voters (Ligue des Électrices Tunisiennes, LET) host workshops and training for women leaders at the local level, encourage their participation in public life, and provide tools to combat threats of violence against women seeking to run for office. And since 2014, women’s associations led a joint campaign to end violence against women, leading in August 2017 to the passage of one of the strongest laws criminalizing violence against women in the Arab world. This law protects women from all types of violence—political, physical, emotional, and economic—helping women feel safer and trust local authorities more. Organizations such as Beity further provide shelters to victims of violence and work closely with state and local authorities to combat violence against women through training and awareness campaigns.
While donors and Tunisian civil society organizations are investing considerable time and money to promote social peace, many feminist and women’s organizations still lack the resources to reduce disparities and social unrest in impoverished rural areas—particularly in the governorates from which most jihadis come, such as Medenine, Kasserine, Kairouan, and Sidi Bouzid. Feminist and women’s associations such as the Tunisian-Mediterranean Center (TU-MED) and Femmes et Leadership work with rural women to secure employment and micro loans to start their own businesses but lack funding from the state to do more. Furthermore, because of women’s lack of equal rights in inheritance, male relatives often maintain control of land and property, making it more difficult for women to become financially independent and own businesses.
However, the biggest obstacles are the divides within the women’s movement, which reduce the effectiveness of their respective projects to combat radicalization. As with Tunisian society and politics, there is a sharp divide between Islamist women’s associations and secular feminist ones. Islamist women’s associations proliferated in early 2011 when the ban on religious activism put in place by presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali was lifted and especially after the election of the Ennahda Party in October 2011. They use a religious framework to promote women’s rights and appeal to a conservative and religious base in poor regions through their charitable and allegedly apolitical work. Secular feminist associations, by contrast, focus more on lobbying the state and the international community for increased women’s political rights based on the Declaration for Universal Human Rights. These two types of organizations vehemently disagree on such issues as women’s inheritance rights. Secular feminists believe women should have equal inheritance because Tunisia is a civil state with civil laws, while Islamists believe inheritance law should continue to be based on Sharia.
Moreover, the divisions within the feminist and women’s movement make it difficult for associations to cooperate and coordinate efforts, thus potentially duplicating their activities or even working at cross-purposes. Secular feminist organizations consider the emergence of Islamist women’s associations an attempt to Islamize Tunisian society, which they view as a threat to the democratic and civic values of the state. Islamist women’s associations see secular feminists as an imposition of Western values.
Although the secular wing is nominally united under such umbrella organizations as the Coalition for Tunisian Women, divisions exist even among feminist secular groups. Many of these organizations mobilize around the same key issues of gender-based violence, women’s political participation, and inheritance reform. However, they compete over resources from both the state and international donors. Their competition extends to recognition among Tunisian women and institutional allies. For instance, if women do not show up to an organization’s training sessions and rallies, it risks losing funding and credibility. Although both are keen to invest heavily in efforts to prevent extremism, these groups must fight over resources and try to stand out.
The role of women and feminist associations in tackling the roots of radicalization through combatting violence against women, improving access to education, providing opportunities for entrepreneurship, and encouraging participation in the political process through civil society or politics is crucial to solving Tunisia’s security problems in the long run. However, without a comprehensive strategy and a united front, feminist and women’s associations risk duplicating efforts. Their inefficient allocation of resources affects their ability to improve the lives of marginalized women and girls susceptible to radicalization. While a movement that includes both Islamist and secularist organizations—with the potential to reach women from a broader range of ages, regions, educational backgrounds, and religious beliefs—remains elusive, more funding and facilitating by the state could be key to helping all women’s associations tackle such underlying issues such as unemployment and exclusion from local decisionmaking.
Maro Youssef is a Fulbright-Hays fellow and a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Hamza Mighri is a J. William Fulbright scholar at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
* This article is based on interviews with representatives from women’s organizations such as Aswat Nissa, LET, TU-MED, Femmes et Leadership, and Tounissiet conducted between March 2018 and March 2019.
1. Interview with Professor Abdellatif Hannachi, Tunis, December 2018.