Tunisians went to the polls on Sunday, October 23, 2011. Remember the date, because it’s historic. It’s the first free elections of the Arab Spring, which is, in large part, an African Spring. Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Maybe Algeria next, maybe Morocco. Who knows? Maybe Zimbabwe. If the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe can declare that gay rights should be included in the new Constitution, anything can happen. Anything can happen, that is, when people organize and push.
When Hosni Mubarak left office, in February, the Western press described the event as Mubarak stepping down. Mubarak didn’t step down. He was pushed … by Egyptian women in league with many others. When Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his crew fled the country, again, it was women who pushed and have kept on pushing.
The Jasmine Revolution, from its inception, was more than “just” the eviction of a dictator. It was an assault on patriarchy, one that emerged from and as part of a decades long process of women and youth organizing. Women like Munira Thibia, a young homeless activist who mobilized and organized. Women like Saida Garrachi of the Association of Democratic Women, women who have made a democracy by acting democratically. Women writers and bloggers like Amira Yahyaoui and Imen Braham, both candidates for office in Sunday’s elections, young women who sought more than an end to censorship, more than freedom of expression. They sought and seek freedom itself, in action. Or Lina Ben Mhenni, another young woman blogger, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, who boycotted the election rather than endorse the illusion of democracy. The struggle, and the work of re-invention, continues.
Visual artists, like Faten Chouba Skhiri, performance artists and actors, like Swanseen Maalej, filmmakers, like Nadia al Fani and Selma Baccar, committed their arts to the struggle for an end to censorship and now find themselves, as artists, engaged in creating and sustaining a new landscape, a new imagination, a new horizon of possibilities.
Women participated in all parties, and prominently so, including the party of the undecided and the party of those boycotting the election. Wherever they sat, wherever they organized, they pushed for equality and for parity, as women have done in Tunisia for decades and beyond. In households, community halls, mosques, trade union halls, schools, offices, wherever. Not only since the 1956 inception of the independent nation state but during the national liberation struggles as well. The French didn’t leave. They were pushed, by Tunisian women, who immediately organized the Union Nationale de Femmes Tunisiennes. Feministe? You betcha. And so are their great granddaughters, women like Aida Fehri, who continue to push.
Reports suggest that more than 90 percent of eligible voters turned out, stood in seemingly endless lines, waited for seemingly endless hours, and then shouted: “La Tunisie vote!” “La Tunisie a déjà gagné!” “Today, Tunisia chose for itself.”
The young won, and so did the elders. Women like Khaddouja who woke up early and ran to the polling station. Why? “It’s unbelievable! It’s freedom. Freedom! Before, the walls had ears; we couldn’t do anything. Now, today, here, we are free!”
We are free … even to mourn. Manoubia Bouazizi is the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who set himself on fire and, literally, sparked the Jasmine Revolution. She knows what the elections mean, it means her son:
Mohamed Bouaziz is the son of the whole world. That would make him your brother. That would make Manoubia Bouazizi your mother. Listen to the mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, cousins, friends, associates. Listen to the women as they offer you something new, “`Meshmoum,’ she said, and again more urgently, `Meshmoum’, offering the bunch to my nose. Jasmine!”