Two Tunisian Women, Emancipated But Divided Over Religion

A female Islamist member of Parliament and an alternative-minded blogger have very different ideas about the role of religion in post-Revolution Tunisia.

International Women's Day in 2014 in Tunis
International Women's Day in 2014 in Tunis
Francesca Sforza

TUNIS â€" Tunisia is a nation of young women. They write books, tell stories, teach in universities, write on blogs, organize activist networks, protest on the streets, and work both in and out of the home. In the winter of 2014, during discussions over the approval of the new constitution, women formed an army of volunteers that took to the streets to fight for the inclusion of gender equality. The goal was to break from the more ambiguous “complementarity” formulation between men and women in the previous constitution, and oppose the introduction of Sharia law, polygamy, and unequal rights to family inheritance. But there were others â€" and other women â€" who did and do not agree on all elements of this agenda.

“I come to parliament every day because there’s still a lot left to do,” says Imen Ben Mohamed, 31, a former member of the Constituent Assembly and current member of parliament for the Islamist Ennahda party, where she holds a seat in the Rights, Freedom and Foreign Affairs Commission. She wears a blue silk hijab and a hamsa, an amulet necklace, around her neck with a touch of kajal eyeliner around her eyes.

"We’ve made great strides in freedom of expression and civil rights," she says. "Now is the time to focus on social justice and the economy, otherwise we won’t be able to stop our youth from running into the arms of the Islamic State’s caliphate.”

In the last two years, more than 6,000 young Tunisians are believed to have left the country to fight for ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and another 15,000 have been put under surveillance to prevent them from attempting to leave. "They’re usually 24 or 25 years old, their problem is that they lived too long under the dictatorship (of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), and are full of anger, hatred, and ignorance," says Imen. "They wind up turning to jihad out of desperation."

For Imen, Islam is not the problem, and she rejects accusations often leveled at her party for defending radical Salafist preachers. "Ennahda is an Islamic party that fought for the listing of Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organization and for putting the phrase "freedom of conscience" front and center in the Tunisian constitution, ahead of "freedom of religion," she says. Imen stresses the role of religious leaders in shaping modern Tunisia, explaining it wasn’t only the country’s founder, Habib Bourguiba, who laid the foundations for the country’s democracy.

"My dream is to become Tunisia’s first female president," she says with a chuckle.

Police protection

Lina Ben Mhenni shakes her head at Imen’s ideas and ambitions. She’s seated at a table in the Café de Theatre in the bustling Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis, wearing several rings on her fingers, black polish on her long nails, and nose and eyebrow piercings. "It’s not true," she says. "Ennahda is an Islamic party and is working towards a progressive and creeping Islamization of the country."

Lina was a university lecturer before her contract expired, and is now one of Tunisia’s best-known bloggers, with over 244,000 Twitter followers and almost 95,000 on Facebook. She was put under constant protection by a police unit after receiving death threats from terrorist groups.

"The government fills universities with useless debates on wearing the hijab and on gender equality, but this is just their attempt to distract popular attention from Tunisia’s real problems," she says. "There were people protesting for the right to work and justice and they were beaten by the police, this political class has betrayed Tunisians and hasn’t abandoned the old ways of Ben Ali’s regime."

Lina now campaigns to provide books to prison inmates, an effort partly inspired by her father’s imprisonment during the rule of Ben Ali. "I visited several prisons and all the prisoners can do is read, but do you know what kind of books they have in libraries? Fundamentalist religious texts that incite hatred," she says.

Lina Ben Mhenni in Tunis â€" Photo: Wikipedia

Lina launched a book collection page on Facebook and received donations from across Europe, bringing in around 10,000 books including novels, essays, and anthologies. "Often a young man ends up in jail for smoking cannabis, then after his release he returns for terrorism charges," she says. "The temptation of jihad grows in Tunisia’s jails and that’s where we must fight it, but even (governing secularist party) Nidaa Tounes pretends not to notice."


Fadhel Moussa, a male lawyer and former member of the Constituent Assembly, says that Tunisian women are cultured, emancipated, and self-aware, and hold the potential for far more than just their own personal self-realization. "They are a pillar and guarantee of social order," he says. "If they can’t protect our youth from the caliphate then who else can?"

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!