Tunisa Post #11: Politics of The Veil

In Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott thoroughly examines the tensions between Muslims living in France and the French Republicans who run the governmental system. A large dispute arose when French high school students were banned from wearing headscarves at their schools. Many saw the ban as clear racial discrimination while others argued that a clear separation of church and state was needed and that religion has no place in the school system.


As Wallach describes on page 172, many French women (specifically feminists who had long been fighting for gender equality) sought to ban the headscarf. To them, the veil was a sign of sexism and oppression. As Wallach explains,


            “Entirely forgotten in the glorification of the freedom of French sexual relations was the critique of theses same feminists, who for years have decried the limits of their own patriarchal system, with its objectification of women and overemphasis on their sexual attractiveness. It is the power of their unconscious identification with the republican project – their own acceptance of the psychology of denial – that led many of them to unequivocally condemn the headscarf/veil as a violation of women’s rights and to talk as if the status of women in France were not a problem at all. Banning the headscarf became an act of patriotism.”


By classifying the practices of another culture as “more sexist” than their own, French women justified the gender inequality that they faced in their daily lives. However, for Muslim women, the veil is a way to acknowledge sexuality and embrace it. They do not view headscarves as oppression. The different ways that the cultures view sexuality creates a rift that is hard to climb over, specifically for this issue.


The disagreement about laws and fairness and discrimination is indeed a problem, but the way we discuss it might actually be worse. Often, we throw around words without a second thought, but words hold tremendous power. When we talk about bringing Muslim women up to the standard of their western sisters, we create A LOT of problems. This creates a hierarchy, saying that western women are inherently better than Muslim women. It also creates a divide between Muslim and French. “Bringing one up” to the standards of the other implies that a woman cannot be Muslim and French or Muslim and western. Statements like this only serve to create divides and to deepen conflicts. They also neglect to take into account the viewpoints of other cultures. In this case, refusing to acknowledge that the veil is a sign of equality, empowerment and Feminism to Muslim women. It is not a problem that the French do not feel compelled to wear a headscarf,; the problem comes with the disparity between cultural beliefs and the lack of understanding that ensues.


Although the banning of the headscarf in French high schools is simply one argument in one country, the general premise of the situation can be found around the world, and the way France chooses to deal with this issue will no doubt influence many other nations. Immigrants exist worldwide; and discrimination is common. There will always be people living in the same communities who hold different beliefs. Ethical dilemmas will always exist. What matters is how we choose to deal with them. The chances of traditions of another culture fitting into the beliefs and context of your own culture are slim. To live harmoniously, we must open our eyes not only to other practices and beliefs, but also to the systems that underlie them. We do not have to agree, but we must learn to be tolerant if we are to work for a world without social injustice.



Tunisia Post # 6 Make-up (In place of Post 10)

In the words of Kofi Annan, “In a world where globalization has limited the ability of states to control their economies, regulate their financial policies, and isolate themselves from environmental damage and human migration, the last right of states cannot and must not be the right to enslave, persecute, or torture their own citizens.”


As I have discussed in several previous blogs, the largest human rights issues in Tunisia right now revolve around freedom of speech. Women fight for equal footing with men, and men fight to have their voices heard in a newly established democracy. In January 2011, Tunisia became the first MENA country to switch from an autocratic regime through a peaceful popular uprising. The United Nations office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNHCR) agreed to help accompany national efforts towards establishing democracy. A Tunisian office for this UN involvement was established in April 2011. The full mandate to protect and promote human rights focuses on strengthening accountability and the rule of law, combatting inequalities and poverty, increasing engagement with international human rights mechanisms, and monitoring the country’s compliance with its international human rights obligations. The Tunisian office will also provide technical assistance to the Tunisian National Human Rights Institution and will monitor and investigate human rights violations. It will strengthen national protection systems and support the development and monitoring of public policies for the protection of vulnerable groups including women, youth and migrants.


As Americans, it seems that the problems in Tunisia and violations of human rights there might not concern us. I choose to argue. Annan asserts that “sovereignty implies responsibility, not just power.” As citizens of a free nation, I believe we hold the responsibility to protect the freedom of others, no matter how different they are from us. Not only is it morally correct, but it also could serve to keep peace in the world and thus benefit Americans as well; this was the general thought implicit in the founding of the United Nations in the first place.


However, this school of thought is not always easy to come by. Farish Noor examines the follies of eurocentrism and essentialism:


“Despite the fact that the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and hypocrisy, the Western world continues to think of itself as the centre of not only the world but perhaps even the universe, much like the cultural imperialism of the past… Ethnocentrism (eurocentrism) is the tendency of individuals and cultures to view themselves as well as the environment around them from the perspective of their own culture, values and beliefs.”


This view quickly leads Westerners to favor their own culture above others while perceiving any differences from the norm they create as inferior.

However, Noor offers advice on addressing the problem:

“Concern for liberty and human dignity is common to all cultures and civilizations. Evidence from history and sociology shows that even the most ‘primitive’ societies have a deep-rooted understanding of issues related to power, rights and equity.

If the effort to secure, promote and defend the rights and freedoms of all peoples is to have a serious beginning, then we must accept that the world we are trying to save is a multicultural, multi-religious, and multiracial one. We will need to attempt to understand and appreciate the way different societies and cultures have developed their respective understandings of human dignity and values and to try to identify the specific local traditions and thought systems that should be elaborated to ensure that the goals are achieved.”


I know that human rights in Tunisia are not in the forefront of the minds of most American citizens. If global injustices are not being plastered on the television or across the front page of a national newspaper, chances are that people don’t consider injustices in this way; there is not much direct American aid for the struggles of the Tunisian people as they strive for democracy. Several international charities that involve America, such as Oxfam International, work in Tunisia to elevate freedom of speech and to train and support women in leadership. If Americans continue to support organizations such as these, and simply to consider global inequities and the sovereign individual’s duty to help, I am confident the world will eventually move toward freedom and the abolishment of human rights violations.

Post #9 – Women’s Issues in Tunisia

Today, even in America, women still fight for equality. For example, in 2013, female full-time workers earned only 78 cents to every dollar earned by men: a 22% gender wage gap. Yet this is not just an issue within the U.S. Worldwide, women’s equality (or rather inequality) issues are prevalent and should be a pressing concern to all global citizens.

Although Tunisia is known as perhaps the most liberal Arab nation when it comes to progressive gender legislation, the country still has progress to make. Starting in 1957, with leaders Bourguiba and Ben Ali, reforms outlawed polygamy, specified women’s rights to abortion, divorce, and establishment of business, and allowed women to open bank accounts without spousal consent. Wearing headscarves in public was even banned in the hopes of curbing extremism (and thus terrorism) associated with Islam. As Tunisia works to elevate itself, it has embraced many of the traits of Western cultures, attempting to equalize gender disparities. However, as of 2009, only 38% of Tunisian women were employed, whereas 51% of Tunisian men held jobs.

After Arab Spring and the Tunisian revolution, the Ennahda Party took over: “a moderate brand of Islam” that supports women’s freedoms and has many female members. Yet women are by no means equals in society. They continue to fight sexual harassment and domestic violence and an article to the Tunisian constitution proposed in 2012 defined the role of women as “complementary” instead of “equal” to the role of a man.

Still, Tunisia is making strides. The constitutional charter adopted in 2014 now reads, “All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties. They are equal before the law without discrimination.”

As of 2014, the World Economic Forum ranks Tunisia 123 out of 142 countries in their Gender Gap Ranking Index. Although they have an even male/female population ration, the statistics are shocking. In 2014, the estimated earned income for females is $4,690 and $17,003 for men. There were 15 women in the field of legislators, senior officials and managers for every 85 men. 28 women held positions in parliament to 72 men, 4 women held ministerial positions to 96 men, and there has never been a female head of state.

As previously mentioned, the workplace is not the only context in which women experience inequality. A 2012 survey reported that 1 in 5 Tunisian women are victims of domestic violence. It cited physical violence as the most frequent type of violence and said that the private sphere was the place in which women were most likely to be exposed to violence. It is not surprising that discrimination is not necessarily public, but nevertheless present, in a society that is attempting to reform.

Especially since the revolution, labor and sex trafficking are issues in Tunisia. According to a 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the U.S. Department of State, women, primarily between the ages of 15 and 18, have been forced into prostitution under false promises of work. A 2013 NSNBC International article explores the trafficking of young Tunisian girls through Turkey for “Sex Jihad” in Syria – forced prostitution to terrorists. In addition to the psychological trauma, many who return bring back sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

Sarah Mendelson’s 2014 publication Born Free addresses the issue of human trafficking and calls for global attention to one of the largest, but least-discussed problems in today’s world. Mendelson urges readers to support organizations like Walk Free, a global movement to end slavery that focuses on making it a priority for governments and businesses to invest in the solutions of prevention, protection and prosecution. The goal starts as simply as raising awareness of the widely overlooked problem of slavery through social media and technology and online campaigns. It can be as simple as an everyday conversation about the issue with friends and family, a conversation that, one-day, with the work of citizens all over the planet, I hope there will be no need for.

Post #8: The Crisis Caravan



In her book, The Crisis Caravan, journalist Linda Polman discusses the problems that can arise with even the best-intentioned humanitarian aid efforts. Polman first posits the philosophies of Florence Nightingale and Henri Dunant, the former leaving larger responsibility to local governments and countries to take care of their problems and opposing aid that could hurt in other areas and the latter supporting aid no matter who or what else it helps. The remainder of the exposition leaves the reader trying to find out which side of the Nightingale/Dunant line he/she stands on.

To illustrate her points, Polman takes the readers though several instances in which she has reported where ethical issues have arisen. The first, Goma, is a refugee camp set to aid survivors of the Rwandan Hutu/Tutsi genocide. Extremist Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. However, safety did not come with the establishment of a camp. At night, the camp was unsafe and foreign aid workers, including nurses, were intimidated into their makeshift homes. By the next morning, hospital beds would be filled with relatives or friends of those standing guard as the former occupant had “passed away” during the night. Murders still occurred in the streets. In many ways, the camp served as more of an aid for the militant Hutus than for the Tutsis.

Polman also examines the effectiveness of the principles of aid organizations and non-profits. As she points out, in the present-day world, aid workers are more likely to wear suits and sit in business class than to wear sandals and fly economy. Aid has become a business. There are so many aid organizations competing that the Goma camp looked more like an advertising base than an escape for refugees. Logos were everywhere. Polman also asserts that media attention is not always accurate. She explains that she has witnessed reporters steadily raising the number of reported deaths in order to get more funding than the previous reporter. The facts are often disregarded in order to gain financial support and public attention. Polman goes so far as to say, “aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.” They will have the public believe that their purpose comes of selflessness, but in reality, they are simply working to boost their own egos and raise more money than the next aid organization.

In the same vein, Polman details her experiences in the Sierra Leonean amputee camp: the result of extremists not necessarily slaughtering people, but simply cutting off limbs instead. Although many in the camp possessed prosthetics, aid workers seemed convinced that this was not the case. Individual do-gooders flew in from America, seeking children to take back with them, provide with artificial limbs and, eventually, adopt. Those who came were so bent on doing good – in their own eyes – that they neglected to consider the families children were being taken from, or the ways in which the children had been trained to manipulate those around them in order to get what they wanted.

In Polman’s experiences, it seems that the majority of negative aid impacts are due to ignorance and/or poor preparation – inappropriate supplies (i.e. heavy coats to island nations or spoiled food), lack of local knowledge (about previous medical treatments, regional issues, etc.), or refusal to acknowledge that a donor’s aid is not necessarily the best option in every circumstance. When war lords charge an 80% tax on relief goods brought into a region so that only 20% reaches the people who actually need it and the rest simply perpetuates the war by providing supplies, should aid organizations continue delivering them?

Ultimately, the answer is dependent upon the situation. It is up to the public, as donors, to hold media, reporters, and aid organizations accountable. We must ask questions and research before simply handing out money to the most compelling story on the television. We must set a standard for journalism so that those who compromise the truth are not rewarded. Not all aid organizations are harmful, but Polman calls us to carefully consider, before joining the crisis caravan, the place of the government and the place of volunteers and businesses in implementing solutions to world problems.

Post #7: NGO Action in Tunisia: Search For Common Ground

Worldwide, violence is the leading cause of death for people ages 15-29. Every year, 1.6 million people die from it. In her lifetime, 1 in 3 women are is beaten, coerced into sex, or abused. Every 2.4 hours, someone suffers injury from a landmine. Annually, 42 million people are forcibly uprooted from their homes due to war. Research has shown that literacy is lowest in areas of violent conflict. 18 of the world’s 20 hungriest countries have had recent violent conflict. And perhaps the most shocking: the total cost of containing violence adds up to 11% of global GDP (US $9.5 trillion).


The non-profit organization Search For Common Ground (SFCG) is dedicated to ending violent conflict through conflict transformation. They look to change everyday interactions between groups of people in conflict so they can work together to build up their community, choosing joint problem-solving over violence. SFCG aims not only to halt violence, but also to prevent it by diffusing mounting tension and hostility around the world, building sustainable peace through dialogue, media and community. They hope to transform the way the world deals with conflict, encouraging movement away from adversarial approaches and towards cooperative solutions. Ultimately, SFCG envisions a world where differences stimulate social progress rather than precipitate violence, and where respect for and cooperation with those we disagree with is considered the norm for individuals, communities, organizations and nations.




The image above embodies SFCG’s strategy to combat conflict: not by changing the views of citizens, but by promoting positive actions associated with the views of everyone.


Worldwide, SFCG has 53 offices, 1,477 local partners and 1.4 million participants every year. What is more, 83% of their team is local to the countries they work in. The organization aims to tackle conflict sensitivity; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration; fair and responsible media; gender equality; governance, democracy and elections; interfaith cooperation; natural resource conflicts; reconciliation; refugee and internal displacement issues; security sector reform; sexual and gender-based violence; and violent extremism. To target these issues, they work with artists, children and youth, media professionals, military and police, political leaders, prisoners, religious leaders, and women.


Shanil Idriss currently stands as president and CEO for SFCG, and works closely with the rest of the executive and global leadership teams. The organization’s main headquarters are located in Brussels and in Washington, DC. Funding is provided by the support of foundations, non-profits, corporations, government agencies, and multilateral institutions. These include everything form the Rockefeller Family and the Church of Norway to the World Bank and United Nations organizations. Private donations are also welcome, and citizens can start campaigns in the workplace to raise money for the cause through United Way, the Combined Federal Campaign, and the California State Employees Charitable Campaign.


In Tunisia, the SFCG team supports efforts to address the country’s conflicts constructively. They work to aid the growth of Tunisia’s young democracy through leadership development programs for youth and through the training of media organizations. These initiatives were formed after the 2011 revolution that inspired the Arab Spring and overthrew the Tunisian government, yielding the country’s first free elections. Naturally, there are debates and conflicts about the future, specifically centered on protecting representation and rights for women. According to SFCG, Tunisia currently ranks #79 out of 162 countries in the world for peace, #90 out of 187 for gender equality and #90 out of 167 for democracy.


It is always difficult to quantatively judge a non-profit’s success, but if program implementation is any indicator, SFCG has been doing quite well in Tunisia. Many small programs exist to further their cause. Recent projects include a youth-led platform for citizen journalism,  the partnership of a youth council with the local government in Bizerte, and a women’s dialogue project, which aims to reduce polarization and divisions among key women’s rights organizations.

Tunisia Post #5: Sustainability and Human Rights

Throughout the world, increasing human population is leading to deforestation, erosion and general loss of the natural world. Daniel Quinn considers this idea in terms of physics in Moral Ground. Quinn asserts that biomass obeys the same laws that other types of mass do: it cannot be created or destroyed; it simply changes form. As the mass of the human population increases, natural habitats are not disappearing entirely; they are simply being converted into human mass. This can be seen in communities throughout the world; the need for natural resources increases with increasing urbanization.


Currently in Tunisia, it is water that is in short supply. According to the World Bank, in 2013, the greater Tunis area, which is home to 2.5 million people, saw its first cut in water services. Between 2012 and 2013, 12 percent more water was consumed, mainly due to an increase in the area’s population and thus an increase in industry and agriculture. Several programs have been launched in Tunisia to combat this. The Tunisian government launched the National Water Security Investment Program to ensure undisrupted water services over the next decade. The focus is on creating sound water management policies and improving the infrastructure of those already in place. The Urban Water Supply Project specifically targets the greater Tunis area, aiming to augment, upgrade and renew the water supply infrastructure. The Second Water Sector Investment Project promotes efficient management and operation of selected public irrigation and improves drinking water access in rural communities. Finally, the Northern Tunis Wastewater Project has been working to create an environmentally safe disposal system for treated wastewater not intended for reuse. They hope to increase the quantity and quality of treated wastewater that is available to farmers and encourage them to reuse it in agriculture.


Water pollution has become a major problem in the Gulf of Gabes, an area in southern Tunisia with 150,000 residents in Southern Tunisia. Since the erection of a new factory, surrounding waters contain high levels of phosphogypsum, a toxic, slightly radioactive byproduct of the phosphate refining process. Phosphate rock is processed for use in agricultural fertilizers and food preservatives, and its mining has been called a “pillar of the national economy”. However, this pillar has led to many dead turtles and has completely eradicated the fishing industry in this area. In addition to the loss of jobs, many villagers are afraid of adverse health effects of toxins and radioactivity.


According to Yassine Bousellami, Director of the Administration to Dispose Industrial Waste, “After the revolution of 14 January, dumpsters, trash collectors and recycling centers have been facing difficulties as a result of the strikes and demonstrations and movements of the workers engaged in waste management.”


Tunisia is facing much the same issue that Sheila Watt-Cloutier mentions in Moral Groud: the cultural destruction that can accompany environmental degradation. Tunisia Live explains,


The protection of the local environment and cultural heritage sites of the northern suburbs of Tunis was discussed by the Association of Development and Protection of the Environment of La Marsa (ADPE), who held a conference Thursday, August 26th to address this issue. Yadh Zahar, member of the ADPE, presented a scathing report on environment degradation and the violation of the heritage of La Marsa and its environs.


Can environmental issues challenge human rights? I think these examples prove they can. In Tunisia, specifically, strikes for better working conditions leave no money for environmental issues. Acid rain due to toxins that land in the ground water causes asthma, skin disorders, cancer and birth defects.


Still, all hope is not lost. Women for Sustainable Development aims to influence rural women to implement its advocacy and income generating projects in the fields of sustainable rural development, and to influence urban women to implement its pollution prevention and control program. This program was started in 1995 and, among other things, advocates for increased bicycle use to cut emissions.


Tunisia Post 4: Sustainable Development

An article in TIME Magazine states, “Having successfully challenged an autocratic regime, Tunisia is now ready to face up to a different kind of challenge: that of climate change.”After recent updates, Tunisia is one of three countries in the world that has recognized climate change in its constitution (the other two being Ecuador and the Dominican Republic). The constitution entitles citizens to, “a sound climate, and the right to a sound and balanced environment”, calling on the country to “provide the necessary means to eliminate environmental pollution.” The preamble includes “the necessity of contributing to a secure climate and the protection of the environment.”

In the book Moral Ground, a collection of writings calling for “ethical action for a planet in peril”, James Gustave Speth writes:

We live and work in a system of political economy – today’s capitalism – that cares profoundly about profits and growth, but it cares about society and the natural world only to the extent that it is required to do so. It is up to us – we, the people – to inject values such as sustainability and justice into this system, and government is the primary vehicle we have for this task. But we mainly fail at it because our policies are too enfeebled and the resistance of vested interests too strong. Our best hope for real change is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and political democracy into one powerful progressive force.

Currently, Tunisians (and most other North Africans) face water shortages, rising temperatures, and expansion of the Sahara desert. This is a particularly large problem for the poorer nations. According to a UN Report on India, poor and rural people are more dependent on the environment for income: “Biodiversity based livelihood options form the basis of rural survival. Living at the periphery of subsistence, the poor are the most at risk from biodiversity loss.”

With Tunisia’s recent political turmoil and current economic disparities, it is a country that is still working toward more development. Johan Rockstrom speaks about sustainable development, specifically in regards to agriculture, in his TED talk. 

It is important to note that every time Rockstrom states the magnitude of the challenge before us, he also speaks of excitement and opportunity. As Manfred Steger writes in Globalization, “Transboundary pollution, global warming, climate change, and species extinction are challenges that cannot be contained within national or even regional borders. They do not have isolated causes and effects. They are global problems, caused by aggregate collective human actions, and thus require a coordinated global response.” Our opportunity is in this response: as global citizens and community members through our daily lives and as nations.

In the TIME article, Linda Siegele, an environmental lawyer who is part of the advocacy group Wild Law U.K. (which aims to ground the rights of nature in law), commented about Tunisia’s constitutional change, “The devil is in the implementation and interpretation… Climate change will also be low down the list of immediate priorities for the Tunisian government, with unsolved issues such as unemployment, rising prices and the need to reassure foreign investors and allies competing for their attention. How its commitment to climate protection plays out will not likely be seen in the short-term, but the fact that the government chose to enshrine environmental protection in the constitution at all can only be in principle a really good thing.”

In more ways than one, the effects of pollution and climate change do not stop at political borders. Lester R. Brown writes about environmental refugees in World on the Edge, “A 2006 U.N. conference on desertification in Tunisia projected that by 2020 up to 60 million people could migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and Europe.” Even if we didn’t all share the same air and water, environmental issues would still have a worldwide impact. With what can we combat this other than a worldwide solution? Whether through the implementation of government policy or the choices of individual citizens, our civilization has an opportunity as we choose how to respond to climate change.