- Cartooning and the Democratic Transition in TunisiaLilia Halloul
The Arab Spring in Tunisia brought with it new rights for women, such as allowing them to wear the hijab for a photo ID, establishing gender parity in political elections, and lifting Tunisia’s reservations on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was signed by the government in August 2011. This has produced a proliferation of groups and viewpoints that are often in conflict with one another and sometimes attack women and women’s rights promoted under previous postcolonial authoritarian regimes. The free and democratic elections of October 2011 led to a coalition of Ennahdha, the Islam-oriented majority party, and two secular parties. This opened the way for preachers from the Mashreq and Arab Gulf countries to present their support for practices that had not previously been part of public discussion in Tunisia, such as niqab, female circumcision, early marriage for girls, ʿurfi (customary unregistered) marriages, and polygamy, topics that are now frequently discussed on radio and television. In the summer of 2012 the term complementarity rather than equality between the sexes was proposed for the new constitution, mobilizing women, civil society, opposition parties, and the labor union movement al-Ittihad al-Amm al-Tunisi lil-Shughl (General Union of Tunisian Workers) to protest. Violence against women appeared to be increasing, with rapes (sometimes in the presence of their children), murders, and attacks against prostitutes making the headlines, and, in the case of two on-duty policemen who had raped a woman named Meriem, the judicial system attempted to apply the argument of “extenuating circumstances” (in the end this attempt did not succeed). [End Page 354]
Alongside these developments there has been an extraordinary effervescence of cultural production and political expression. Many of us recall the difficulties encountered in the past by Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, and other cartoonists who depicted presidents. Since the revolutions men and women cartoonists throughout the region have been able to portray presidents and other important political figures in a critical way. As cultural and legal restrictions on expression lifted, a new generation of women introduced dynamism into a variety of creative expression domains, including documentary and short fiction films, photography, rap, and cartoons. While younger male cartoonists increasingly show sympathy for women in their representations, most men cartoonists tend to focus on men and politics. In contrast, women cartoonists persistently address sociopolitical issues, including gender. Influential Tunisian women cartoonists include Noha Habeieb, Nadia Khiari, and Lilia Halloul. The latter was the first woman to earn wide recognition in cartooning after the revolution for addressing mainstream politics and criticizing the marginalization of women.
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This piece highlights four cartoons by Halloul that were published between October 2014 and April 2015 and illustrate the political debates in the country and their gendered dynamics. Halloul is a highly educated middle-class unmarried woman in her forties. With many other women, she was a candidate in the 2014 parliamentary elections, an opportunity created by the 2011 parity law that required political parties to alternate men and women on their election lists. Halloul also leads workshops across Tunisia to raise the critical consciousness of young artists who aspire to become cartoonists but struggle against isolation in a field dominated by men.
The first cartoon shows Kalthoum Kennou, the first Tunisian woman to participate in the election for president and the only woman among the twenty-seven candidates ratified by the High Independent Commission for the Elections (fig. 1).1 [End Page 355] The image depicts a smiling Kennou standing straight and confident, waving a Tunisian flag in one hand, the other hand making a victory sign. Yet her thought bubbles indicate anxiety, excitement, and recognition that her path will be difficult. Kennou privately wonders about her prospects, “Will I be the first woman president of Tunisia!!!” Around her echo the voices—some questioning, others supportive—of citizens and dominant political figures: “She can’t,” “Why not?,” “Impossible,” “Competence,” “Possible,” “How!” A judge who served several terms on the board of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates and was its...