Islam and women in Tunisia, past and present – (first part: al-Haddad) – SLUM

Now that Tunisia demonstrates once again its ability to take giant steps, we tell its story through the eyes of the teacher Iman Hajji in a cycle of three very interesting articles.

Thank you Iman!

Tunisia is, in fact, viewed as being ahead of most Arab countries on women’s rights. The status of women in Tunisia is considered a national symbol as Tunisians are very proud of it. I will try to illustrate the evolution of women’s status in Tunisia (starting) from the early 20th century until today.

The crucial figure behind the country’s progressive legal status of women is al-Tahir al-Haddad who is considered Tunisia’s first feminist. In 1899 al-Tahir al-Haddad Tahar_Haddad_zpsc75779ebwas born in Tunis to a poor family from a village in Southern Tunisia. The young al-Haddad attended different traditional Quran-schools in Tunis, then studied in the prestigious al-Zaytuna University, the foremost center of Islamic studies in Tunisia where he received his degree, in 1920. This degree enabled him to work as a notary, but al-Haddad preferred to practice the notarial work on a freelance base and registered for studies in law. He interrupted his studies after only one year and dedicated himself to social and political work.
His main interests were social injustice and education, especially the reform of the educational system. To that effect, he wrote a treatise about the educational system pointing out in which way it could be reformed. This treatise was published post mortem in 1981.

In 1927, he published a work about the emergence of the first Tunisian labor union (CGTT, Confédération générale des travailleurs tunisiens), which he co-founded with his friend Muhammad Ali al-Hammi in 1925. This work remains to be the standard work about the organization and offers important details about its formation and development. But what is considered to be his main-work, is a book he published in 1930 under the title “The Tunisian women in law and society” (Literally the title has to be translated “our woman…”, but as al-Haddad deals exclusively with Tunisian society and its particularities translating it by “the Tunisian woman” seems appropriate.)

For al-Haddad “a society in which women are not liberated, is not truly free”. According to him, the discrimination of women represents a great malaise which blocks social progress and therefore needs to be resolved. Al-Haddad published his book in a time where a great misogyny ruledtrattato in Tunisia and where women still had not the right to vote in France and were banned from Harvard. What is likely to al-Haddad’s approach is the fact that he argues according to his Islamic understanding. He does not argue from his own point of view, but from what he judges to be the Islamic teaching. In that way, and without rejecting the Tunisian culture as a whole, he argued against the veiling of women. When he talked about the veil, he refered to a veil which covers the entire woman’s body including her face and her hands, like it was common in Tunisia in al-Haddad’s life-time. “Each time, when I reflect on (the issue of) the veil, I recognize therein our selfishness, which hides behind religious feelings.”

He claimed the equal right of succession for women and the establishment of divorce-tribunals in order to prohibit the repudiation of women and to enable women to demand to divorce their husbands. He also spoke against forced marriage and polygamy which he considered indirectly banned by Quran and pays particular attention to the necessity of educating women in order to enable them to participate in society.

If other national liberation activists embraced Western ideas of civil rights, al-Haddad leant on Islamic scholarship, showing that basic civil rights are not in contrast to Islamic teachings, but they are, on the contrary, even required.

As to inheritance for example, al-Haddad argues, that in pre-Islamic Arabia, women had no right to succession at all – they could rather been downed to their brother-in-law and the husband’s family could wed the widow ad libitum as well. Islam not only prohibited these practices, but even attributed women the right to succession – even if this did not bring immediate equality in inheritance. However, al-Haddad points out that this circumstance was then justified. Why was it? In the early history of Islam, men played the role of main breadwinners. They were responsible for the subsistence and the security of the family. They were also supposed to defend the interests of his tribe which meant that they had to expose themselves to danger and difficulty. Therefore, men’s privilege in inheritance was justified. But he also argues that the holy text simply points out the weakness and the backwardness of women in this very special historical context. This situation which was the cause of women’s dependence on men, is however not constant. So, according to al-Haddad, social development of women would justify the modification of inheritance law.

Al-Haddad claims that Islam leans on a progressive jurisprudence that tends to adapt its principles to the specific conditions of time and space. He exemplifies his argument with the example of slavery and points out that even if the Quran admits the existence of slaves, who remain slaves even if they converted to Islam, the emancipation of slaves is directly approved:

XXIV, 33 : “and such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), write it for them if ye are aware of ought of good in them”
sura 24 aya 33.png

According to this, slavery has indeed been abolished (Tunisia has been the first Arab country to abolish slavery in 1846) even if it is permitted by Quran, as the Quran could not prohibit this very common practice and therefore simply approves the emancipation of slaves. It seems important to al-Haddad that not only Islamic law is progressive, but Islam is to be considered per se as a progressive religion because principles are built up progressively and because Islam is able to be adapted to social changes.

The reactions to al-HaddÁd’s work were very aggressive. The author was officially branded as a heretic by al-ZaytÙna scholars who also deprived him of his degree. The decision of the Department of Justice to cancel his notary mission had serious consequences for his existence as he couldn’t execute his profession anymore. Numerous articles were published against him, not only in Tunisia, but also in Algeria and Egypt. He was physically attacked in the streets and cursed from the mosque domes. Several polemic works were also published as response to al-Haddad. The most popular answer is the work of Zaytuna-scholar Muhammad Salih ibn Mrad, “Grief about al-Haddad’s wife”. The title makes it easy to image the tone of this work in which al-Haddad is declared a “damned devil” and a madman. But he was also accused of intending the destruction of Islamic fundaments and to organize propaganda for Christianity.

Al-HaddÁd learned in a hard way that his nation and the people to which he belonged, still weren’t disposed to his visions and declared affectedly: “Thinking represents the beginning of life, but we confront it with heresy as a weapon, in order to goad the public against it (sc. the thinking). So from where could we begin this life, which we demand for the people?”

Suffering a great depression, al-Haddad chose complete isolation. Taken by a heart disease he died lonesome at the age of 36 on the 7th of December 1935.



In 2009, Iman Hajji graduated from the University of Cologne with an excellent Master’s degree in Islamic Studies, Ethnology and Public Law. She held various research assistantships and lectureships at the Oriental Institute of the University of Cologne and at the University of Lyon. In 2009, she published her book “Ein Mann spricht für die Frauen. At-Tāhir al-Haddād und seine Schrift “Die tunesische Frau in Gesetz und Gesellschaft” (Klaus Schwarz Verlag/Berlin), which dealt with the life and work of the Tunisian reformist thinker al-Haddād and his feminist interpretation of Islam. In 2015, Hajji became civil servant and currently she works as a German teacher at a Collège in Meyzieu (Lyon).

Recently, Hajji wrote and submitted her doctoral thesis at the University of Lyon 2 in Arabic linguistics, literature and civilization on “First World War, Pan-Islamism and Tunisian Nationalism. Tunisian figures in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century”. The disputation is to be held in December 2018.


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