Ennahdawiyat: A New Turn for Islamist Feminism?

2019-02-04    |   

Ennahdawiyat: A New Turn for Islamist Feminism?

In recent years, Ennahda’s political and ideological stances have undergone serious shifts, especially in relation to women’s rights and personal freedoms. While many male and female members of the party are strongly opposed to these changes, others support these reforms and aim to take them further.


The transformation in the Islamist women’s approach to women’s rights and personal freedoms could serve as grounds for cooperation and dialogue over a human rights agenda between the pro-human rights secularists and their Islamist counterparts. This article examines the developing discourse and activism of female members of Ennahda (Ennahdawiyat) in the spirit of this potential convergence. The first part of this article will focus on the role played by Ennahdawiyat during the 2011 constituent assembly in the adoption of a women-friendly constitution in 2014. The second part will highlight the significance of the ideas and positions of a number of Ennahdawiyat, who occupy essential positions in Ennahda’s political office and have influenced them in relation to the development of Islamist women’s activism in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. Ennahdawiyat’s views are based on semi-guided interviews conducted by the author. The stances of some Ennahda male members regarding rights and freedoms are also noteworthy in this respect, but are beyond the scope of this article.


A Historical Glance

Back in the interwar period, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, as formulated by its founder Hasan Al-Banna, negatively viewed women’s access to the public sphere and their political participation. We read in one of Al-Banna’s letters his keen recommendation to “teach woman what matches her main mission and employment that God created her for, which is to be a mother and manager of the home.”[1] Al-Banna’s teachings influenced the discourse of dominant Islamist movements’[2] on women’s proper place within the domestic sphere as mothers and wives, and largely denies women’s active presence in the public sphere, including in political decision-making positions.

However, the formation of the Islamist parties in the 60s and 70s across many Muslim countries[3] led to a transformation of policies in order to mobilize and politicize women through recruiting them to serve with little to no authority in rank and file. Despite the gender discourse of these parties and their limiting of the role of women to social and religious grassroots activities, women were gradually able to play powerful roles with varying degrees of visibility and influence, especially when the state clamped down on these movements.

Scholarship has identified several ideological shifts among some Islamist political parties in recent decades, particularly in relation to their gender approach. Asef Bayat called the new phase that started in Iran in the late 80s ‘post-Islamism’, which saw Islam fused with the values of democracy and aspects of modernity. [4] Bayat considered women key actors in this transformation. In The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Mona El-Ghobashy wrote about the movement’s evolution from its initial “highly secretive, hierarchical, anti-democratic organization led by anointed elders” to one which in the early 2000s recognized women’s access to political office and nominated the Muslim Brotherhood’s first female candidate for elections, Gihan El-Khalafawi.[5] Another example is the 18 October Coalition for Rights and Freedoms in Tunisia, which was initiated by the political opposition in 2005 during Ben Ali’s ruling, and which Ennahda was part of. The movement’s pact affirmed the commitment of all the members to secularism, to the civil state, to women’s rights, to equality between men and women, and most importantly to the personal status code.[6] The pact had Ennahda’s approval. All of these transformations allowed women, who had initially entered the political sphere as voters and voter-recruiters, to be able to make their way to decision-making positions in support of these movements.

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings,[7] Tunisia’s Ennahda was the only Islamist party in the Arab world to ascend to power and rule with some success, in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ennahda has shown greater willingness to make its discourse more inclusive and less dogmatic, especially in relation to gender and women’s political participation.

After the revolution, the influence of Ennahdawiyyat went beyond the call for political participation to actually influence their party’s political behaviour towards women’s rights. The emerging discourse of some of these Ennahdawiyat seemingly intersects with what is known as Islamic feminist ideology.


Ennahdawiyat: Political Actors or Window-Dressing?[8]

The common view in scholarship on women of the Islamist parties is that they work by the consent of Islamist male leadership and from within a traditional and patriarchal frame.[9] However, painting all women engaged with the Islamist parties with the same brush is no longer valid and crediting Islamist male leadership for modernizing the party’s discourse de-emphasizes women’s own efforts and influence in pushing these transformations forward. Ennahdawiyat’s role in the constituent assembly constitutes a primary example.

Ennahda’s successful comeback after the Tunisian revolution in late-2010 was largely due to its well-organized tanzim [the collective discipline and commitment of its members], which women were an inseparable part of . They were not only wives and sisters of male Islamists, but also middle-class, educated women who used to be affiliated with The Movement of Islamic Tendency (later renamed Ennahda) back in the 70s, or were members of the General Tunisian Union of Students, which has close ties with Ennahda, back when these women were university students. When the time came to implement a gender parity quota during the constitutional assembly elections, it was easy for Ennahda to recruit qualified women from within its structure. Consequently, Ennahda had 42 out of 67 women in the 217-member constitutional assembly. Ennahdawiyat’s participation in bringing about the final versions of the constitution, which is considered the most progressive among all Arab countries, should not go without careful analysis.



Two articles in the Constitution deserve due attention. The guarantee of gender equality, without exceptions, was among its very remarkable achievements. We read in Article 21 that “all citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination. The state guarantees freedoms and individual and collective rights to all citizens and provides all citizens the conditions for a dignified life.”

It is worth noting that 77 out of the 159 total votes were Ennahda’s. Ennahdawiyat’s votes were a highlight: 31 out of the total 77. Ennahdawiyat’s votes were also 31 out of all 54 of the female members of the assembly who voted in favor of this article. None of the Ennahdawiyat voted against or abstained.


Article 46 is also of utmost importance as it stipulates that the state is the protector and enforcer of women’s rights, stating:

The state commits to protect women’s accrued rights and work to strengthen and develop those rights. The state guarantees the equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility in all domains. The state works to attain parity between women and men in elected Assemblies. The state shall take all necessary measures in order to eradicate violence against women.

On Article 46, 46 out of 116 of the votes were Ennahda’s. Over half of these (28) were Ennahdawiyat’s and out of the 49  female constituent assembly members’ votes on this article Ennahdawiyat’s votes were also the majority (for more details see graphs below). Here it should be noted that Ennahdawiyat votes were particularly critical in passing this article. Considering the majority voting system that was undertaken for each article, Ennahdawiyat’s votes constituted 25.45% of the needed 110 votes.



There was notable participation of Ennahdawiyat in adopting a women-friendly constitution in 2014. Some scholars would argue that this participation was pragmatic and a political maneuver rather than a genuine or principled commitment. For instance, Monica Marks states that “the victory of Ennahda cannot be considered as opening the doors for women but rather that it could wage an Iranian-style fight for women’s rights and finally return feminist women to their kitchens.”[10] However, examining the political work and discourse of Ennahdawiyat after the adoption of the Constitution shows an opposite story. For example, after the Tunisian parliamentary elections in 2014, the number of Ennahdawiyat decreased from 78 to 27 female deputies. However, their influence kept growing. On 26 July 2017, the Tunisian parliament passed a remarkable law protecting women and girls from all forms of violence. Ennahdawiyat’s commitment to furthering women’s rights guarantees started to translate legally through their significant participation in the drafting and adoption of this law. Parliamentary discussions on the articles of this law reveal the significance of interventions by some Ennahdawiyat. For instance, during 21 July 2017’s parliamentary deliberations, Yemina Zoghlami stated that “rape is a crime and marital rape is among these crimes.” Monia Ibrahim also stressed the importance of protecting women from political violence, arguing that “legally, parity in elections is guaranteed; however, because of political violence, reality tells us another story.”[11]


Islamic Feminism and Ennahdawiyat: An Emerging Discourse?

Currently, Ennahda is undergoing a process of ideological metamorphosis.[12] That’s why diversity in stances is still the norm for Ennahda, especially concerning personal rights and freedoms. Despite their significant contribution to the constitutional and legal guarantees of women’s rights, one may still find some Ennahdawiyat adopting a patriarchal approach to rights and freedoms. One may also find that some of them deny that their participation in adopting a women-friendly constitution implies embracing any form of western-style feminist agenda. My research suggests, however, that some Ennahdawiyat – still a minority inside the party – are adopting an Islamic feminist discourse. I interviewed seven Ennahdawiyat withinthe context of the presidential initiative. The latter was announced on National Women’s Day in Tunisia on 13 August 2013, which aims at transforming the Islamic inheritance law into a civil one guaranteeing total equality between men and women. The interviewed women were all parliamentary deputies who have gained status, legitimacy, and respect within Ennahda..

  1. Freedom of Choice Versus Ennahda’s Shura Council’s Decision

On 26 August 2018, the Shura Council of Ennahda announced its total opposition to the principle of gender equality in inheritance, stating that “the initiative for inheritance equality, in addition to contradicting aspects of religion and the statutes of the Constitution and the personal status code, also raises numerous concerns regarding the stability of the Tunisian family and pattern of society.”[13] That’s why my first question during the interviews was: “How much do you personally agree with the Shura Council’s statement?” The answers I got were no less straightforward than the question. Sanaa Mersni [14]  stated:

We need to admit that equality between all citizens, men and women, is a constitutional right which has been adopted by all parties on a conscience basis. Opposing equality will be settled by the constitutional court once in place. The Islam I believe in is based on the concepts of freedom and equality and acknowledges diversity inside society.”

She adds, “to be honest, there is no agreement among Ennahda members regarding equality in inheritance and personal freedoms. However, I believe that there are some ‘feminist’ voices on the rise inside the party.” While Jamila Ksekis[15] states, “I don’t agree with the determined language used in the Shura Council’s statement. As a member of this Council, I have raised my concerns regarding their statement, however I was not heard because the decision was made on a majority basis.” Ksekis proceeds, “we have Tunisian citizens who do not believe in Islam. Ennahda believes in freedom of choice and conscious, as a constitutional guarantee, so we cannot force everyone to follow the Islamic inheritance law.” Similarly, Souad Abderrahim[16] argues “legislative choice is an effective guarantee that expands freedoms while implementing the statutes of the Constitution… Ennahda members in the Constituent Assembly explicitly ratified freedom of conscience and belief and equality in the 2014 Constitution.”[17] In a previous interview with Yemina Zoughlami,[18] she expressed a strong belief in the superiority of the Constitution and the international conventions ratified by the Tunisian state over any other source of legislation, stating:

The political regulation which was issued by Ennahda’s tenth conference in 2015 states that the movement is a civil party that abides by the Constitution and the laws of the state. Thus, we stress that the laws need to be reviewed pursuant to the Constitution and international covenants.

Here it should be noted that the Executive Council of Ennahda, which is the institution responsible for implementing the Shura Council’s decisions in practical terms, refrained from mentioning either the Shura Council’s decision or the issue of inheritance equality in its statement issued on 6 September 2018. This shows that there was an internal disagreement among Ennahda members on the party’s stance regarding equality in inheritance.[19]

  1. Equality in Inheritance: A Call for New Ijtihadat (interpretation)

Equal inheritance has triggered a lot of debate in Tunisia. Many have gone as far as to call for new interpretations of Quranic verses and revising the traditional fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) system to insure women’s rights and equality. “To what extent do you believe that advancing women’s rights needs to be pursued by promoting a new interpretation of the Quran and fiqh?”, I asked the Ennahdawiyat I interviewed. “I disagree with the traditional fiqh system and I prefer not to abide by it. We urgently need revisions of this system, especially in matters related to women,” Ksekis answered, adding:

The Quranic verses might be determined but the interpretations of these verses are not. In our patriarchal traditions, women have been raised to not  feel like they can demand their rights or fight for them. However, today I can affirm that there is a nadha [renaissance] inside of Ennahda by women.


Mersni gave a similar answer, stating that:

the patriarchal mentality is not only in our Islamic and Arab communities, it is worldwide. It is not related to Islam or any religion but related to the patriarchal interpretation of these religions. Freedoms cannot be fragmented. Either we as a party accept what is written in the conventions and the treaties that Tunisia has ratified and the Constitution that we have adopted, or we deny our commitment to freedoms and rights.

Zoghlami[20] also highlighted the importance of reviewing all laws to be aligned with the Constitution and international human rights conventions during our interview: “I strongly believe in the need of conducting ijtihadat.”[21] A similar stance is shared by Hayat Omary[22] who stated that “ijtihadat is mandatory in guaranteeing equality and rights for women.”

Here it should be noted that although the statements made by these Ennahdawiyat show a willingness to accept full equality between women and men, they ultimately belong to a political party and need to abide by its pragmatic policies. These include catering to its popular base, which, judging by the popular discourse in Tunisia, is still largely opposed to equality in inheritance.


The Hijab and Ennahdawiyat’s Transforming Identity

“I don’t mind calling myself a feminist,” Mersni stated at the end of our interview. Our meeting was at the Tunisian parliament building in Le Bardo.[23] Entering through the corridor, it was really promising to see a huge number of female deputies affiliated with different parties. What interested me most was that not all women affiliated with Ennahda were wearing hijab.[24] For Ennahdawiyat, the importance of hijab, which used to be a vital part of the Islamist women’s identity, is also mutating. Hayat Omary, Souad Abderrahim, and Arwa Ben Abbas, are among a number of unveiled Ennahdawiyat who are playing a crucial role inside the political office of the party, not to mention the great number of grassroots Ennahda members who also don’t wear hijab. Here I will list some answers I received when I asked (veiled and unveiled) Ennahdawiyat about their perception of the hijab. Omary stated that “Muslim women are not just those who wear the veil.” Mersni, on the other hand, said that “veiled or not, what makes a woman qualified is her abilities and capabilities.” “We need to change how the Islamist parties are perceived as oppressive and anti-women’s rights, being an unveiled woman within the party could break this label,” Ksekis responded. A very interesting statement made by Meherzia Labidi [25] during my interview with her was: “As a veiled Muslim woman, my commitment to Islam and my spiritual duty drive me to ensure justice and realize rights and freedoms for all without, excluding any sex, race, or religion.”


A Minority with a Significant Impact

Margot Badran defines Islamic Feminism as an ideology which points out that classical interpretations of the Quran are based on men’s experiences, male-centred questions, and the overall influence of the patriarchal societies in which they lived. That is why Islamic feminists believe in an egalitarian Islam which is achieved through new interpretations of the Quran and the Islamic Jurisprudence system to bring about women’s rights and gender equality. Islamic feminism aims to influence new practices within families and societies through the reform of Muslim family laws. This ideology is also based on freedom of religion while prioritizing freedom of choice and conscious. Obviously, this definition intersects with the stances of Ennahdawiyat presented in this article. The extent to which these Ennahdawiyat will be able to adopt, develop, and evolve their ideas remains unclear. But their participation plays an important role in defining a new model of activism or even a new type of feminism within Ennahda.

Socially, this emerging discourse is of vital importance. Historically, the Islamist movements have successfully presented themselves as the voice of the pious middle and lower classes in Arab/Muslim communities and the defender of their Islamic identity. That’s why their anti-Western ideology has been widely heard. In this regard Badran states that “Islamists’ assiduous promotion of the notion that ‘the secular’ is alien, foreign, non-native and hence inauthentic and that the religious constitutes the indigenous, native and authentic is deliberately divisive and carries negative implications for feminisms.”[26] The current ideological evolution undergone by these movements towards a pro-human rights, pro-secularism, and pro-women’s rights approach could create an echo socially and gradually substitute the old conservative discourse with a new liberal one among the populists. Marks states that “Ennahda women’s activists are presenting a potentially more accessible model of “Islamist feminism” to many rural and socially conservative Tunisian women than that of secularist parties,”[27] because Ennahdawiyat are able to reach women that the secular and Western-supported women’s association and NGOs fail to reach. That is why Ennahdawiyat’s emerging discourse could be a significant asset for bringing about the popular support needed to pass a progressive women’s agenda, and this is what makes the focus on Ennahdawiyat particularly worthwhile.


Keywords: Ennahda, Ennahdawiyat, Women’s Rights, Islamist feminism

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Hasan Al-Banna, Majmou’at Rasa’l Al-Imam Al-Shahid Hasan Al-Banna, Beirut (Dar Al-Hadara Al-Islamiya, 1999), p. 371.

[2] Here it should be noted that Islamist movements/parties are diverse ideologically. In this article I focus mostly on the movements/parties which started as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that the paths of many of these movements shifted away from this religious organization in later years.

[3] These Muslim countries include Tunisia, Turkey, Iran, Yemen, and Jordan, amongst others.

[4] Asef Bayat, , “The Coming of a Post‐Islamist Society,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies (1996), 5:9, p. 43-52.

[5] Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 373-395.

[6] The Tunisian Personal Status Code is currently the most progressive code in the Arab world.

[7] The first uprising started in Tunisian in late-2010 and spread all over the Arab world.

[8] All figures and data for this section are taken from Marsad Majles’s website. The calculations are done by the author of this article.

[9] Omayma Abdellatif and Marina Ottaway, 2007, “Women in Islamist Movements”, Carnegie

[10] Ida Bary, “Women's Political Participation in Muslim Brotherhood between the Hammer of Ambiguity and the Anvil of Inclusion-Moderation: The Case of Egypt and Tunisia”, Master Thesis, Norwegian University of Life Sciences Faculty of Social Sciences Department of International, Environmental and Development Studies, 2015

[11] Marsad Majles, Séance plénière, 21 juillet 2017.

[12] Yasmine Hajar, “Democratic Islam According to Ennahda: First Appraisal,” The Legal Agenda – Tunisia, Issue number 11, 29 May 2018.

[13] Ennahda Shura Council’s statement, 26 August 2018.

[14] A current Ennahda parliamentary deputy and a member of Ennahda Shura Council.

[15] A current Ennahda parliamentary deputy and a member of Ennahda Shura Council.

[16] The first female to be appointed as the mayor of the municipality of Tunisia and a member of the Ennahda political office.

[17] Yasmine Hajar and Souad Abdel Rahim, “I Support Expanding Freedoms While Respecting Customs”, The Legal Agenda, 19 September 2018.

[18] A highly ranked Ennahda deputy and member in Ennahda political office.

[19] Yasmine Hajar, “Tunisian MP Yamina Zoghlami: Jurisprudence Must Protect Society,” Legal Agenda – Tunisia, Issue Number 10, 14 March 2018.

[20] A highly ranked Ennahda deputy and member in Ennahda political office.

[21] Yasmine Hajar, “Tunisian MP Yamina Zoghlami: Jurisprudence Must Protect Society,” Legal Agenda – Tunisia, Issue Number 10, 14-03-2018.

[22] Ennahda parliamentary deputy.

[23] A city located south of the Tunisian Capital.

[24] Yasmine Hajar, “Democratic Islam According to Ennahda: First Appraisal” Legal Agenda – Tunisia, Issue number 11, 29 May 2018

[25] She is the president of the international network Believer Women for Peace and a consultant in the United Nations institutions in what concerns women, development, and peace. She became the first Vice-President of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia. She is now a significant figure of Ennahda serving in its political offices and a parliamentary deputy.

[26] Margot Badran, Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences, Chapter 10 (OneWorld Publications: Oxford, 2009)

[27] Monica Marks, “Women’s Rights Before and After Revolution”, Chapter 10 in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, ed. Nouri Gana (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 224-251.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Gender, Sexuality and Women Rights, Tunisia

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *