I meet Selma, the director of ASIT, a prominent association working on community development, in her office’s backyard just when she is about to end a meeting with a group of Danes. She tells me that they are university teachers on a study trip funded by the Danish government with the purpose of learning about Tunisian politics. “This is the second Danish delegation I welcome here. They want to learn what’s going on, and from the point of view of a person who works with civil society, in order to understand how we experience politics today”. It turns out they are meeting exclusively with ASIT and other organizations and parties that operate with a framework of human rights and gender equality.
ASIT WORKS FOR empowerment of poor communities, for social inclusion, but as Selma says, only in places where they are welcome, and only with organizations that have human rights as basis for their work. That they are not welcome in some places, she continues, means that some communities are more religious, more conservative, and are not open for cooperation with Western-funded NGOs. In order to overcome such obstacles, ASIT has chosen local partners that aim for gender equality and women’s empowerment. If at all approaching religious institutions or organizations that do not work for gender equality, that is through UN-funded educational activities such as workshops aiming to prevent extremism.
"That they are not welcome in some places means that some communities are more religious, more conservative"
Many organizations I encountered in Tunisia expressed an idea that charities using religious symbols only function as political propaganda for the Islamist parties, especially al-Nahda. These perceptions should be seen in relation to historical constructions of secular-Islamist divisions, where fear of the other, the conservative, the fundamentalist, and the untrustworthy provides inspiration to work harder and stay committed to principles of human rights and gender equality.
One researcher whose expertise is gender, and who for years has worked as an advisor for CSOs made a clear distinction between associations that are promoting human rights and gender equality and the others, who she did not even describe as CSOs, but “extremists” hiding their real agenda behind a language of development and democracy. When I suggested that I would like to meet these she told me that I would need to see through their façade: “The problem is that they use terms like democracy, liberties, freedom, but all they want is to work for the ummah, to work for the benefit of Islamists, for Salafists groups. They only use democracy as a tool, they don’t understand democracy”. This is something I heard from several CSOs. Once I started talking about organizations I had met or were about to meet, and mentioned that they perform charity and use religious language, this was interpreted as Islamism and linked to the Islamist political parties.
It is a common claim that many - some say almost half - Tunisian CSOs are somehow connected to a political party, something which is illegal according to the Tunisian constitution. Many I talked to expressed fear that external powers located in the Gulf may gain influence over Tunisian politics through charity and welfare. One of my informants in a women’s rights-CSO explained their efficiency and large networks with what he called the tribal aspect; although a CSO is not officially part of a political party, everyone in a village will know of its political affiliation based on the people involved in it.
SURELY HE IS right that many charitable CSOs involved in social development have a strong grassroots approach and a network of volunteers in different regions of the country. Yet, one should not be too quick assuming that the effect of their work is a restriction of women’s freedom. Many of the volunteers are actually unemployed young women and men, of which few hold university degrees in social sciences related to community work. Many of the organizations focus on helping women, and not just by giving money, but to establish small businesses alone or together, although not claiming gender equality to be the aim.
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As the director for TCCC, an association functioning as an umbrella for a number of charities, put it: “Women on the countryside must be empowered, but with respect for local mentality, meaning that it is best to empower women inside their house. Europeans are not so sensitive to these issues.” Moreover, she emphasized that although culturally sensitive, TCCC excludes associations that are ideologically “extremist”, upholding that all potential partners must be legal.
Another example of an association is Hope for Tomorrow, a CSO offering educational and material support to orphans. Like ASIT, the association also runs educational activities in a neighbourhood, including helping women establish small businesses in order to be self-sustainable. These and other similar CSOs could be said to be faith-based in terms of offering religious education and having a strong upswing of activities during Muslim holidays. They were upholding cultural sensitiveness as a central value; however that does not prevent them from actively seeking funds from European countries.
"One should acknowledge that there might be overlaps in terms of political interests"
One should acknowledge that there might be overlaps in terms of political interests, and networks that include members and sympathisers of al-Nahda. However, this can also be claimed when it comes to other CSOs and affiliation with other parties. The language of development observed in some NGOs suggests an understanding of “us” and “them”; the secular, progressive side against an Islamist, conservative side. According to one side of this dichotomy the others are only doing charity and development to spread political propaganda for proponents of the restriction of women and a drawback of democracy. A consequence of such reasoning may be further alienation among participants in civil society and a reduced ability to recognize potential strengths in other models than ones own.
When local associations and international donors apply a language of human rights and gender equality, and view this as the one and only way to frame social development, they are not only excluding a large part of civil society but might also contribute to a process of alienation in the societies they operate in. On the other hand, considering the tendency for donors to see benefits of working with what is in development literature called Faith Based Organizations (FBOs), there is a chance that TCCC, Hope for Tomorrow and other CSOs of their kind will receive financial support from donors that consider their local networks and the ability to work on a grassroots level as potential tools for working in rural areas.
ONE POTENTIAL POSITIVE outcome of this sort of cooperation can lead to increased cooperation on issues like poverty, informal education and community development. That can only be done if local CSOs are brought together and consulted in a framework that is based on different forms of knowledge and experiences, as well as the acknowledgement that visions for development and social change can be expressed also in other ways than in the language of rights and gender equality.