North African women, between tradition and revolution

Le donne si sposano più tardi, fanno meno figli e studiano di più: dalla primavera araba si sono appropriate dello spazio culturale, ma lo spirito conservatore è forte e limitante

The North African area consists of six countries and they are, from West to East: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt. Despite similar features, like cultural foundations given by Islamic religion and Arabic civilisation, North Africa is extremely heterogeneous for its history, language and way of living. It is necessary to analyse the Arab Spring as a watershed in order to comprehend North Africa and the condition of women.

In North Africa exists a pre-2011 and a post-2011, the period which witnessed the spontaneous emergence of claims for a future of dignity and democracy, demands guided by the young and social networks, without a leader. Demonstrations led to democracy only in the Tunisian case, meanwhile elsewhere they marked the return to military regimes and new conflicts. Even though long-term effects are not yet clear and the impact on the status of women has been also repressive, women have regained their cultural space and from there, their protest continues. Where possible, revolution passes for creative disobedience, and Nada Riyadh is an example of that. She is the director and the star of the autobiographical movie Happily Ever After (2016), which tells the story of her romance in post-revolution Egypt. As she explains to Internazionale newspaper, in Tahrir square men and women marched together, slept and discussed to reach a social change about both of them. In the square, episodes of harassment also happened, as several female journalists reported. However, after the revolution something has changed: many couples decided to live together without getting married, illegal behaviour in Egypt.

In Algeria and Sudan, women still taking part in the protests. In Algeria, demonstrations began when Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82 years old, announced his candidacy for the fifth term. From 2011 in Algeria protests are forbidden, but women (high-school girls, university students, elderly, wearing a veil or not, covered in the flag) took over public space, especially on March 8th when the Friday of demonstrations matched Woman’s Day.  In Sudan, too, the role of women in the square is crucial; BBC estimates that over 70% of protesters are female. It’s iconic the picture of the woman dressed in white who gets up on the roof of the car and sings songs. Protests started in December, demanding the end of Omar Al Bashir’s government after the umpteenth increase in the price of bread. But now, after months of non-violent protests, repression has converted to a massacre.


North Africa is living a time of transition, in which the condition of women is in a state of becoming: aspects of health and education improved, but paradoxically the share of employment didn’t. With regards to personal status, shortcomings are still a lot. Personal status refers to everything that in the various States is ruled by the Code of Personal Status, ranging from marriage to divorce, from heritage to child custody, covering all intimate aspects of women’s (and men) life. Each Code is different, depending on Shari’a, for example. In some cases, the Code has been renewed and made more egalitarian: in 2017, in Tunisia, the law that prevented a Muslim woman to marry a man of a different religion has been abolished. Instead, in other situations, as in Libya or Sudan, the Code draws on Shari’a, often interpreted in a more rigorous way. Among the restrictions that women face, based on the Code of Personal Status: the necessity of having authorization from male tutor to get married; difficulties to get a divorce, since often a woman who asks for it unilaterally is forced to pay an amount she cannot own, not having had the possibility to work. In many cases, even transmitting citizenship to children is not obvious or possible. With respect to heredity, if the Code provides for following Islamic law, daughters inherit less than male children.

Tunisia and Morocco are the countries with stronger civil institutions and democratic hopes. The constitution of Tunisia states that a man and a woman are equal before the law and it considers the improvement of women’s conditions a pillar of the modern State. Tunisia is the only North African country in which having intercourse before marriage is not a crime, instead of female genital mutilation is. It is the first and the only country in which a woman became mayor. The data is important, especially considering that in Egypt around 5 million women do not own an identity card nor birth certificate, so they haven’t access to healthcare, financial services and cannot exercise the right to vote. In 2018, Souad Abderrahim was elected mayor of Tunis. She presented herself as independent, but she was backed by Ennahda, the Islamic party; despite this, she doesn’t wear the headscarf. Female militancy is perceived even in the streets. Street artists community in Tunisia is small but revolutionary and inclusive. Men and women paint side by side, leaving a message. Among them, Lamia Mechichi (in the picture), stage name Sangoura, brings on the walls of Tunis androgynous women drinking, having their period and not mirroring the most conservative ideal.


With regards to physical integrity, gender-based violence is a rooted and regular problem, both in public and private space. About 37% of Arabic women experienced partner violence. Genital mutilations are common practice. In Egypt, it is estimated that 90% of women between 15 and 49 years have been subject to genital mutilations. Furthermore, 54% of women are in favour of this practice. Like other forms of violence, it is significantly more widespread in rural areas, rather than in the urban ones. In Mauritania, it is diffused the tradition of leblouh, an ultra-fattening diet to which girls are subject, from 7 years on. Being abundantly overweight is a symbol of beauty in Mauritania: a fat wife is the emblem of the success of her husband. Girls, then, are subject to intensive fattening weeks and forced to consume 16 thousand calories at a day (the daily intake is 1500-2000 calories). Such treatment is painful and implies all the health problems linked to obesity, among which heart attacks risks and depression.

Frequently, women do not undergo this process willingly, other times, instead, they accept this tradition only for fear of losing their husband.

Despite literacy is growing, from 31% in 1978 to 66% in 2016, there’s a big disparity between cities, where the female population able to read and write is about 48%, and rural areas, where the share drops to 14%. Access to education has increased and the general trend detects that more women attend University relative to men. Libya records the highest levels of female participation in studying, especially in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), with a rate even higher than in other developed countries.

One of the great paradoxes of North Africa is that more access to education does not imply more labour participation. The share of working women is the lowest in the world: four out of five women do not have employment. The reasons for this are cultural since the woman is required to devote herself to the care of the house and the family. Moreover, public space is not particularly safe for women, from means of transport to a mixed working space where the probabilities of harassment sensitively increase. Nord African pay gap is one of the highest in the world and it is estimated that keeping such a rate of growth, women and men will earn the same salary in 157 years.

Italian version by Anna Carla Zucca

Translated by Elisabetta Castellotti


Le seguenti fonti consultate per la redazione di questo contributo sono liberamente consultabili:

MENARA Final Reports Women and Gender in the Middle East and North Africa: Mapping the Field and Addressing Policy Dilemmas at the Post-2011 Juncture, Katerina Dalacoura, No. 3 March 2019 (

The streets talk of feminism in Tunisia, by Magdalena Mach, 8 marzo 2018, (

Souad Abderrahim è la prima sindaco donna di Tunisi, Rara Piol,  06 luglio 2018 (

La rivoluzione algerina e quella sudanese hanno molto da insegnare,Pierre Haski, 15 aprile 2019 (

Women’s Movements in Post-“Arab Spring” North Africa, a cura di Fatima Sadiqi, 2016

Forced to be Fat, Abigail Haworth, 21 luglio 2011 (

Amore e rivoluzione in Egitto, Catherine Cornet, 25 settembre 2017 (

Gender equality, justice in law and practice: Essential for sustainable development, 22 marzo 2019 (

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Sections Human Rights


Africa Algeria Sudan gender equality Donna Donna Nordafrica Egypt North Africa North African woman

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