Tunisian Women and Facebook: Do Online Representations Matter?

Tunisian Women and Facebook: Do Online Representations Matter?

Manel Zouabi

On the 14th of January 2011, Facebook commenced playing an important role in the communication of politicized messages to the Tunisian public. The representation of women has been among these ‘Facebook political messages’ that attracted much public attention, and I attempt to decode this occurrence in my doctoral research. Here, I will examine the representations of Tunisian women figures in post-revolutionary Tunisia, as construed specifically through Facebook. I primarily ask how and in what ways are women portrayed on Facebook, especially by the post-revolutionary rising Islamist power? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to first offer an overview of the rise of Facebook as a politicized and popularized platform for the communication of ideas in post-revolutionary Tunisia, before I signify the importance of a semiotic analysis of women in this social media context.

Facebook interactions are everyday practices for millions of Facebook users all over the world. Yet, when I first moved from Tunisia to the UK in late 2012 to pursue research on the importance of Facebook in the Tunisian Revolution, I found that people challenged my focus on this site, asking: do these interactions really matter, and how can what we say on Facebook be important in the ‘real’ world? These questions made me aware of the differences in how social media is perceived in diverse countries, especially in relation to important and current political issues. For Tunisians, Facebook was partially for social chit-chat, but was also an essential part of the political events around the 2011 Revolution. Much has been written about how social media activated rebellion and encouraged people on the streets in the ‘Arab Spring’. However, in Tunisia, Facebook functioned in different ways as a site used deliberately by political and would-be political parties in order to promote their rhetoric.

Tunisia had undergone a major political change in January 2011 marked by the overthrow of a 23 year-old ‘semi-secular’ dictatorship, the emergence of a diverse and pluralistic socio-political landscape, and, most importantly for my research, the transformation of Facebook into a popular and politicized platform. Facebook news was greatly credited for its contribution to the success of the January Revolution. In addition, Tunisian people, due to the negative, almost pro-dictatorial, home-based traditional media (TV, radio), turned their attention, and importantly trust, to other sources of information including, most significantly, Facebook. Moreover, the post-revolutionary new atmosphere of ‘democratisation’ encouraged many Tunisians who had not necessarily been well-informed or formerly interested in politics, to channel their ideas through social media, especially Facebook itself.

These factors were therefore key in the development of Facebook into a vital platform for post-revolutionary socio-political discussions. This discursive centrality of Facebook, however, raises further speculations about how discussions on this site had really mattered, especially when it came to women after the Revolution.

I was fascinated, and to a certain extent horrified, by the rapid changes in the representation of ‘woman’ on Facebook. My personal use of, and academic research on Facebook, focused on Islamists, who I would broadly describe as individuals with a holistically politicised understanding of Islam, and who are heavily influenced by the framework of the Egyptian Islamist Brotherhood. This focus was in the context of other Facebook discourses including liberal, and leftist ones. Common themes between all these discourses are women’s dress code, conduct, and participation in the public life.

I employed critical discourse analysis (CDA), which focuses on language use in its social context, to understand how women are represented on Facebook and how this representation, in turn, matters in the wider collective sense of meanings of woman. I read hundreds of posts and comments, then identified and analysed significant messages.

Further, I focused on Islamist posts and comments which presented visual, auditory, and/or written texts about women who conform to the ‘Islamist ideal’ of female visibility and moral conduct. Two of the most recurrent Islamist posts that I identified employ the veiled woman as the signifier of the stable marital life and the ‘longed-for, beautiful’ past. This may not come as a surprise, as the ‘veiled Muslim Woman’ is a well-known trope of both subjection and defiance. However, it is the specificities of theses Tunisian post-revolutionary meanings that I wish to emphasise, for by paying attention to the detail of these meanings and these new configurations of old meanings, we may better understand women’s position.

The veiled woman, visually compared to a group of non-veiled women, is recommended by both Islamist administrators and commentators as the potential good partner; solely on the basis of her dress code. She is, as far as the Islamist discourse on Facebook seems to tell, the signifier of family unity and stability. In the second type of posts, old pictures, generally in white and black, of veiled and reserved women are shared. These women are referred to, by Islamist administrators and commentators, as ‘pious grandmothers’ and ‘belonging’ to beautiful times when Tunisia was, according to them, a much more pleasant place to be in. Women are mobilised, in this case, in the enticing narrative of nostalgia and the perfect past versus the chaotic present.

Another type of post is more interested in feminist activist women who call for ‘secularized’ equal gender rights, and act within openly ‘feminist’ associations, most notably the Tunisian association of the Democrat Women which is popularly known as The Democrat Women (Annisa’a A’dimukrateyat). These feminist activists tend to be visualised and/or textually portrayed as having strong connections with the pre-revolutionary dictatorship.

For instance, I shed light in my research on the visual connotations of a post-revolutionary Islamist publication about the well-known Tunisian feminist activist Bochra Belhaj Hmida, in which the semiotic interplay of colours was an intriguing device. The publication shows Belhaj Hmida wearing a long-sleeved violet T-shirt. She has a sleeveless flowery blouse composed of a violet background and red roses on top of the T-shirt. She is framed within a dark red background. Interestingly, the color violet acquired ideologised political connotations in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It was rumored to be the favorite color of the disposed president Ben Ali. It figured in different pre-revolutionary festivities (for example: violet balloons) and decorations (for example: bridges). Lapresse newspaper described the rule of Ben Ali as the Violet Years. After January 2011, Islamists and certain leftists employed the expressions ‘violet partisan’ and ‘violet media’ as strong intimidation weapons against their opponents.

As for dark red, it articulates multiple political significations, the most prominent of which is perhaps the Tunisian flag. Yet, dark red was internalised, especially in the early post-revolutionary phase, as the colour of the dissolved ruling Party of the Democratic Constitutional Rally. The logo of the Party was in dark red. The publication further perpetuates the negative political construction of Belhaj Hmida through the insertion of the logo of the ‘the Non-patriotic’ on top of her head. The Belhaj Hmida-logo positioning recalls, to a large extent, the Arab-language metaphor of ‘the badge of shame on the forehead’. The visual association of Belhaj Hmida with specific colours and logos in the post-revolutionary era, codes the feminist activist, I thus argue, as a ‘rotten’ political subject belonging to the pre-revolutionary dictatorship.

In addition to political corruption, feminist activists had also been associated with moral laxity through different linguistic devices such as metaphor, parody, and polarisation. In one publication of a famous Islamist figure, feminist activists are described as ‘the Parisian Club’ in reference to Western morals, and as ‘the army of losers’ in reference to religious and ethical polarised conflicts.

The veiled woman in the above two types of posts is strictly associated with themes of stability, morality, and nostalgia. The feminist woman, on the other hand, is restricted to themes of moral and political corruption. This semiotic restriction and polarisation of women does not seem to imply the whole truth. For example, the veiled woman in Tunisia can, unlike how Islamist posts seem to suggest, be a more polyvalent signifier. The feminist activist woman, can, likewise, articulate a polyvalent signifier. In some cases, there can be no semiotic boundaries between the veiled and feminist woman ‘signifier’, as a veiled woman is entitled to claim her own conceptualisation of, and activism on, women’s rights.

These representations of ‘woman’ and women did not seem to matter as only being on Facebook, for this site, as I have argued, is not distant from or isolated from everyday socio-cultural and political developments. The Facebook mobilisation of particular portrayals has, at many times, at least in part, impacted the Tunisian perception of the question of women, as my research demonstrates. Among the most remarkable impacts were the reinforcement of the polarisation of ‘woman’, and the banalisation of the issues of women. The post-revolutionary socio-political scene was marked by the extension of the online portrayals of the woman without a veil, a single mother, and a feminist activist as signifiers of the transgressing discourses and practices of ‘the enemies’ of Islam. Veiled women, wives, and Islamist activist women were portrayed, contrary to the above transgressing women, as good and devoted Muslims who are signifiers of stability, family values, and social solidarity. In fact, certain administrators and commentators like the ones examined above, launched strategic Facebook campaigns against feminist activists in particular, which has even led in many instances, to assassination threats. Bochra Belhaj Hmida has, for example, been provided security protection by the state due to threats of assassination, especially on Facebook. This new discursive shift, therefore, highlights among other things, the rising role of Facebook in the promotion of Islamist discourses about woman.


Manel Zouabi: I am a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Women’s Studies, the University of York. My thesis, titled Post-revolutionary Tunisia: The Islamist Construction of Woman on Facebook, examines the representation of women in Islamist Facebook posts after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. My research interests include feminist theory, cultural and digital (re-) production of texts about women, and gender and politics in Tunisia.