Dora Carpenter-Latiri’s Tunisian Women of the Book: Creation, Enunciation & Belonging

by: , June 25, 2022

© Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Najet Limam-Tnani, researcher, academic, lives in Tunis. Courtesy of the artist.

‘For as art enters life, the question that will motivate people far more than What is art? Is the much more metaphysically relevant and pressing What is life?’ (Thompson 2017: 33)

As seems to have been the case with many Tunisian women writers and artists, the 2011 Revolution gave Dora Carpenter-Latiri the inspirational motive to reflect upon her relationship with her country. [1] Photographer, academic, and writer, Carpenter-Latiri made her literary debut in 2013 with Un amour de tn, subtitled Carnet photographique d’un retour au pays natal après la Révolution. In 2013 and 2014, while doing fieldwork in both Tunisia and France, Carpenter-Latiri interviewed and took photo-portraits of fifteen creative female writers, academics, editors, and artists, all of whom having a strong and diversified affiliation with books and Tunisia. Entitled Tunisian Women of the Book, the final visual and textual project that originated from these encounters conveys a variety of women’s remarks across generations, in response to personal, societal, and artistic concerns and constraints related with writing, identity, creation, and freedom of expression.


Tunisian Women of the Book directly engages with various aspects of the political climate of post-revolutionary Tunisia. At its core, there is the author’s urgency to identify, acknowledge, and celebrate women’s participation and creative contribution to the Tunisian societal debates across generations. Carpenter-Latiri’s artistic intervention is all the more critical in light of the political events following the 2011 Revolution, the emergence of the Islamist Ennahda Party and its new ‘policing on women’s bodies’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2021: 123). [2] Guaranteed by the 1956 Code of Personal Status, the longstanding status of women’s rights in Tunisia was threatened in the aftermath of the Revolution, and eventually was reinstated by the 2014 Constitution that explicitly recognises gender equality in Article 21. [3] This accomplishment could not have come to fruition if not for the enduring protests, the active vigilance, and the legal interventions of secular Tunisian feminists. However, in light of the ambiguities, which allow for a wide range of interpretations, upon which the Constitution was written, women like Ahlem Belhadj—one of the country’s most notorious feminists, who has held various positions within the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)—stressed the importance of continuing to fight for sexual parity and social equality. [4]  Carpenter-Latiri, whose approach and beliefs are secular feminist, sides with Belhadj and thus inscribes Tunisian Women of the Book in this long-lasting fight: ‘[m]on choix de travailler sur les ‘Tunisiennes du livre’ … fait partie de cette bataille’ (2016: 156) [my choice to work on Tunisian Women of the Book is part of this battle]. [5]

One version of this work consists of a published article that includes both the author’s reflections upon her undertaking and black and white portraits of the fifteen women, each followed by excerpts from their interviews[6] The second version is an itinerant visual and textual exhibition with fifteen high-definition colour photo-portraits, accompanied by fragments of conversations, printed on photographic paper. [7] The conversations were loosely based on a common set of questions centred on how these women become writers, how they would describe the writing process, where they prefer to write, how they choose their language, how they fit writing into their everyday life, how they support themselves economically, and finally, how they feel about being identified as ‘women writers’ rather than simply ‘writers.’ This last topic, Carpenter-Latiri remarks, was later dropped, considering the women interviewed were ‘all keen to talk about themselves as individuals rather than women writers.’ [8] The author’s idea was to let the conversation run spontaneously, and as the women became more comfortable and relaxed, she would then start taking photos while continuing the conversation. The majority of the women met the author in their homes, while others chose alternative venues: ‘in the café where she liked to write (Emna Louzyr), in her favourite café (Chochana Boukhobza), in their workshop (Garance Mesguich and Khédija Ennifer-Courtois), in the art space that she manages and where her work is exhibited (Nadia Khiari). The portrait of Raja Ben Slama was taken outside her home and that one of Emna Chaabouni was photographed in a zaouia (a saint sanctuary) in the medina, not far from her home.’ [9]


The photo-text format of Tunisian Women of the Book, I maintain, posits a multitude of shifting spaces of dissent, and of dialogic interactions, among the fifteen women, the viewers, and the photographer. Likewise, it postulates women’s practices of writing, and artistic creation at large, as a paradigm that shapes and connects present and past, individual inquiry and social responsibility, to ultimately represent, displace, and reformulate women’s relationships and connections with creation and enunciation. Furthermore, I argue, by positing denationalised forms of belonging, this work broadens the state-based definitions of citizenship and eventually contributes to the discussion around the longstanding power systems’ connection ‘between Islam, patriarchy and citizenship’ (Borrillo 2021: 31). In so doing, Tunisian Women of the Book participates in the production of a post-revolutionary feminist discourse that, while conveying the historical, cultural, and linguistic diversity of Tunisia, deliberately acts as a counterpoint to dichotomic and totalising views of the country. Inspired by Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensus as a form of disruption, this study will first delve into the photo-text format and its hybrid nature in order to analyse how spaces of dissent and dialogic interaction take shape. The second part will historically situate Carpenter-Latiri’s work and explore the artistic practices informing it.

Spaces of Dissent: The Photographed, Photographer, Viewers, and All of Their Images

Despite the variety of opinions in literature devoted to the study of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, a common belief seems to be widely shared: that a direct causality between artistic representation and political engagement can no longer be endorsed. [10] As Jacques Rancière asserts: ‘[t]here is no straight path from the viewing of a spectacle to an understanding of the state of the world, and none from intellectual awareness to political action’ (2010: 143). In other words, if art as a practice ‘is always already political,’ there is no reason to assume that artists and art would engage constituency (Downey 2014b: 27). Rancière ironically defines the deemed-unproblematic relationship of causality between art and engagement as ‘the pedagogical model of the efficacy of art.’ (2010: 136) He thus argues: ‘we continue to act as if reproducing a commercial idol in resin will engender resistance against the “spectacle,” and as if a series of photographs about the way colonisers represent the colonised will work to undermine the fallacies of mainstream representations of identities’ (2010: 136). For Rancière, ‘[t]he images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible. But they do so on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated’ (2009: 103). According to him, it is not the interrelation between art and politics that should be questioned, since ‘politics has an inherently aesthetic dimension and aesthetics an inherently political one’ but rather the uncomplicated association between art and resistance (2010: 2). The word ‘resistance,’ in fact, has, for him, an ambivalent status: ‘to resist is to adopt the posture of someone who stands opposed to the order of things, but simultaneously avoids the risk involved with trying to overturn that order’ (2010: 169). Controversially, Rancière associates resistance with compliance to the system, and asserts that ‘the heroic posture of staging ‘resistance’ against the torrent of advertising, communicational, and democratic rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with a willing deference to established forms of domination and exploitation’ (2010: 169).

Rancière prefers the word ‘dissensus,’ as it is intended as ‘an activity that cuts across forms of cultural and identity belonging and hierarchies between discourses and genres, working to introduce new subjects and heterogeneous objects into the field of perception’ (2010: 2). Whereas consensus is the ‘main enemy’ of artistic and political creativity, as well as a practice enforced by economic globalisation, dissensus is for him the kernel of art expression, given that, ‘artworks can produce effects of dissensus precisely because they neither give lessons nor have any destination’ (2010: 140). Dissensus is also a posture that art and politics share, since both are reorienting and disrupting ways of discerning the world: ‘[a]rt and politics each define a form of dissensus, a dissensual re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible’ (2010: 140). Hence, for Rancière, ‘an artistic intervention can be political by modifying the visible, the ways of perceiving it and expressing it, of experiencing it as tolerable or intolerable’ (Carnevale & Kelsey 2007). As an illustration of what dissensus might mean, Rancière offers as an example Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs of barricades on Palestinian roads. Ristelhueber chooses not to show the Israeli West Bank cement wall, and to photograph instead the hand-made Palestinian barricades of piled stone, ‘which look like rock slides in the middle of a tranquil landscape … [t]hat’s one way of keeping one’s distance from the shopworn affect of indignation and instead exploring the political resources of a more discreet affect—curiosity’ (Carnevale and Kelsey 2007).

Rancière’s postulation of dissensus as an aesthetic practice that shifts, displaces, or replaces what viewers might anticipate or are already familiar with is particularly useful in our analysis of Tunisian Women of the Book. Through the exploration of the meaning of portrait in both textual and visual modes, Carpenter-Latiri posits a multitude of alternative spaces of dialogic interactions among the photographed subjects, the viewers, and the photographer. Those spaces are also constructed in ways that imply a societal critique as well and might eventually solicit and foster viewers’ playful imagination and inquisitiveness. First, by means of short accounts accompanying each portrait, she illuminates a space of conversation among a multiplicity of life perspectives, identities, artistic techniques, and societal strategies of dissent that her ‘Women of the Book’ adopted and further embraced after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Secondly, the author aesthetically organises the fifteen photographs and accounts according to what she defines as ‘la dynamique des regards’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 163) [the dynamics of looking] among photographs. In the first picture, Emna Louzyr looks at the photographer while engaging with the audience. The position of her body is oriented towards the right side. In the last photograph, Emna Belhaj Yahya is oriented side-on, her face turned towards the left side. This arrangement, the author explains, creates a virtual circle reinforcing her photographic intent, that is: ‘la revelation/construction d’une communauté’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 163) [the revelation/construction of a community]. This virtual community of female artists represents a tribute to their contributions to the art canon, in which artists who identify as female continue to be a minority. The community posits as well Carpenter-Latiri’s alternative model of engagement, what Downey defines as ‘A desire to interact and engage with politics in a manner that re-imagines possible forms of social engagement (while not necessarily expressing an overt political opinion)’ (2014a: 13). The circle additionally operates as a space of dialogue and civic imagination for the audience. Communication among the audience, the portraits, and the photographer on one side, and among the fifteen women on the other, are at the core of her project, as it is, the author maintains, the wishful creation of a safe space of conversation.

Third, Tunisian Women of the Book also functions as a counterpoint to the increased identity polarisation of the country’s population on political, religious, gender, class, and linguistic grounds. [11] In order to do so, Carpenter-Latiri rekindles the original expression ‘the People of the Book,’ which is used in the Qur’an to refer to people who possess a revealed scripture. According to Ismail Albayrak, even before the ‘advent of Islam, the Arabs were familiar with the phrase ahl al-kitab (the People of the Book)’ (2008: 304). In the Qur’ān, Albayrak continues, this concept, ‘is characterised by a degree of lack of rigidity and an overall attitude of amity and even a degree of respect’ towards Judaism and Christianity. (2008: 301) In fact, Albayrak writes, ‘both in the modern and pre-modern periods Muslim scholarship has supported social and cultural pluralism, which seeks to ensure the harmonious coexistence of diverse religious communities’ (2008: 318).  [12] The coexistence of different religions is inherent to Tunisian history, Carpenter-Latiri affirms, and it is also a ‘métonymique des droits humains universels’ (2016: 162) [metonymy of universal human rights]. By evoking that original expression, the author recovers and further expands the awareness of Tunisia as a plurality of cultures, languages, and religions. This vision that eventually becomes an awareness, opens those spaces that Rancière defines as ‘a lightening, an alleviation … some breathing room … a way of reconstructing the relationship between places and identities, spectacles and gazes, proximities and distances’ (Carnevale and Kelsey 2007).

Fourth, by substituting the expression ‘Tunisian Women’ for the original word ‘People,’ Carpenter-Latiri suggests the importance of both including women among the group of luminaries, and confering dignity upon them, thus linking women to knowledge, dignity, creativity, and enunciation. Conceived during a historical period of international media hype about Tunisia and the so-called Arab Spring, the author thus shifts the audience’s attention from dichotomic and belligerent media representations of Tunisia. She explores women’s creativity across generations and their practice of writing and invites viewers to enter into a different space and time. If writing has never historically been a welcoming space for women, the fifteen subjects of the book share what they have done, and still have to do, in order to continue their creative work. Often in spite of family constraints and of financial and social distress, they describe a mental and physical space that connects them with their own imaginative self, thus shaping their determination, action, and social responsibility. Portraits variously convey vitality, playfulness, self-confidence, introspection, and strength of character. Whether photographed in their home, room, yard, art studio, or favourite coffee shop, they talk about ‘their’ Tunisia and their ways of participating in a civil societal discourse by means of books. Sharing these aspects of writing is all the more important when we consider that until this point in Tunisia, ‘les relations entre les artistes et les institutions autoritaires, les conditions socio-économiques de création des œuvres et les rapports de genre à l’œuvre dans les mondes de l’art … demeurent inconnus’ (Kréfa 2018: 18) [the relationship between artists and authoritarian institutions, the socio-economic conditions of creation and the gender relations at work in the worlds of art … remain unknown]. Moreover, sociologist Abir Kréfa confirms that, if a writer can sometime live off their pen in France, this possibility is non-existent in Tunisia.

These exceptional women model a space of dignity, imagination, perseverance, agency, reflection, and even irony. As in the case of Emna Louzyr, journalist, poet, and writer of Arabic language, who playfully engages with Virginia Woolf’s concept of a room of one’s own. Perhaps class-conscious in regard to Woolf, Louzyr focuses on the power of words more than the space from which one writes and says: ‘Pour écrire il faut avoir des choses à dire. La chambre à soi, c’est peut-être trop confortable’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 164) [To write, you need to have things to say. The room of one’s own is perhaps too comfortable].


Fig. 1. Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Emna Louzyr, journalist, poet and writer of Arabic language, lives in Tunis. Courtesy of the artist.   


While her comment suggests that (dissenting) writers by definition occupy an uncertain and precarious space, the portrait shows Louzyr in her favourite writing place: a coffee-shop table. The photo is almost a manifesto of Tunisian Women of the Book. It is the only one that portrays a woman in the action of writing. Her body leaning on an open notebook featuring Arabic writing, Louzyr looks at us with confidence, and smiles. She looks assertive, witty, and fashionable. Both her poise and the photograph’s pictorial tones of orange—reflected in the rundown walls, her red hair shade, lipstick, scarf, and coat—echo in content and style the spirit of her account. While the golden and orange tones of the photograph are evoked by the phrase ‘J’aime la lumière du matin’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 164) [I like the morning light], her passion, vitality, and confidence also appear in the writing of her account, that describes, with an abundance of the first-person, all that she loves about and needs from Tunisia.

Both photo-portraits and accounts present women as examples of what was, is, and can still be possible, a referent for a post-revolutionary society that is in the process of reconstructing itself. The fifteen women consciously describe themselves by using multiple social identities—for example, Garance Mesguich defines herself as ‘Artiste plasticienne, photographe, directrice de collection’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 166) [Visual artist, photographer, collection manager], individualities that the author transcribes according to their preferred order of importance, together with their languages of expression and the places in which they live. While photograph and text let women present themselves as unique individuals, their experiences of writing: ‘se répondent, se complètent et se démultiplient’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 158) [answer, complete one another and multiply]. Additionally, the author’s selection of portraits and excerpts creates a narrative itself, the latter further constructed in terms of space and women’s gazes and poses. Driven by the author’s creative and photographic practices, this laborious process of collaboration with women is one of the aspects that female artists oftentimes consider necessary and that ‘is critical for a revised understanding of photography as an aesthetic and social practice’ (Newbury, Rizzo & Thomas 2021: 4).

In Tunisian Women of the Book, the relationship between words and images that the photo-text posits is one of mutual support and enhancement, in which ‘the image gains in profile through the verbal information conveyed’ while the excerpt ‘gains persuasive power’ (Gilgen 2003: 56). When asked what contribution the photo would add in the text-image interaction of her autobiographical works—Un amour de tn (2013) and Citrons Doux: L’Aînée (2020)—the author answers: ‘La relation entre texte et photographie est vraiment difficile à déconstruire. En anglais on dirait “it is greater than the some (sic.) of the parts”’ (Bourkis 2021: 37) [The relationship between text and photography is really difficult to deconstruct. In English one would say ‘it is greater than the sum of the parts’]. This deconstruction is problematic because of the intrinsic characteristics of the photograph, which ‘may be understood as a mobile site of intersection, a place for ongoing (‘performances’ of) negotiation of representation between the photographer, the subject, the future viewers, and even the long history of images that precedes the moment of the shutter snap’ (Peffer & Cameron 2013: 8). To the complexity of the photograph itself, one should add the intricacy of the interrelation between photo-portrait and text. On this subject, Andy Stafford claims, ‘photographs used alongside non-fictional writing can be open to fabulation fictionalization, poeticization,’ and the photo-text, ‘merely adds to the ontological instabilities of photography itself’ (2010: 23, 53).

This is also true in the case of researcher and academic Najet Limam-Tnani, who describes her daily battles related to her profession and passion. Her bedroom, or better, her ‘bed of one’s own,’ is a crucial space for her to focus, research, and write. She describes it as a place of ‘accouchement’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 169) [delivery], one she has built and still defends with bared teeth: ‘mon travail a toujours été une sorte de travail clandestin’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 169) [my work has always been a kind of underground work]. From space, Limam-Tnani shifts the conversation to time. She laments that this is still apprehended as gendered. The respect that is granted to a man working in his office, she remarks, turns into a form of betrayal when it is a woman who claims a space of her own: ‘elle trahit sa famille, elle trahit son mari … et ce travail-là, elle doit le faire sans que personne ne puisse s’en rendre compte, sinon ça pose un problème’ (2016: 169) [she betrays her family, she betrays her husband … and that work, she has to do it without anyone noticing, otherwise it becomes a problem]. The word ‘betrayal’ reveals an engrained ethical structure that Limam-Tnani is able to identify and acknowledge, but within which she still struggles. It also speaks to her internalised and paradoxical space of academic writing. Whereas the latter is by definition public, publishable, shareable, and in the service of the community, her authorial persona must be managed between visibility and invisibility. Limam-Tnani indirectly hints at the contradictory and overlapping meanings of private, privacy, and public for a woman, a subject that American black feminist author and activist bell hooks understands as intimately connected to male supremacy and power:

What the private means as part of the psychology of domination, particularly patriarchal domination, is very different from a notion of privacy in relation to individual needs, desires, and longings. How would we talk about privacy, within a liberatory, nonsexist society? The ways in which privacy is constructed and the meaning of public and private legitimize and uphold structures of domination, particularly sexism. (hooks & McKinnon 1996: 822)

Limam-Tnani’s space of writing, when reading the final phrase of her account, is still one of unresolved tensions: ‘Je crois qu’on fait notre travail dans une sorte de souffrance, nous les femmes’ (2016: 169) [I think we do our work in a kind of suffering, us women].


Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Najet Limam-Tnani,
Fig. 2. Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Najet Limam-Tnani, researcher, academic, lives in Tunis. Courtesy of the artist.


However, Limam-Tnani’s photo-portrait, allows for other emotions and interpretations. Surrounded by her precious tools—books on the bed, with more piling up on her nightstand while an open laptop seems momentarily to be in sleep mode—Limam-Tnani sits on her bed, with large pillows supporting her back. Her posture conveys ease and contentment. She smiles slightly while looking down at the back cover of a book that she holds in her hands. It is left to the curious viewer to solve the riddle of her enigmatic expression. By zooming in on the digital image, one can detect the title of the book she is holding, which reads: Marguerite Duras: Altérité et étrangeté ou la douleur de l’écriture et de la lecture [Marguerite Duras: Otherness and strangeness or the suffering of writing and reading]. Once uncovered, the resonance at work between her account and the portrait, namely the practice of writing (and reading) as suffering, leaves the viewer puzzled still about Limam-Tnani’s expression. By researching the book that she is holding, one learns that it is more than just a book: it is her own edited Duras collection. The photo-text interplay, to use Rancière’s words: ‘addresses a spectator whose interpretive and emotional capacity is not only acknowledged but called upon. In other words, the work is constructed in such a way that it is up to the spectator to interpret it and to react to it affectively’ (Carnevale & Kelsey 2007). In the photo-portrait, Limam-Tnani’s expression is indeed one of self-satisfaction and gratification for finally seeing and touching the result of her successful ‘delivery.’

Tunisian Women of the Book’s hybrid format is also constructed in ways that intend to suggest both a space of inclusive dialogue and one that envisions a community. Interested in analysing the increasingly political dimension of contemporary art and how the latter ‘can rethink what we understand by the term “politics”’ (Downey 2014a: 10), Anthony Downey thus interprets some of the claims behind Tunisian people and artists’ production in the aftermath of the Revolution:

what is at stake here is a common ground upon which to voice debate, entertain disagreement and engage in discussions about public and private space, the rights of the individual, freedom of expression, the meaning of the term ‘sacred,’ secular determinism, the role of religion in the workings of state, and the principle of rational self-interest in the context of the common good. Central to this is the role of culture in fostering a sense of identity for one, but for also opening up debates about civic imagination and access to culture. (Downey 2013: 9)

By proposing a community of unique women Carpenter-Latiri is deliberate about her aims: to propose an example of respectable lives dedicated to culture and creation that can also enlighten and empower others to visualise a common good. The circular spatial construction of the photo-text strengthens the authorial purpose. The circle offers a sense of affiliation and interrelation that encourages dialogue, sharing, respect, and co-creation. If we endorse Stafford’s potentiality of the photo-text towards fabulation and poeticisation, the circle itself could also represent a connection with the sacred, with wholeness, and could eventually offer interpretations of the sacred that are wider than the repressive one included in the ‘ambivalent clause’ of Article 6 of the new Tunisian Constitution. (Guellali 2014). [13] In place of ‘orthodox interpretations of sacred texts, containing immutable dogmas, [that] undermine any possibility of critique and dispute,’ Tunisian Women of the Book could ultimately assume the sacred as the creative connection that those women model, and that is inherent to and sharable among all humanity (Guellali 2014).

Envisioning an inclusive community is also the author’s personal projection and aspiration. Like ‘her’ women, Carpenter-Latiri is an artist and a writer. She thinks and creates in three languages, lives between geographical and mental spaces, and is emotionally, mentally, physically, and artistically connected with Tunisia. The photo-textual autobiographical exploration of her Tunisia’s attachments is poetically revealed in both Un amour de tn and Citrons Doux: L’Aînée. There, however, memories often cause disconnection and fragmentation, the recuperation of what Ariella Azoulay calls ‘planted pictures’ or ‘phantom pictures’ (2008: 13). [14] Azoulay defines them as images that are forced on us, inserted by others as a print on our bodies, and details: ‘[e]ach one of us carries with her an album of these planted pictures. In some cases, the violence needed for their insertion into the album is evident––as happens when the image is engraved through trauma’ (2008: 13).

Conversely, Tunisian Women of the Book gives the author the possibility to start from scratch, to reconfigure a conversation among adult women that are linked by similar struggles, artistic interests, and life choices. In this virtual space, listening to past experiences could almost feel like making them evaporate, since listening and partaking govern the space. As for Azoulay who discloses that ‘[p]hotography has served me in ridding myself of these phantom pictures, or at least in reattributing them to their creators and detaching them from myself,’ through Tunisian Women of the Book, Carpenter-Latiri models a space for herself as well, so as never to forget what artistic creation is able to imagine (2008: 13).

In the next section, we will first examine the societal and political polarisation around women’s rights in the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution, and then examine the terms in which Tunisian Women of the Book contributes to the production of a post-revolutionary feminist discourse.

Re-Envisioning Feminist Practices Through Art

What do you hear when you hear the word feminism? It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy. It brings to mind loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding on to things that diminish us. It brings to mind women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives, homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds. (Ahmed 2017: 1)

We have not yet begun to understand the magnitude of what the female gaze may be, but we are slowly starting to grasp what it could be. (Tsjeng 2017: 7)

Sara Borrillo understands the 2011 events as encouraging ‘a harsh confrontation about women’s rights in Tunisia between the Islamists and secularists’ (2019: 45). Similarly, Hind Ahmed Zaki sees how, between 2011 and 2014, ‘women’s rights emerged as one of the most hotly contested topics’ (Zaki 2019: 4). Anna Antonakis further details this historical period as ‘not marked by competition of political programs but by ideological debates between national elites and party leaders. Rather than the socio-economic divide, it was ideological polarisation that stood out in the public sphere as driving force of the political processes’ (2019: 4). As already mentioned, the years preceding the 2014 Constitution during which Tunisian Women of the Book was conceived and shown to the public were also characterised by a severe backlash against the historical Tunisian secular women’s movements.

Detailing the societal climate in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, Kréfa stresses: ‘Les rapports de genre ont ainsi été, depuis décembre 2010, au cœur des événements et les formes mêmes de la répression n’y ont pas échappé’ (2016: 120) [Gender relations have thus been, since December 2010, at the heart of the events and the very forms of repression have not escaped it]. The women’s rights discussion was moved to the back burner, and this deferral was almost unanimously accepted as necessary. Militant Tunisian secular feminist Neïla Jrad attests: ‘nous nous entendons dire, et parfois même par des militantes politiques voire féministes, que ce n’est pas le moment’ (2011) [we are told, and sometimes even by militant feminist activists, that this is not the right time]. Because the revolution altered the power relations between women’s movements and the state, Lilia Labidi argues that ‘women were freed from the official view that the party in power was the only institution morally capable of defending the Personal Status Code and women’s rights’ (2015: 180).

Consequently, Labidi points out that between January and September 2011 thirty new associations focused on women were formed, compared to the twenty-two formed ‘during the twenty-three years of ben Ali’s rule’ (2015: 180). Among these women, Borrillo observes, ‘were young independent female activists, bloggers or intellectuals; historical and elitist feminist associations; new women’s associations, created after January 2011; peasant and working women; and housewives’ (2019: 56).  [15]

In 2012, Tunisian society was fiercely divided upon the initial draft of article 28 of the Constitution, referring to women as ‘complementary’ in relation to men. The national polemic over article 28, Labidi maintains, ‘provoked a societal crisis that covered a realignment of social forces’ and ‘brought forward a new feminist approach—an ‘essentialist’ one’ (2015: 192 & 194). [16] Meanwhile, violence against women increased. In addition to daily episodes of police brutality targeting female protesters during the Revolution, on the night of September 3rd, 2012, 27-year-old Meriem Ben Mohamed was raped by two police officers on duty.  [17] Widely covered by the media, Ben Mohamed thus describes the impact that her tragic experience had on the country:

[p]ublic opinion divided into two camps: those who supported my fight, who were in the minority, and those who considered that I was guilty … Most Tunisian people, including women, who had experienced the dictatorship, said that it was my fault—a young Tunisian woman going out at night in a short skirt—and thought the police were right. Others said that I was lying. Some friends don’t talk to us anymore. There are neighbours who humiliated my father. It was awful. The case shocked Tunisians, it was the first time that a woman had filed a complaint, in particular against police officers. I expected to get justice, especially after the revolution, but without the case taking on such significance. (Chekir 2019: 33)

Fuelled by the hope in a post-revolutionary, more equitable society, Ben Mohamed’s strength and courage paved the way for other denunciations. [18]

Tunisian Women of the Book was actualised against this polarised backdrop. However, for Siobhán Shilton, who has been studying the proliferation of artistic production during and after the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, while ‘binary perceptions of secularism and religion’ have continued to define the countries’ political narratives, ‘[a] striking range of art evokes, and encourages, a more nuanced understanding of these revolutions, and of the idea of ‘revolution,’ more widely’ (2021: 1). For Shilton, these artworks elicit the spectator’s contribution and transcend a dichotomic vision ‘by juxtaposing disjunctive signifiers and sensorial elements to refer to apparently stable visual forms while simultaneously ‘exceeding’ them’ (2013: 131). Without directly referring to the Revolution, and without promoting a straightforward political message, Tunisian Women of the Book contributes to the construction of a post-revolutionary feminist discourse by opening, to use Downey’s words, multiple ‘horizons of possibility for civic imaginations to emerge’ (2013:17).

First, it posits a space of intergenerational dialogue where women describe their affective attachments to Tunisia as exceeding cultural, national, and linguistic notions of citizenship and belonging. Intergenerational dialogue is crucial when considering that, as Antonakis stresses, the young ‘are not the daughters but rather the granddaughters of the CSP … [r]epresentatives of this generation confidently proclaimed the wish to “kill” state feminism and liberate themselves from the heritage of Bourguiba and “refuse to be categorized within the ideologically constructed dichotomy of ‘Islamist’ and ‘secular’”’ (2019: 223). [19] Under the denomination of Tunisian Women, Tunisian Women of the Book includes women who are creatively connected with Tunisia. It shows women’s diversified affiliation with Tunisia while favouring alternative configurations of citizenship and belonging that exceed the individual’s relationship to the state. Some women were born in Tunisia, some chose to live in Tunisia, and some simply chose a Tunisian identity for themselves, despite their origins, language, and nationality. In her study of French imperial citizenship, Annette Joseph-Gabriel reminds us: ‘[h]istorically, citizenship has not been the only mode of understanding collective identity and belonging … [i]mposing it as the only way to organise political communities is a colonial act, one that silences and denies the existence of the many other notions of belonging articulated in non-European civilizations’ (2020:11). Whereas Joseph-Gabriel’s postulation of ‘decolonial citizenship’ furthers a shift towards plural forms of belonging, by reimagining new terms on which communities can be created, Carpenter-Latiri contributes to the shaping of intercultural and interlinguistic practices of belonging by proposing a denationalised citizenship as well. (2020: 12)

Indeed, in Tunisian Women of the Book, women describe their connection with Tunisia as an attachment to places, ruins, memories, colours, and sounds. Tunisia is an affection, a sensation, a particular light, an inner disposition, a series of mental images. Often the land is the subject of, or the inspirational motive for, writing—as it is for Azza Filali, novelist, writer, and gastroenterologist, who admits: ‘Je n’imagine pas d’écrire sur autre chose que la Tunisie, je ne pourrais pas, ça sonnerait faux’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 172) [I cannot imagine writing about anything else than Tunisia, I could not, it would sound wrong]. Raja Ben Slama, intellectual, academic, psychoanalyst, editor of the online journal Al Awan [The Present Moment], writer, and political activist, describes the proliferation of mental images about Tunisia that inspire her writing thus: ‘Je n’ai pas besoin d’y être physiquement, je vois la lumière du jour de Kélibia, le village punique de Salakta, les mosaïques du musée de Sousse. Notre mémoire et notre histoire sont là’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 167) [I don’t need to be there physically, I see the daylight of Kélibia, the Punic village of Salakta, the mosaics of the museum in Sousse. Our memory and history are there]. Despite her double citizenship, Emna Louzyr stays in Tunisia because she needs it: ‘j’ai besoin d’entendre l’appel à la prière, quand je suis en Europe ça me manque. J’ai besoin de marcher sur cette terre où est enterré mon grand-père, j’ai besoin de tout ça’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 164) [I need to hear the call to prayer, when I am in Europe, I miss it. I need to walk on this land where my grandfather is buried, I need all of this]. For Garance Mesguich and Anne Murray, the latter an academic, painter, and writer, Tunisia is a place of choice. All these standpoints are reformulations of citizenship and belonging.

Secondly, Carpenter-Latiri prioritises women’s lived experiences. In fact, the author gives the interviewees the liberty to divert from the initial set of questions and expand upon the issues they privilege. Her work also explores writing and artistic creation as a process and a practice that women must negotiate on a personal and social level. Rather than focusing upon the final product—the book—the author is interested in revealing and sharing the process that led these women to become writers. In so doing, she brings to the forefront their life choices and motivations, their daily practices of writing, and the different strategies they adopted to carve out space and time for themselves, in other words: ‘les négociations permanentes qu’entraîne la volonté d’écrire’ (Detrez 2010: 69) [the permanent negotiations entailed by the willingness to write]. By focusing attention on the process, the author reveals gender and societal expectations, as well as constraints across generations. She also exposes the challenges that women have been facing in society—at times within their own families—to defend their own space of creation and autonomy.

Jelila Hafsia’s account centres on the life path she chose in order to earn and preserve her freedom. Identifying herself as director of a cultural centre, journalist, writer, novelist, and author, Hafsia, who was born in 1927, has witnessed a wide range of societal and political transformations in Tunisia. In the background of her photo-portrait, an ancient amphora and an abstract painting seem to symbolise the span of the transformations to which she has bourn witness. Indeed, both account and portrait echo and complement each other. While looking at her pensive expression, as if she is caught in the process of retrieving challenging memories, one can read: ‘Rien n’a été facile, la société était très dure envers les femmes seules’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 170) [Nothing was easy, society was very hard on single women]. However, her calm and dignified expression leaves no room for regrets and, in that sense, parallels the final words of her account: ‘Je suis à la fin de ma vie, j’ai fait de ma vie ce que j’ai voulu’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 170) [I am at the end of my life, I have done with my life what I wanted].


Fig. 3. Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Jelila Hafsia, director of a cultural center, journalist, writer, novelist and author of a journal in several volumes. Writes in French, lives in Tunis. Courtesy of the artist.


The importance of having had access to books and the choice to live alone are often recurrent topics of conversation among the Women of the Book. In Hafsia’s case, societal aversion and lack of familial support and understanding were the consequences she had to face in order to defend her choices. Books provided her not only an imaginative space to support and to develop her dreams, but also a referential system of alternative values and ideas that were not available to her, as a woman, in the society of her time. Finally, peeking out, and almost unnoticeable on the left top corner of the picture, is the image of a small owl. It is Hafsia’s favourite bird, symbolising both solitude and knowledge, but in Tunisia popularly believed—perhaps for these very reasons—to be evil. Polestar and protector, the inclusion of the owl becomes the symbol of complicity and recognition between the photographer and the photographed.

Raja Ben Slama’s account also reveals a life of struggles. Her photo-portrait seems to assemble all her demanding identities. Captured at a crucial moment on the street, Ben Slama’s body posture and facial expression are tough, tense, and dramatic. Taken in a public, desolate space, the photograph witnesses a woman’s harassment of another woman. Carpenter-Latiri contextualises it thus: ‘I had come to Tunis to interview Raja and to take her portrait. She met me as I was getting out of my taxi. As she stood holding roses … a shadow dressed in a full black veil, eyes visible, slid in front of us. At that moment, I took the photograph; it felt like a metaphor for post-revolution Tunisia. The woman had winked at her, Raja told me’ (2021: 126).


Fig. 4. Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Raja Ben Slama, intellectual, academic, psychoanalyst, managing editor of Al Awan, writer, political activist. Writes in Arabic, sometimes in French, lives in Tunisia. Courtesy of the artist.


In the photograph’s background, the spectrality of the numerous, seemingly empty, cement buildings under construction matches that of the woman’s black silhouette. Both elements, the buildings and the veiled woman, are in sharp contrast with the vivacity and delicateness of Ben Slama’s roses, necklace, and earrings. Ben Slama’s account starts thus: ‘J’ai été menacée de mort par les terroristes islamistes, l’État tunisien m’a alloué un garde du corps. Mes proches ont souhaité que j’arrête d’écrire. Je puise mon courage dans l’écriture’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016 :167) [Islamist terrorists sent me death-threats, the Tunisian state allocated me a bodyguard. My relatives wanted me to stop writing. I draw my courage from writing]. In the photograph, Ben Slama looks angry and disappointed. That woman’s wink, Carpenter-Latiri continues, ‘was both threatening and playful, summarising the threats from political Islam to Tunisian feminism and the irony of the instrumentalisation of women against women’s rights’ (2021:126).

Ben Slama’s multiple—and somewhat conflicting—social identities are emblematic of the complexity of Tunisian women’s negotiations for gender equality and freedom of expression. Initially supported in the name of the nation, state feminism and equality between man and women, Carpenter-Latiri remarks, are subject to interpretation since ‘[they do] not apply to all without discrimination, and it would not apply in the private sphere’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2021: 117).  [20] By prioritising the plurality of their languages of communication and their self-chosen and strictly social identities, Carpenter-Latiri builds an alternative narrative to the one created by state feminism. Assigning women to a gendered creative identity, Carpenter-Latiri affirms, is indeed reductive: ‘d’une part, elle nie la complexité des identités multiples de la persona créatrice qui ne fusionne pas avec l’identité complexe de la personne s’interrogeant sur elle-même ou conversant sur la création, d’autre part, elle se charge du statut historiquement minoré, hiérarchiquement infériorisé de la catégorie “création/écriture de femme”’ (2016 : 160) [on the one hand, it denies the complexity of the multiple identities of the creative persona, which does not merge with the complex identity of the person questioning herself or conversing about her creation. On the other hand, it takes on the historically minorised, hierarchically subordinated status of the category ‘creation/women writing’]. Indeed, if there is a tacit general agreement among the interviewees that women do not write or create in a different way according to their gender, it is also true that women still have specific access to writing as a result of it. This is particularly true in Tunisia, where state-feminism, Kréfa argues, has until recently been shaping literary criticism and female literary production. Writers, Kréfa maintains, are constantly caught up in games and practices other than literary ones. These games reveal the processes and modes of differentiation and hierarchisation between male and female writers.

In parallel with the nationalist propaganda of women’s emancipation and access to education, writing, and publication, Kréfa notices how in the 1960s a segregated category within literary criticism emerged: ‘les écrivaines doivent aussi composer avec une domination littéraire liée à leur position dans les rapports de genre. Car parallèlement à l’accès des femmes à la publication, dans les années 1960, une catégorie ségrégative a émergé au sein de la critique littéraire, qui minore leur production : “la littérature féminine”’ (2018: 191) [Women writers also have to deal with a literary domination linked to their position in gender relations. For in parallel with women’s access to publication, in the 1960s, a segregated category emerged within literary criticism, which undermines their production: ‘women’s literature’]. If Tunisian women were supposed to enjoy an enviable status, she points out, literary criticism devalued their literary productions, now reduced to the expression of intimacy and feelings. Most importantly, in contrast to ‘l’écriture féminine’ in 1970s France, which became a revolutionary tool for feminist theorisations, in Tunisia, female writers made no claims. By taking up the discourse of state feminism, far from considering women’s literature as a threat, Tunisian literary critics see it as one of the happy expressions of modernity:

Aux antipodes de toute menace de décadence pour l’ordre social, les activités littéraires des femmes sont mêmes tenues pour un devoir national, l’injonction à écrire puisant, là encore, dans le “féminisme d’État” … Devoir maternel et devoir national sont indissociables, les femmes ayant en partie vocation à éduquer et à instruire les enfants de la patrie. (Kréfa 2018: 214, 216) [At the antipodes of any threat of decadence for the social order, the literary activities of women are even held for a national duty, the injunction to write drawing, again, from the ‘State feminism’ … Motherly duty and national duty are inseparable, as women are in part called upon to educate and instruct the children of the country].

If both duties are indissociable, it is in conformity with their maternal function that women are initially called to devote themselves to writing.

Bolstered by women writers’ access to publishing and the structural increase in women’s educational achievements, the most recent generations—those born between the mid-1960s and early 1970s—Kréfa concludes, are the ones who most challenge the stigmas of ‘women’s literature’ and literary achievements. In Tunisian Women of the Book, Nadia Khiari’s disappointment with people’s gendered stereotypes about artistic creation confirms Kréfa’s findings and the authorial stance. The creator of Willis from Tunis, the cat of the Revolution, Khiari identifies herself as a satirical cartoonist, visual artist, and editor.


Fig. 5.  Dora Carpenter-Latiri, Nadia Khiari, satirist, cartoonist, visual artist and editor, lives in Tunisia. Courtesy of the artist.


Describing the initial reactions to her cartoons she says: ‘Au début mes dessins étaient anonymes, on me prenait pour un homme, on m’a même traitée de macho, de phallocrate, parce que je me moquais des femmes autant que des hommes. Le dessin, la satire, les mots grossiers, c’est automatiquement associé à l’homme et ça c’est dommage’ (Carpenter Latiri 2016: 171) [At the beginning my drawings were anonymous, I was taken for a man, I was even called a macho, a phallocrat, because I made fun of women as much as men. Drawings, satires, swear words, are automatically associated with men and that it is a pity]. Surrounded by very strong women, Khiari’s self-confidence, determination, and sarcastic humour were able to flourish within a generally supportive family. Societal stereotypes about art, however, point to the different speeds in which customs and art practices manifested during the Revolution and beyond. In the portrait, the artist shows her creation immortalised on a wall, while the account reads: ‘J’adore dessiner sur les murs, depuis toute gosse j’adore faire ça’ (Carpenter-Latiri 2016: 171) [I love to draw on the walls, since I was a kid I have loved doing that]. The artist’s smile joins that of Willy. Both are, and will be, remembered as the spirited and bold icons of the Revolution. Khiari’s action of revealing her jack-in-the-box cat also seems to stand as both a warning and a promise to never forget how powerful creative women can be.

In conclusion, as the title suggests, Tunisian Women of the Book postulates books as a source of knowledge, and women as creators of knowledge. Inspired by the expression ‘People of the Book,’ which refers to those who possess the scripture or the divine book, Carpenter-Latiri revitalises the term by portraying fifteen women in their relationship to creation, enunciation, and belonging. The evocation of that expression endorses the recovering and the further expansion of the awareness of Tunisia as a plurality of cultures, languages, and religions. The substitution of ‘Tunisian Women’ for the original word ‘People,’ allows the author to link women to knowledge, creativity, and enunciation, and ultimately, aims to model a space of dignity, imagination, and civic reflection for all women. In the first part of this study, we analysed the photo-text format and the multiple spaces of interaction and dissent that its hybrid structure puts in motion. The second part demonstrates how Tunisian Women of the Book contributes to the production of a post-revolutionary feminist narrative by positing alternative configurations of belonging and by postulating the complex and contradictory spaces Tunisian women artists must inhabit within the family and the community at large.



[1] In 2011, Tunisian art historian and curator Rachida Triki remarks how: ‘multi-media installations, video works and performances—usually by female artists dealing with womanhood and its social and cultural implications—have … re-appropriated the real in order to highlight the various forms that domination and alienation can take.’ ( Tunisian curator and art critic Michket Krifa (2013: 9) and anthropologist and psychologist Lilia Labidi (2014:159) concur in asserting that women artists’ contributions became particularly prominent with the 2011 revolution. Deserving special attention are, among other artists: visual artist and photographer Héla Ammar (b.1969), documentary photographer Sophia Baraket (1983-2018), artist and art curator Meriem Bouderbala (b. 1960), photographer Rania Douraï (b. 1997), visual artist Aïcha Filali (b. 1956), multidisciplinary artist Houda Ghorbel (b. 1968), artist Sonia Kallel (b. 1973), photographer and video artist Mouna Karray (b. 1970), photographer and filmmaker Nicène Kossentini (b. 1976), visual artist Héla Lamine (b. 1984), multidisciplinary artist Faten Rouissi (b. 1967), visual artist and curator Sana Tamzini, photographer and documentary filmaker Rim Temimi, and photographer Patricia Triki (b. 1964).

[2] When visiting Tunisia in September 2011, Carpenter-Latiri witnessed new realities in public space, such as the ‘sudden visibility of men with wild beards wearing long white robes (qamis) and women wearing the full, face-covering veil (niqab).’ (2021:118) Coming back to Tunisia in 2013, the author takes pictures of women in full veil with gloves and hijabs on the beach of Gabès and comments: ‘The niqab–emphasized here by the gloves—is a new dress code for women on the beach (and in town), not seen before the revolution’ (2021: 122).

[3] Douja Mamelouk stresses how ‘When the Islamist Party Ennahda won in the October 2011 elections with a majority in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), […] many Tunisian women (mostly secularists) grew anxious regarding the present and future status of women’s rights under Islamist rule, especially since Ennahda Party would dictate the drafting of the new constitution thanks to its electoral majority. Examples of such anxiety occurred when the Constituent Assembly proposed Article 28 stipulating that ‘women are complementary to men.’ This caused an uproar in the streets of Tunis, as protesters rejected the idea of women not being ‘complete’ citizens, calling for a clause stating that both men and women are equal before the law, as stated in the 1957 Constitution’ (2015: 103).

[4] Watch Belhadj’s 2015 lecture at the SOAS University of London entitled ‘Women’s Rights and the Arab Uprisings’:

[5] All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

[6] This part has been published in French under the title Tunisiennes du livre. Rencontres avec 15 femmes remarquables après la Révolution in Expressions maghrébines of 2016.

[7] The accounts vary in length and language, depending on the location of the exhibition. Shown first at the University of Brighton, in the UK, in December 2014, Tunisian Women of the Book then travelled to Toronto, Canada, and throughout Tunisia and France in the following years.

[8] This quote was taken from an email correspondence with the author.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See, among others, the works of: Bleiker, Roland (2009), Aesthetics and World Politics; Downey, Anthony (2014), Art and Politics Now; Erjavec, Aleš (2015) (ed.), Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements; Johnson, James (2011), ‘The Arithmetic of Compassion: Rethinking the Politics of Photography’; Mesch, Claudia (2013), Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change since 1945; Rancière, Jacques (2010), Dissensus on Politics and Aesthetics; Rancière, Jacques (2009), The Emancipated Spectator; Reinhardt, Mark (2012), ‘Painful Photographs: From the Ethics of Spectatorship to Visual Politics’; Thompson, Nato (2017), ‘Living as Form’; Shapiro, Michael J. (2013), Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Discourse After the Aesthetic Turn; Sliwinski, Sharon (2011), Human Rights in Camera.

[11] Especially during the debate between the recognition of gender equality and complementarity, Borrillo states, polarisation between Islamists and secularists ‘manifested its full effects in women’s associations’ (2019: 57). Both Borrillo and Hind Ahmed Zaki also point at the undesirable position in which the longstanding Associations for Democratic Tunisian Women (ATFD) and of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) found themselves after the Revolution. Because both associations were legally authorized during the Ben Ali dictatorship, ‘Women’s rights activists were vilified as pawns of the Ben Ali regime despite the fact that many of them publicly opposed the old regime and paid a high price for their opposition’ (Zaki 2019: 3). This presumed complicity, Borrillo adds, was ‘one of the arguments that also characterises the Islamist criticism of secular feminist associations during and after the 2011 revolution’ (2019: 44). Social polarisation also manifested between the urban and rural communities. When campaigning in the most marginalised regions, Borrillo continues, ‘In some cities, like Kef or Bizerte, ATFD members were attacked and had to stop their efforts. These episodes demonstrate the deep centre/periphery divide that is still present in Tunisia, as well as the difficulties that the feminists from the elite of the capital city encounter in their relationship with people of the inner regions’ (2019: 60). Borrillo concludes, ‘[t]his polarisation confirms that the issue of women’s rights remains contested within social movements and in public life’ (2019: 69-70).

[12] According to Clifford Edmund Bosworth, the tolerance granted to the Jews of Khaybar and the Christians of Najran was later formalised in the dhimma, an agreement between the Muslim community and their subjects from among the People of the Book.  In re­turn, they had to remit an annual tribute and comply with other restrictions, some of which evolved over time during the first cen­tury of Islamic dominion. See Bosworth’s article ‘The Concept of Dhimma in Early Islam.’

[13] Art. 6 is about freedom of religion, opinion, and conscience. Its final version reads: ‘The state is the guardian of religion. It guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, the free exercise of religious practices and the neutrality of mosques and places of worship from all partisan instrumentalization. The state undertakes to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance and the protection of the sacred, and the prohibition of all violations thereof. It undertakes equally to prohibit and fight against calls for Takfir [accusation of apostasy] and the incitement of violence and hatred.’ ( Amna Guellali argues that the ambivalence of Art. 6 ‘often serve as convenient instruments for the authorities to muzzle critics, stifle non-orthodox interpretations of religion, or impose a moral order that destroys liberties. Allowing the criminality of offending the sacred is quite rightly considered to be a danger to human rights. The vast expanse of the sacred, which has neither definition nor contour, could be infinitely extended’ (Guellali 2014).

[14] See Anna Rocca’s article ‘Dora Latiri’s Un amour de tn. Textual and Photographic Representations of Attachment in a Minimalistic Tunisia’ of 2020.

[15] On the secular side, in addition to the ATFD and AFTURD associations, there were, ‘Women and Progress; Free Women of Tunisia; and Aswāt Nisā’ (Women’s Voices). On the Islamic side, Islamist women created the coalition Union of Free Women (Union des femmes libres) in 2011 to defend Arab and Islamic identity. This network was made up of four associations: Houwa (Eve), Nisā’ tunisiyyāt (Tunisian women), Tunisiyyāt (Tunisian Women) and Femmes et complementarité (Women and Complementarity), whose aim was the promotion of Muslim women in the public sphere after years of repression’ (Borrillo 2019: 56).

[16] According to Labidi, ‘the essentialists would like to see more religion in daily life’ while the existing feminisms, the universalist and differentialist, whilst ‘not opposing Islam, call for a greater role of the state and a less-prominent role for religion. All three positions oppose patriarchy’ (2015: 194).

[17] For details on the judiciary process, see Hafidha Chekir’s article of 2019. In 2013, in collaboration with Ava Djamshidi, Meriem Ben Mohamed published a book entitled Coupable d’avoir été violéeFemmes en Tunisie: liberté en péril [Guilty of having been raped. Women in Tunisia: Freedom in Peril], in which she recounts her story. Kaouther Ben Hania’s 2017 movie La Belle et la meute [Beauty and the Dogs] is also based on Ben Mohamed’s story.

[18] Several street harassments are also part of Carpenter-Latiri’s personal narrative during her stay in Tunisia at different moments of her adult life. See Un Amour de tn, p.76, as well as p. 123 and note 23 of Carpenter-Latiri 2021’s article.

[19] About the definition of state-feminism and its historical institutionalisation, see the articles of Sophie Bessis (1999), Hafidha Chekir (2000), Sana Ben Achour (2007), and Anna Antonakis book (2019), among others.

[20] It is worth mentioning that in September 2017, ‘a radical amendment to the Personal Status Code (PSC) made it legal for Tunisian Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. The reasoning of the Tunisian state in annulling the restriction was straightforward: It violated Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, which explicitly provides for equality between the sexes’ (Zaki 2019: 1). Additional rights have since been achieved: ‘a parity clause stipulating that all elected bodies should include at least 50 percent women; and a comprehensive law against all forms of gender-based violence’ public harassment included (Zaki 2019: 1). While recognising the crucial importance of these achievements, Borrillo notices the fine line between women’s rights attainments and the central power’s reinforcement, and thus comments: ‘[i]n fact, the female right to have interfaith marriages was announced one day after the adoption of another law, admitting the ‘administrative reconciliation’ for condemnation of the economic crimes committed by public officials during the regime of Ben Ali’ (2019: 72). Antonakis’ analysis goes further; by giving voice to women’s local perspective, she argues that: ‘more freedom of expression or the finalized constitution alone would not help to overcome the oppressions that the women were suffering from’ and thus draws attention to ‘the initial demands of the 2010/2011 uprisings: these centred around work and dignity, regional development and political freedoms’ (2019: 222).


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