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Women’s Rights and Activism in North Africa

Second-year Ph.D. student and The Morris Goodman Award for the Study of African Languages recipient Issrar Chamekh was finishing high school when the Tunisian Revolution started. In the following few years, Chamekh continued protesting while working as a research assistant for foreign researchers and journalists. “After about two or three years, I knew the protests changed me as a person, as a citizen, but the research experience was also impactful and I loved it’', Chamekh said. For this reason, she applied to the Fulbright Fellowship, after which she subsequently studied in Portland, Oregon. In this interview, Chamekh discusses how her research was shaped by events in Tunisia, the Fulbright Program, and her academic experience at Northwestern. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Q: You recently received the Morris Goodman Award for the study of African languages. Before that, in 2017, you were awarded a Fulbright and received a degree at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Tunis. How did your international academic experiences shape your research interests? 

Issrar Chamekh: The reason I did the Fulbright and now the Ph.D. is because of my participation in the protests in Tunisia. The Fulbright was really helpful because I was able to get a master’s degree in Political Science from a small program and that helped me transition from a completely different field as well as academic culture, to my current PhD studies. I was able to do so while fully funded and in touch with a network of brilliant Fulbrighters from all over the world. It was for sure a life-changing experience and I'm still really good friends with some of the Fulbrighters I met along the way. Some of them have also gone on to pursue a doctoral degree like me and we talk frequently. We mostly commiserate about the trials and tribulations of graduate school.  

Those two years definitely brought everything together for me: the experience of participating in the protest, the research assistant experience, and the Fulbright — that just sent me on a different track. The Ph.D. is a difficult endeavor, and all those experiences lessened a lot of the culture shock, the academic culture shock as well as being in an unfamiliar place far away from home.

Q: Your research interests span women's representation, union-party linkages, electoral systems, colonial governance, political institutions, comparative historical analysis, qualitative research, the Maghreb, Africa. How are you able to manage and integrate these themes into your interests? 

IC: I'm interested in women's representation across the world, not just in North Africa, but my immediate geographical focus is Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, specifically. Broadly speaking, I'm looking at how different institutions together shape women's representation. I’m also interested in party politics and labor unions as political actors. My interest in unionism stems from my mother being unionist. So, I grew up with the union basically. When I started doing the Ph.D., I started revisiting a lot of things I had seen my mother deal with. As a woman in the union, she also has a completely different experience from the men. So, I think this was a big reason for my interest in women's representation and how institutions create gender inequality.  

Q: In 2019, you were able to visit Harboub, a women’s prison in Tunisia, where you noted: “The reality is that Tunisians got rid of the regime figureheads while the real oppressor remains in charge: institutions. The stories I will share today are a case in point.” At the same time, in the U.S. activists and scholars alike criticize the carceral regime. How, in your observation, does the fight for carceral reform extend across the globe? 

IC: I've had life-changing conversations there because I'd never stepped into a women's prison — let alone had conversations with the prisoners. I had joined a working women’s union and it was the month of Ramadan. It’s a tough time for anyone, let alone incarcerated women, so we organized two dinners, breaking our fast together inside the prison. And we followed with some music and dance. It was just a way for us to alleviate some of their daily misery. It was an intense experience for me: on the one hand, I was ecstatic to be able to do this small thing with them. On the other hand, it was a troubling one, not only for what I heard chatting with the women, but for the guilt I felt walking out of the door at the end of the evening. Most of all, I felt some shame at what felt like a sort of “intellectual voyeurism”, deriving some intellectual pleasure at this unique experience and the things I was taking in, chatting, laughing, and sometimes crying with the women. I often grapple with this shame as I envision future fieldwork I will eventually carry out for my doctoral degree. But that’s a conversation for another day. 

But to go back to your question, as a woman, when you're interacting with the state, say you're going to the police to report an incident, you're likely to be harassed and questioned. And this is a universal experience for women, as the #MeToo movement has shown. In fact, any minority is likely to receive this treatment. We’re at the mercy of agents of the state--in this case, the policy--and the liberties they take interpreting the law, however “progressive” that law is. It’s worse when you’re in a context where legal texts are especially punitive towards women. 

Most of the women I spoke to in the prison are there for some “offense” related to their identity as women. This is the most hurtful part as it’s almost as if the legal apparatus has a life of its own. An example of this is the way these women describe their experiences and how they got to that point in prison — most of them were subjected to some form of sexual policing. Either it was sex work or for one of them, she was in there for “adultery”! At that point, I hadn’t even heard of that before. In many cases, family members are the ones that inform the police. Here we see how the family is in a sense also conspiring with the state. You find this carceral logic everywhere where a minority group is involved: from women anywhere in the world, to white people calling the police on Black people. The idea here is to exclude, to eliminate, to put away. That’s how I see the universality of this experience. 

Q: The Morris Goodman Award provides funds for graduate students to study and research African languages. What do you plan to study with the support of this fund? 

IC: I'm interested in the Maghreb which spans most of North Africa, from Libya in the East to Mauritania in the West. A large number of the population in this region speaks an indigenous language. They’re considered to be various dialects of Tamazight, or Berber, a language long spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa. Speakers of different dialects can still often communicate with one another. I received the Morris Goodman Award to study Kabyle, which is a dialect of Berber, spoken mainly in Algeria. My plan is that reaching fluency in this one dialect would greatly facilitate acquiring some of the others such as Morocco’s Riffian, or Tuareg. I think a large weakness in North African studies is the language divisions that we see: written works either deal with Arabic-speaking groups or when Berber is involved, it’s usually in relation to Berber speakers’ ongoing struggle for supportive state policies to ensure the survival of the language. For my own work, I recognize the uniqueness of Berber speakers’ experiences to a degree, as I also think it is important to look beyond these language divisions to see share experiences, and if there is some variation in experience, language is one of the factors and shouldn’t be the sole factor for that variation. I also believe that it is the scholar’s job to speak their interviewee’s language and not the other way around. I am the one being hosted in a community different from mine and given time and attention. I don’t take that for granted, and I think using all the resources I have to lessen the burden I might pose on my interlocutors and it is the least I can do. I believe I am in an extractive business. I struggle with that idea, but the least I can do is recognize it and do what I can to respect the human without whom I wouldn’t have a career. I hope programs invest more funds for supporting students the way the Program of African Studies has helped me so far. Learning languages is expensive and time-consuming, and it should be part of the things we fund regularly.

Interview by Yunkyo Kim (WCAS '22)