Feminism & The Cult of Silence

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that there is a ‘cult of silence’ in the country and the society you live in, especially for issues involving women’s position in society and their rights? If yes, then what are the specific issues? Is it harmful? In what way?

OLFA: Well, I think that at the legislative level, Tunisia is considered the most advanced and even envied in terms of women’s rights among countries of the Muslim world. For Tunisian women have acquired many rights since the Persoanl Status Code of 1956 such as the abolition of poligamy, the right to file for divorce, custodial rights over children, the right of abortion, contraception, alimony etc…They acquired more rights after the uprising of 2011 such as  their participation in popular elections and their ascention to political power. Yet, there are many women who are either unaware of these rights or are  reluctant to claim them and are somehow muted by fear, by shame, by ignorance or  by their cultural and religious  heritage. 

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that there has always been a cult of silence in human societies regarding certain issues? If yes, then for what reasons? Do you think that it is actually a good thing to perpetuate such a practice? Please tell us if you know why.

OLFA: I think many women across the globe do not have the guts to reveal or talk about some issues for fear of being ridiculed, stigmatized, humiliated or oppressed even more by men in the patriarchal societies where they live. These issues include mainly verbal, physical or sexual violence, rape and sexual harassment. Personally, I think that silence participates in perpetuating and normalizing these oppressive behaviors, that is why women should break the ice and report any infringement of their rights.

SONGSOPTOK: Is there a feminist movement in your country? If yes, then what are the specific objectives? In your opinion, is it necessary? If not, then what are the main reasons for its absence?

OLFA: In Tunisia, there are many feminist movements; some are  state –sponsored and others are independent or leftist ones. These movements are mainly struggling against gender discrimination and against institutional, social and marital violence.  Yes, I think their existence is necessary since they are an emblem of resistance to patriarchy and to the abuse of power.

SONGSOPTOK: What, in your opinion, is the position of women in the country you live in? Do they have equal rights in every domain as men? If not, then which are the main areas where they receive unequal treatment?

OLFA: Tunisian women have acquired many rights and are theoretically equal to men in many domains but the enforcement of these laws on the ground seems to be difficult in some cases or totally neglected in some others.

SONGSOPTOK: A ‘glass ceiling’ is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that keeps women from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy. Do you believe in this concept? What is your personal experience in your personal and professional life? In the country you live in are there glass ceilings in different professions?

OLFA: I do believe in this concept and I think that many women in Tunisia  have been victims of this practice by those men who are in the position of power and authority in different fields and professions. Some of them have been subject to sexual harassment and have been required to sell their bodies to their managers in order to be promoted in their jobs.  As far as the field of education is concerned,  I was myself subject to sarcasm and humiliation during my PhD defense by one member of the jury who did not even read my thesis but was there just to judge me and “punish me” for my feminist thoughts such as my forthright views about the biased patriarchal society, my condemnation of sexual harassment in our universities and institutions and for my spiritual and religious beliefs published earlier on my Facebook page. This unfair treatent was meant to thwart me and silence my loud voice and also to remind me that climbing the career ladder and becoming a university professor require silence, cooperation and conmpliance with the corrupted ‘rules’agreed upon under the table. For that reason, I don’t have the intention to apply for the assistantship or stand again in front an unfair and biased jury in order to be promoted and gain more money. I prefer to preserve my dignity and my peace of mind and remain in my post as an English teacher and use my pen instead to raise my voice and wage war against the authors of these unfair treatments. I prefer to earn less money but champion justice and women’s rights by being the spokeswoman of those women who have been bullied and compelled to  turn a blind eye on the intimidations and sexual harassment they have been subject to in their jobs because of their critical social or financial situations.  

SONGSOPTOK: What is your opinion about the feminist movement? Do you think it is necessary, both at a global and a more local level? Why? In this context, what do you think are the major achievements of the Feminist movement, if any?

OLFA:  I think feminist movements should continue to exist in all countries in order to spread awareness among the oppressed women and to liberate them from the feelings of fear, shame and stigma which are muting their voices and inhibiting them from reporting cases of violence, sexual abuse or sexist oppression. 

Well, one can not deny  the major achievements of the feminist movements  such as  propelling the civil rights movement, removing the stigma surrounding sexual assaults, fighting legal and gender discrimination, inducing equality in the workplace and gainng some political rights.

SONGSOPTOK: A recent study (conducted by HuffPost/YouGov) concluded that only 20% of Americans identify as feminists, even though a whopping 82% believe that "men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” Do you find this contradictory, and if so, why? What, according to you, would be the result of a similar study in the country you live in? For what reasons?

OLFA: Yes, I find it contradictory and I think the reason is that only those 20% are brave and strong enough to admit their feminist thoughts and are ready to sacrifice some privileges and fight openly for their desired rights, whereas the rest prefer to remain in their “comfort zone” and avoid any eventual conflict with the ruling patriarchs on whom they must be financially or emotionally dependent. I guess the same contradiction would be discovered if the study was conducted in my country for similar reasons. 

SONGSOPTOK: One of the main areas of the feminist movement is sexual objectification of women almost all across the globe, especially on media. What is the reality in the country you live in and / or your country of origin? What is your opinion about this? Do you think that there is a cult of silence around this issue? Why?

OLFA: Definitely! I think that sexual objectification is intentional in all patriarchal societies especially on media and it is meant to reduce the worth of women to that of the body/ flesh/ commodity and therefore undermine their intellectual faculties and their abilities to be thinkers, decision-makers and leaders and by extension naturalize their marginalization and their oppression. They are often presented as sales hooks in commercials of all kinds in order to encourage consumerism.  I think there is not only silence around this issue but also complicity in normalizing this objectification from those very women who accept and feel proud to play these roles ascribed to them on media.

SONGSOPTOK: Finally, according to you, to what extent is feminism relevant in today’s society?

OLFA: Feminist movements across the globe have been fighting for decades to empower the marginalized and elevate the disenfranchised. Even though they’ve not reached their goals totally,  I think their existance is fundamental as a counter–power and as a non-dominant discourse as the French philosopher Michel Foucault asserts in this theory of power relations. For this feminist discourse; like other marginalized discourses,  should not be eliminated and must be tolerated as “an alternative speaking position of resistance that provides the target and therefore the tension to sustain the dominant discourse” as Foucault puts it. Since power and resistance are defined in relation to one another, then I think that feminism is relevant in today’s society and its role resides in keeping a tight rein on the patriarchal abuses of power.


OLFA PHILO (DRID) is an engagé writer and poetess from Tunisia and holds a PhD in American Literature. Her cause as a poet is to voice the buried emotions and phobias of the oppressed and downtrodden, as well as to unmask and expose hidden truths socially considered taboo or shameful. Her poems have appeared in many international anthologies of poetry and in different online and print literary journals  in USA, UK, Canada, India, China,  Philippines, Albania, Uzbekistan, Serbia, Belgium, Iraq and Italy. Some of her poems have been translated into Arabic, Serbian, Chinese, Albanian, Spanish  and Assamese. You can check her  youtube channel  below where she is uploading some  of her video poems.  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChMcYZtsitYOCixxYM5Kz5g

We sincerely thank you for your time and hope to have your continued support.
Aparajita Sen



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