Tunisia’s Foremost Fisherwoman and the Political Uses Of Feminism

Salha Bouri in her home in Kerkennah, December 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi.

When Salha Bouri first started going out fishing she had chapodiphobia, the fear of octopuses. She would hand-construct a charfiya – a traditional palm leaf fish trap used uniquely on the archipelago of Kerkennah – and then ask another woman to go out to sea with her so that she could take on the octopus if they found one. After four years of practice, in 1979, she went out by herself. There was a particularly blue spot in the water, a sign that there is an octopus there. She couldn’t see it but started hitting the blue spot.

“I kept hitting it but it was as if I was hitting a wooden thing. I kept fighting with it for a full hour until I won!” she said, adding that the octopus weighed 13 kilos.

She put the giant creature in a basket, dragged it to land and placed the basket on a pile of rocks. A man walked past and offered to help her carry it back; he asked whether there were three or four octopuses in the basket.

“I told him it was just one octopus, he backed away and swore if he knew it was one octopus he wouldn’t have come to help me with it!” Bouri told Meshkal.

Salha Bouri in her home in Kerkennah, December 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi.

In her house, Bouri, now 88, has kept all of the printouts that talk of her escapades; she drinks out of a mug bearing her face. A few hours after we met, she called me and asked me to go back to her house to see the printout of the newspaper article about the 13 kilo catch, including a photo.

“You can see me walking out of the sea, holding the octopus,she said.It’s a big deal.”

Salha Bouri in her home in Kerkennah, December 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi.

Bouri was the first woman in Tunisia to get a boat license and the first girl in her town, Alataya in Kerkennah, to attend school and to ride a bicycle. Her cycling abilities led people to fear her, she says. She became famous; her face and boat have been printed on magazine covers in numerous languages, including French and Mandarin. As an active member of the Tunisian Women’s Union, she received funding from international organizations, like the FAO, to run agriculture and literacy workshops with women. On her own boat, she had 3 to 4 men working under her at one time, amounting to around 100 over the years.

The fishing port of Alataya in Kerkennah, December 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi.

Colonial Cultural Symbols

She had to pay her workers above the going rate, partly because they didn’t want to work under a woman, but also because the other people in the village didn’t like her, she said. This wasn’t (just) because of her cycling abilities.

“I’ve known I was hated since my birth,” she said, remembering how her classmates used to say: “That’s the mtoren’s family. Stay away from the mtoren.”

According to Tarek Bidiouf, historian at the University of Tunis, the term “mtoren” was used, especially during the 50s, to refer to people who “have left Islam, who are atheist, and who do not have the right to be buried in Muslim cemeteries.” Protesting against the burial of French and French naturalized Tunisians in Muslim cemeteries was one of the strategies of the anti-colonial movement the Young Tunisians, who led protests from the Djellez cemetery in Tunis in 1911 after French colonial authorities attempted to appropriate the cemetery land as their own.

“It wasn’t like now when Tunisians look for a French or European nationality. French nationality was the symbol of the enemy, who is not a Muslim. The movement mobilized this [point] to fight against colonization and the administration,” Bidiouf explained.

Bouri said the term referred to her father’s French citizenship, and then said she was too tired to talk about this subject. Her son, Khaled Achour, who lives in Tunis, filled in the blanks: her father was a wealthy fisherman with many boats close to the French colonial rulers.

“He mingled with the French, who were armed, who walked around armed in the village and who had authority in the village,” he said. “He was the one with the most property – land and houses; the French came to his house to eat and drink. He was solicited by the French and hated by the Tunisians.”

Bouri, the father, didn’t have an official position, but his friendship with the French gave him power: he was the only person allowed to sell alcohol, no one dared touch his property, and he was authorized to carry a pistol. He also acquired French nationality.

“Salha was born French. She wasn’t born Tunisian,” Achour said of his mother.

And so it was not out of economic necessity that Bouri started fishing, unlike most women on the archipelago that would wade into the sea or accompany their husbands on boat. She took it up when she moved back to Alataya from Tunis in 1975, after her husband, a military officer, retired with a reasonable pension. By this time, she had acquired Tunisian nationality for herself, and for her father and brother. She sent her father to Mecca to perform the hajj pilgrimage “in front of everyone.” When I asked if she started fishing for financial reasons she directly said: “No, I started working at sea just to upset the people of Alataya. Just to show them that [my father] Bouri had someone by his side, that he had someone to occupy his place, that the Bouri family didn’t die.” 

Putting herself at the vanguard of women’s rights was a useful for tool for Bouri in her personal quest to restore her family name; likewise, the country’s former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali polished his image by instrumentalizing the feminist cause and the example of Bouri, in particular.

Bouri started fishing in 1975 but it wasn’t until after Ben Ali took power, that she became one of the regime’s “feminist” icons. She was able to buy her four-and-a-half meter boat thanks to two close friends from the Women’s Union, who became ministers. They first sent her a TV crew in 1989 and then one day after the report aired, a local party representative came to grant her a 10,500 dinar loan, which had been denied until that point, to buy a boat. Her son says the regime gave her the boat.

A History of Politicizing Women’s Rights

Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba fashioned himself as “the liberator of women,” a title which is now engraved on his tomb in Monastir. Laws passed under Bourguiba granted women some of the strongest rights in the region under the 1956 personal status code, which abolished polygamy and granted women the right to seek divorce. Defending women’s rights “was useful domestically and internationally for the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes to be seen as carrying forward the mantle of secular progressivism,” says Monica Marks, professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi. “They were big advancements for women’s rights in some ways, but where it gets fraught and dicey is when you realize that at the same time Bourguiba was closing off any form of political space in the country – space to express political contestation.” Women on the left and part of the Ennahdha movement suffered torture, rape and imprisonment; and the principle of women’s rights itself was used as a justification for a crackdown on the latter.

The 13 of August, the anniversary of the introduction of the 1956 personal status code, became national women’s day and remains an important political occasion, or an important occasion for politicians. On 13 August 2018, Beji Caid Essebsi, who was minister of interior in Bourguiba’s government, pledged to grant women equal rights in inheritance, a controversial law project that was seen as a political move against his opponents. Two years earlier, in 2016, he had invited Bouri to the palace as the “first female boat captain” and presented her with a medal.

Tunisia’s leaders over the years are hardly unique in instrumentalizing women’s rights  for political gain. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman gave women the right to drive as part of a propaganda campaign branding him as a reformer, while imprisoning activists who campaigned for the law to change. Emirati Princess Latifa was held hostage while her father’s government sold an image of Dubai as a “modern and progressive society” with women in important positions. Western powers, especially the US, have justified war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of saving and liberating women, or “womenandchildren” – to use a term coined by feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe, who notes that in this construction “the women become children.” Likewise, aside from the hypocritical aspects, state feminism – when led by an authoritarian regime that doesn’t empower citizens – infantilizes women. 

Tunisia’s current president Kais Saied has two framed photos in his office. One, on the table behind him, is of women – artisans in the working-class neighborhood Hillel; the other, on his desk, is of a child giving Saied a kiss on the cheek. The Hillel photo was taken on the 13 August of this year, one month and a half after Saied suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister. The country was full of expectations around what direction the president would take on questions around women’s rights, as well as the political situation in the country; it was rumored that Saied would appoint a female prime minister that day. 

He didn’t, at that particular moment. But eventually, on 29 September, he nominated geologist Najla Bouden as prime minister. She made headlines in international media as the first female prime minister in Tunisia and the Arab world, but her nomination came  after Saied had issued a decree partially suspending the constitution and transferring most of the prime minister’s powers to the president. Commenting on the 13 August rumor, but also applicable to today, Malek Lakhal, a researcher on issues related to feminism and class, said: “It would be deliciously ironic to name a woman to be a prime minister, in a framework where everyone knows that the prime minister would be purely decorative.”

Lakhal wasn’t hoping for a female prime minister that day and would rather forget 13 August altogether. The date, she said, is emblematic of an elitist and didactic state’s “steps to modernity,” a process by which “women needed to be liberated in a certain way and women can gain from that framework but in the bigger picture, women are not really winning.” She cited examples of how under Bourguiba lower class rural women were sterilized without consent and women were used as guinea pigs for contraceptive pills. 

On the other hand, Halima Jouni, from the Tunisian Democratic Women’s Association, was expectantly waiting for the evening news. “Nothing, no decision,” she said, disappointed, when we spoke just after 8 o’clock.

“It was a bit better than last year” she added (last year, Saied affirmed his position against giving women equal inheritance rights to men; this year he didn’t mention it),

That said, Saied, like others before him, did not miss the occasion to make a political statement. He chose to visit Hillel and, in doing so, communicated the importance of social and economic rights of women but didn’t address political and civil rights; some feminists accused him of creating a dichotomy between the two.

“Kais Saied is revolutionary in that he is egalitarian [in terms of class], but he is paternalistic,” Lakhal said of Saied’s 13 August political stunt in Hillel. “He has the educationist Bourguiba posture, which is dangerous.” 

Last 13 August, Saied continued the tradition of giving medals to Kerkennian fisherwomen. Hana Souissi, 72, went to Tunis for the first time and met the president who told her that “Kerkennians are good and strong.”

Hana Souissi, wearing the medal President Kais Saied gave her, in front of her home. Photo by Layli Foroudi, December 2020.

Souissi started fishing as a child in Kraten, in the north of the archipelago, and continued with her husband, with whom she would go far – up to three hours – from the coast on a small boat. After he died six years ago, the family sold the boat. But Souissi continues to catch octopus by foot in the shallow water off the coast of Kraten.