Women Forgotten in the History of the Trade Union Movement: The Figure of Chérifa Messaadi
By Arbia Selmi
“We are not a political party, but we are integrated in the political life as a trade union.” – Statement of the General Secretary of the UGTT Sfax on 30 March 2022, during our visit to the region with the MECAM delegation.
Despite its important role in the history of Tunisia, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is one of the most telling examples of the perpetuation of gender inequalities in Tunisia. The trade union environment is considered a male universe and is dominated by a patriarchal culture where women, until today, do not really find their place. Women remain in the shadows, even though there have been many female members and activists in the grassroots unions since the creation of the trade union centre (Figure 2), and a “Commission of Working Women”, which is supposed to represent them, has existed since 1982. But men retain the most valued and responsible positions in the trade union apparatus, especially those with the most symbolic and material capital who are able to generate media attention for the union.
During our visit to the local union of Kerkennah on 31 March 2022, we had the opportunity to see the photo exhibition at UGTT Kerkennah, in the large assembly hall.
This exhibition illustrates the main events remembered of the history of the trade union movement, including many photos of the famous leaders of the UGTT, mainly Farhat Hached and Habib Achour, who are both natives of the island. However, women are almost absent in this presentation.
During our visit to the fair that traces the history of the UGTT trade union movement at the local union of Kerkennah, we noted that Chérifa Messaadi, the first woman elected to the executive board at the fourth congress of the UGTT in 1951, is still not represented in the photos, nor in the events organized by the trade union centre, although she is originally from Sfax.
She was considered a “feminist and revolutionary”. With her husband Mahmoud Messaadi, she shared the same ideas: the struggle for the freedom of the country, of women and of the spirit. After having met, they joined the union together. She became an activist in the education union, of which he was the Secretary General. From 1947 to 1968, Chérifa Messaadi was the general secretary of the technical and vocational education union, and at the same time a member of the national education federation. Later, she became Minister of Social Affairs and worked a lot with the UGTT to modify the collective agreements.
In 1952, the founder of the UGTT Farhat Hached was assassinated by the French counter espionage services because he was fighting against colonization in a political context in which the French government was trying to quell aspirations for national independence (through arrests, exile, etc.). On the same day, Mahmoud and Chérifa Messaadi were arrested. At the beginning, Chérifa was forcibly interned in the psychiatric hospital of Bizerte and her husband was deported to Kebili, in the south of Tunisia. Later, the French transferred Chérifa to her husband under house arrest.
The portrait of Chérifa Messaadi proves that women were present since the creation of the UGTT, but remain unrepresented in the historical accounts of the UGTT. No photo pays tribute to her, despite her activism alongside the founders of the trade union centre. Nevertheless, no woman has managed to reach the executive board since 1951. Although women constitute 54% of the UGTT’s members in 2017, they suffer from an ‘iron ceiling’ within the organisation.
Since 2011, female trade unionists have been mobilising for their rights, for equality and for a recognition of their role and their place in the union’s activities. They are fighting for a small quota guaranteeing their place in positions of power. The campaign has two components: an inter-union campaign supported by the top of the union’s hierarchy, called “partners in struggle, partners in decision”, and another campaign supported by the bottom of the union’s hierarchy, mainly by female textile workers, called “female trade unionists competent in decision making”. At the Tunis congress in 2017, this struggle was rewarded by the vote of a 20% quota for women and the election of the first woman to the executive board after Chérifa Messaadi, whom the media calls “the symbol of all Tunisian women” since then.
 Selmi Arbia, “Les mobilisations des femmes syndicalistes pour l’égalité en Tunisie post-révolutionnaire: le cas de l’union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT)”, Thèse de doctorat sous la direction de Sophie Pochic (EHESS, CNRS, CMH,ENS) à l’Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris: 2022.
 Mahfoudh Dorra, Les femmes tunisiennes dans le travail et le mouvement syndical, Rapport pour la Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2017, 46.
 Selmi Arbia, “Les mobilisations des femmes syndicalistes pour l’égalité en Tunisie post-révolutionnaire”.
 Selmi Arbia, “Les syndicalistes femmes contre le plafond de verre dans la Tunisie (post) révolutionnaire”, in Ethnologie française, vol. 49, no. 2 (2019): 293–309.
 Selmi Arbia, “Des ouvrières dans les syndicats tunisiens depuis la Révolution : entre espoirs d’émancipation et marginalisation”, in Le genre au travail. Recherches féministes et luttes de femmes, ed. Lapeyre Nathalie et al., Syllepse (2021): 71–78.
Arbia Selmi is a sociologist of labour and gender. Her dissertation at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) focuses on the mobilization of women trade unionists for access to positions of power in the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). In addition to her scholarly work, Arbia is a feminist activist engaged in struggles for gender equality and combating violence against women in Tunisia. From March to June 2022, she is a Fellow of the Interdisciplinary Fellow Group (IFG) on “Identities and Beliefs” at the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb in Tunis.
Further articles in the #Identities&Beliefs thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Alyssa Miller and Arbia Selmi, The UGTT: A “Counter-Power” in Contentious Times – Notes from the Field, 07 June 2022
Alyssa Miller, Touche pas à ma UGTT: The Syndical Movement as a ‘Secular Sacred’ Value, 16 June 2022
Elizabeth Bishop, Seven Men and One Table: The 20th Century through a Photograph, 21 June 2022
André Bank, Commemorating International Struggles at UGTT Sfax: Palestinians and Saddam Hussein, 23 June 2022
Citation: Arbia Selmi, Women Forgotten in the History of the Trade Union Movement: The Figure of Chérifa Messaadi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38609