Women Resisting Colonization: Female Rebels in Late 19th- and Early 20th-Century Tunisia – 5in10 with Nora Lafi
Nora Lafi is a historian (PhD, 1999; Habilitation, 2011), working as a Senior Research Fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. She specializes in the study of the Ottoman Empire and of the societies of the Middle East and North Africa. She has been chairing since 2020 the international research project HISDEMAB of the Leibniz-Association. She is also a private lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin and was in 2020 a Senior Fellow of the Max Weber Kolleg at Erfurt University. She co-chairs the Cities Compared project at EUME (Forum Transregionale Studien). She has published extensively on urban governance (Esprit civique et organisation citadine dans l’empire ottoman, Brill, 2019) as well as on the historical anthropology of violence (Urban Violence in the Middle East, co-ed., Berghahn, 2015), on gender studies (“Finding women and gender in the sources”, 2018) and on anti-colonial movements (“Longue-Durée Reflections on Anti-Colonial Movements”, 2022). In the academic year 2023/24, she is a Senior Research Fellow at MECAM.
How do you explain your work to someone who may not be an expert in the same field of inquiry and comes from another geographical context?
My work in Tunis as a Senior Research Fellow at MECAM aims at investigating the mechanisms of colonial occupation and violent repression, through the study of original archives from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. I adopt a specific angle of approach: historical gender studies, with a particular focus on the actions, societal position, fate in phases of repression and experiences of women in exile. These women, whom files I found in the National Archives of Tunisia, fled the former Ottoman province after resisting against French Army and Police. The colonial administration not only tracked them militarily, but also seized their properties. Hence, the double interest of this methodology: understanding the colonial repressive intrusion on the one hand and having a source listing all the properties and goods owned by females in Tunisian society on the other. This approach also enables me to decipher how colonial occupation consisted in eviction on multiple scales.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters and challenges?
In my personal academic journey, the main motivation of my interest in humanities surely came from the unacceptable prevalence and persistence of violence and discriminations against women. I experienced it both in post-colonial France, where I was born and raised in a family of Algerians from Sétif, and in the societies of the Arab world, where my career and my family ties led me. Hence, my desire to contribute to the analysis of such mechanisms to unearth how they structure societies and behaviors. Hence too, my wish to focus on history and to deconstruct clichés about the past, which, in the wake of colonial narratives, often depict women as submissive and absent from civic and professional spheres. For me, history writing is thus a vital endeavor, intimately tied with the women whose echoes I encounter in the archives.
How does your work relate to imaginations of future and how does it deal with questions of disparities?
In this research, I see disparities at various levels. There is first the fundamental and traumatic disparity introduced by colonial occupation, with the creation of discriminating administrative categories and processes. This includes not only distinction between local populations and settlers/Europeans, but also the stigmatization of rebels, suspects, and dissidents. My work also addresses gender disparities, here again at various levels. By focusing on the seminal role of females in resistance, I challenge visions of gender disparities inherited from the Ottoman period in Tunisian society. I also examine the specific repressive apparatus dedicated to women within colonial administration and justice. All these dimensions, I argue, are important elements in present-day discussions concerning visions of the future roles of women in society: the women I am studying owned properties, fields and shops. They were active workers and able to take part in decision making processes, even in times of decisive crisis and challenges like the ones colonial occupation brought. Debunking clichéd visions of the past is crucial when thinking the future.
What is the role of humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval? And what may be the task and the public of a scholar?
I see various roles for humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval. One is the historical analysis of contexts and stakes: the intertwining between geopolitics and micro-level tensions and changes; the inertia of past decisions and situations; the deciphering of actors, identities, spatialities and social organizations. Another one is the study of the societies of the past as a tool to deconstruct present-day narratives, discourses and clichés that often rely on biased interpretations. Historians have a duty making readable the various layers of historicity underlying presend-day interpretations of the past. An additional important role is the interaction between academic research, specially history I would say, and society. I see a crucial role for historians, not only in shaping, but also in contributing to daily-life functioning of the civic sphere indeed.
Can you recommend a book, text, film, or exhibition that effectively addresses questions and imaginations of the future while dealing with inequalities in interesting ways?
The first movie I’d like to recommend is Fadhma N’Soumer, by director Belkacem Hadjadj (2014), which portrays the life and achievements of Algerian female resistance fighter Fadhma N’Soumer against French colonization. This film significantly contributes to the necessary deconstruction of clichéd narratives about women in the Arab world. In the framework of all these discussions, implying reflections on upheavals, disparities, but also memories, temporalities and spatialities, I would also suggest Ashkal by director Youssef Chebbi (2022). This film explores the transformations of a recently built neighborhood on the periphery of Tunis in the wake of the 2011 revolution. It proposes both reflections on the inertia of the past, the spatial dimension of social disparities and the clash of conflicting visions of the future. I find it not only a greatly constructed work, but also a precious contribution to collective examinations of how a society reacts to change and challenges. It resonates with my research in various ways, including how individuals deal with social change at various scales and how the spatial dimension mirrors, but also shapes disparities (social, ethnic, gender).
Citation: “Women Resisting Colonization: Female Rebels in Late-19th and Early 20th c. Tunisia.” – 5in10 with Nora Lafi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.09.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48794