ANALYSIS Dhouha Djerbi 17 September 2021
One cannot drive through rural Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the 2010 Tunisian revolution – without noticing the many women sitting or standing in the open cargo area of dilapidated light-duty trucks. If they survive these hazardous “cattle-like” journeys, they reach farmlands owned by large landowners or corporate entities, where they spend an average of eleven hours engaging in harsh agricultural labor. As the sun sets on their workday, they are transported back to their homes at a cost extracted from their already-meager wage.
This is the reality of most Tunisian rural women workers who depend on agricultural labor for an income: they are predominantly active in a sector that has witnessed a profound restructuring since the country’s independence.
The Feminization of Agriculture in the Course of Economic Recessions and Liberal Policies
In the wake of the 1970s global economic crisis, Habib Bourguiba’s Tunisian socialist experiment came to a halt – ushering in an era of liberal economic policy with a decentralization agenda that radically changed the agricultural scene in the country. Hanieh explains how this change was marked by a liberalization of agricultural pricing, which reinforced large landowners’ ability to consolidate landholdings. The dismantling of systems of tribal or collective property rights, in addition to the removal of any ceilings on rent or dues to tenancy, subsequently disempowered small farmers: “These dramatic extremes of land ownership across each North African country go a long way to explaining the severe deterioration in the standards of rural life. This is most apparent in Tunisia, where the poverty rate is five times greater in the countryside than in cities.”
This degradation of rural life was further compounded by the Ben Ali era’s aggressive wave of land privatization, with external interventionism by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) having piloted the transformation of agricultural policies. This led to a male exodus to the coastal regions searching for work opportunities and women filling this workforce gap. Unsurprisingly, womenpresently make up 58 % of the agricultural workforce in the country, a constituency of low-educated women working under egregious conditions. They are seen as disposable, less cognizant of their rights, and therefore less predisposed to mobilization. With the proportion of male agriculture workers declining considerably over the years, the “feminization” of the Tunisian agricultural scene has gained salience, not strictly in academic scholarship but also in more mainstream contexts. In a 2016 radio interview, the Agriculture and Fisheries Minister proclaimed that the rate of women working in agriculture in rural regions hovers around 80%.
The Precarious Position of Female Farmworkers in Tunisia’s Agricultural Sector
Tunisia’s women farmhands (henceforth Amilat) are not to be confused with women farmers (fallahat). While the latter either own their land (usually passed down through inheritance) or possess government-issued permissions to work on and operate agricultural land, the former are poor and of no generational wealth. While some of the Amilat work as unpaid assistants in family farming, others constitute seasonal informal workers. They lack basic decent working conditions, including social protection, health insurance, professional security, and labor protections. In the Sidi Bouzid governorate – the revolution’s birthplace – 94% of Amilat work without a contract, while 97% have no social protection and 20% are minors. A study exploring the working conditions of Amilat across North Africa maintains that 90% of the Tunisian workers identified their health problems as a direct result of their harsh working conditions, with 75% reporting experiences of gender-based violence at work.
Subsequent to post-2010 austerity measures, which de facto shrunk public expenditures and eroded an already fragile social safety net, any expansion of the Tunisian welfare apparatus on the horizon is rather doubtful, rendering the Amilat’s position ever more precarious. In 2018, several Amilat attested that their living conditions have deteriorated since the revolution, citing their inability to afford everyday necessities like surgical masks to protect from the spread of COVID-19.
Amilat between Continuing Victimization and Emerging Agency and Activism
In April 2019, 12 Amilat in the Sidi Bou-Zeid region died on the road while being transported to work – a ghastly, tragic but all-too-common incident. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights recorded 40 deaths and 530 injuries among the Amilat between 2016 and 2020 due to dangerous and unregulated transport conditions. The frequent collective death and injury of the Amilat remain a single aspect of their overall compounded marginalization. And yet, mobilizations in solidarity with the Amilat by Tunisia’s largest labor syndicate – the UGTT – have been strictly triggered by these road accidents. The latter, despite succeeding in garnering momentary public outrage and attention, has produced an unsustainable cyclical engagement with the Amilat’s struggle – one devoid of a clear strategy for formalization or unionization.
Prompted by the death of their community members, comrades and relatives of the victims of the April 2019 accident, with the support of the UGTT, mobilized and protested their undignified and lethal working conditions. Curiously – and despite the women front-rowing the protest – coverage of the phenomenon primarily highlighted the role played by the (man-led) union in organizing this display of discontent important opportunities to closely examine the women’s political voice and agency at play were seemingly ignored.
Contrasting the predominant belief – held and perpetuated by large landowners – that the Amilat are easily exploitable and consequently less prone to protest their work conditions, narratives of the Amilat suggest not only awareness of their precarious realities but cognizance of revolutionary and social disobedience practices. One worker proclaimed: “We should revolt … We should make a revolution. We would burn and demolish. Let them take us to jail, we have nothing to lose.” In a video interview with the Solidarity Center, another asked: “who picks your peppers, your tomatoes, who collects the olives for your oil exports? Is it not us, the women?”, signaling an understanding of the feminization of their labor and its importance in sustaining Tunisia’s agrarian economy. When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, many Amilat revealed that they considered themselves essential workers, on equal footing with health care laborers for the “indispensable” work they perform to ensure food security for Tunisians.
Yet, mainstream discourse around Tunisian women peasantry has almost exclusively centered around their victimization. Even the most comprehensive study (to-date, and strictly in terms of number of respondents) of the predicament of women agrarian workforce in Tunisia and neighboring North African countries (Egypt and Morocco) carried out by Population Council has fallen short in 1) neglecting to contextualize their predicament against the backdrop of neoliberal restructuring of the Tunisian agrarian space and 2) not thoroughly exploring notions of solidarity and community organizing this constituency may or may not perform. While the study does mention “empowerment,” the latter is understood through strictly entrepreneurial (read: capitalist) terms: women get to gain a few dinars a day, so they feel “empowered.” This is despite the researchers admitting that male family members at times confiscate the workers’ salaries.
I contend the Amilat are not mere passive bystanders within the context of Tunisia’s post-revolution era and that a more discursive reading of their struggle is worth undertaking. Narratives of the Amilat suggest that victimization is only one side of their story. Thus, I invite a departure from this narrative entailing a transformation driven by a complementary exploration of their political consciousness, agency, and voice. A serious engagement of their struggle must take into account the conditions that have given rise to feminized agrarian labor and to explore notions of resistance and solidarity beyond NGO-ized, diluted conceptions of “women’s empowerment”.
Dhouha Djerbi is currently completing a Professional Year at the GIZ Delegation to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she is coordinating the African Network for Women in Infrastructure (ANWIN). Her interests are in public service provision and exclusion at the nexus of gender, race and economic class in postcolonial Africa.
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 Debuysere, Loes