At Bizerte Pioneer High School (BPHS) in Bizerte, Tunisia, a group of Tunisian youth are fighting for gender equality and unveiling the truth behind “Tunisian Exceptionalism”, a term that has grown in popularity after Tunisia’s successful democratic transition after the Arab Spring. This term describes Tunisia as an exception to the rest of the Arab world, which remains unable to undergo democratic transitions similar to the one that Tunisia is experiencing now.

Siwar Tebourbi, a Tunisian student at BPHS, and several of her peers launched a campaign protesting a customary regulation that is prevalent in most Tunisian high schools that only obliges girls to wear the Tunisian school uniform (a blue blouse that is worn over clothes). To Siwar and her male and female friends alike, this law is unjust and does not reflect the values of gender equality that are taught in schools. In addition, it is incompatible with Tunisia’s position as one of the leading countries(according to the UNDP gender inequality index) in the Arab world in regards to women’s rights.

In Tunisian public primary schools, wearing the school uniform is required for both female and male students. However, as students transition into middle school, this requirement is only enforced for girls. While this is the case with most schools, some institutions continue requiring males and females to wear the blue blouse. As expressed by Mouni Sifaoui, one of the leaders of this campaign, “To them (the school administration), the blue blouse is not a school uniform. Its purpose is to solely “cover” girls.”

The term “cover” resonates well with the history and contemporary culture of Tunisia. As a Muslim and Arab country, Tunisia still wrestles with issues related to notions of gender, sexuality, physicality, and secularism. Although women in Tunisia are often thought of as enjoying the most freedoms in the Arab world, the issue that Siwar and her friends are rallying behind uncovers the often overlooked gaps between societal norms and governmental laws. For example, even though Tunisian women were the first in the Arab world to gain the right to divorce in 1957, there is still a negative and sexist stigma towards divorced women. Because of stagnant social norms, women in Tunisia are often unable to take advantage of their constitutional rights.

One of the main reasons that made many of the girls in this campaign first realize the sexist nature of this school law is this idea of social stigma that is seen, especially, in the behaviors of school supervisors. Mouni expresses: “Since we started being insulted by supervisors and told things like: ‘cover yourself’, ‘where is your blouse?’, ‘why is your blouse short?’,  and several other things that are not always appropriate, we realized the sexist nature of this rule.”

A few weeks before the campaign was launched, Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi introduced a new law that would allow Tunisian women to marry non-Muslim men after they were prohibited from doing so in 1973. The president also announced his intent to establish gender equality in the laws that are related to matters of inheritance. Apart from the backlash that the president got from several religious leaders who thought his actions were un-Islamic, the reemergence of the rhetoric of “Tunisian Exceptionalism” in regards to Essebsi’s actions could be the most concerning response thus far.

Although outsiders might look at Tunisia's laws as progressive and liberating, these laws only reflect what is written and not what is practiced. Tunisian society, its culture, and its institutions still carry deeply rooted sexist beliefs in regards to women and their bodies.

The rhetoric of “Tunisian Exceptionalism” overlooks such struggles that urgently need to be brought up to the table and closely examined, thereby deepening the gap between written official laws and unspoken societal norms.

Siwar’s campaign has been gaining continuing support from teachers, students, journalists, writers, and, most importantly, males students in her school. Houssem Saafi, one of the male leaders in this campaign explained that “We will support the girls’ demands for gender equality until the end as they are just and legitimate.”

Despite such support, the school uniforms campaign still faced the backlash. Since the girls stopped wearing the school uniform as part of their campaign, school officials have threatened to ban them from attending classes if they do not abide by the rules. For Siwar, “We decided to take the risk of being denied access to classes to keep fighting for our right to equality. There are things that we need to take a risk for.”

This movement has been very popular on social media and many people from all over the world shared the campaign’s hashtag #menich_lebsetha (“I will not wear it”) to express their support. The local radio station “Radio Bizerte” documented this campaign and interviewed the students to voice their demands. Their video had over 30,000 views and hundreds of shares on Facebook.

All of the students are united under the same goal: gender equality. They do not care whether this equality would mean having a uniform for both males and females or getting rid of the uniform completely. Their only concern is to have the same rules for males and females, especially in educational institutions where they are supposed to learn how to become democratic citizens that value gender equality.

After speaking with Siwar and expressing our intent to write about the #menich_lebsetha campaign, she urged us to emphasize the following points: “Our goal is not to spread disrespect in school settings. Our goal is to establish the universal human value of gender equality in our schools in Bizerte and in all of Tunisia.”

Taking into consideration the Tunisian president’s recent focus on the issue of gender equality, which can be seen from his new marriage law, promises for gender equality, and speeches regarding inheritance policy reforms, we would expect him or his government to have responded to the concerns and demands of these youth. However, the government has yet to give any attention to this issue or campaign, which raises many questions in regards to the government’s agenda towards the issue of gender equality.

#menich_lebsetha is ongoing and the girls at BPHS are still refusing to wear the school uniform until a fair school law regarding the uniform is established. If it really stands on the side of gender equality, the Tunisian government needs to take action regarding this issue. For this to happen, the international community needs to recognize that Tunisia is not really as exceptional as it might look like. Deeply rooted gender inequalities and several other issues affecting the Tunisian society exist and need to be talked about, as well as, fought against locally and internationally. This is the only way that we can contribute to protecting the Tunisian democratic transition and creating a truly exceptional Tunisian model that can be applied elsewhere.