How Tunisia’s Women Communists Challenged the Colonial Order

Tunisia under French colonial rule was deeply undemocratic, with a social order built on formalized racial categories and the near exclusion of women from public life. But women Communists refused to accept a merely subordinate role — and built the only organizations that united Tunisians across the official racial divides.

A view of Sousse, Tunisia. (Unsplash)

On March 16, 2016, when late Juliette Bessis welcomed me at her apartment, I had the chance to meet a woman who was not only the author of several works important to my research but one of the lead actors in the history I was studying. For Bessis (née Juliette Saada in southern Tunisia in 1925) was one of the women militants active in the Tunisian Communist Party (PCT). With the help of her daughter Sophie — like her a historian — I was able to interview one of the women militants who had been active in the PCT from its World War II–era underground struggle until its suppression in 1963.

One hundred years since the party’s origins at the Tours Congress of December 1920, there are still many reasons to delve into these women’s history. The PCT’s heirs have been transformed since the 1980s, not least since their involvement in the Al-Massar movement during the revolution that brought down president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. But if the tenth anniversary of the events that launched the Arab Spring saw widespread media emphasis on women’s role in the uprising, speaking to militants like Bessis also helps us understand the much longer history of women’s involvement in Tunisian revolutionary politics.

A Tunisian Communism

The PCT had its first origins in a group of socialists who sided with the Communist International at the Tours Congress in December 1920. This congress gave rise to the French Section of the Communist International (SFIC, later French Communist Party, PCF), of which the Tunisian party was initially a federation.

The North African country had been ruled from Paris since 1881, when France imposed a protectorate on the pretext that the Tunisian state was incapable of handling its own affairs. This paternalist solution guaranteed France a stranglehold on key government posts, as well as providing a low-cost expansion of its empire.

While the French made up under 5 percent of Tunisia’s two to three million inhabitants over the colonial period, their dominance was ensured by a hierarchy explicitly based on nationality and, implicitly, on a racial definition of the social order. The division of the population into communal “categories” — hence “Europeans” as against the Tunisian “Muslims” and “Israelites” — had some roots in preexisting personal statuses, but it intensified their day-to-day effect in driving division and equality.

At first subordinated (however loosely) to the PCF, the renamed Tunisian Communist Party became legally autonomous of it in the 1930s, even while continuing to receive its guidance until Tunisian independence in 1956. More radical than the metropolitan PCF, the PCT was the first party to call for Tunisian independence. While it did not always consistently uphold this demand, it did unfailingly denounce imperialism and the colonial authorities. Repeatedly repressed, this small party, mainly active in the capital Tunis, made its voice heard in Tunisian politics until it was finally banned in 1963 by the now-independent state’s authoritarian-nationalist president Habib Bourguiba. This ban would last some twenty years.

Women’s Role

But back to Juliette Bessis’s story. In 1942, the year that she joined the PCT at age seventeen, Tunis was suffering the effects of the war and German occupation. She joined the PCT after being introduced to some of its militants by her cousin Béatrice Slama (née Saada, 1923–2018), including Aldo Bessis, who Juliette married two years later. She wanted to resist fascism and Nazism — and continued to fight for the advent of socialism in Tunisia until she finally left the country in 1962.

Like other interviews I conducted in Paris and Tunis with militants Béatrice Slama, Cherifa Saadaoui, and Ghilda Khiari, my conversation with Juliette Bessis was a necessary complement to other sources like those produced by the police (with their tendency to downplay or disqualify women’s specifically political role) and the Communist press (ever sparing with biographical detail). My meetings with these militants ensured that the information I was looking for had a living face and voice.

The words of each of these women reflected their own journeys and viewpoints. But Juliette Bessis’s comments highlighted a particular complexity in dealing with this history, also echoed by the other women active in the PCT between 1921 and 1963. From the start of our interview, Bessis rejected any notion that there was anything “specific” about women’s activism as militants: men and women, she insisted, had each shown similar courage and conviction.

Of course, that hadn’t been the “specificity” I was asking about: my point was not to minimize these women’s commitment or doubt the fact that the Communists stood for equality among the sexes. Rather, the question was about the places that women militants occupied in the party — and the role that gender played in deciding this.

Indeed, I knew already that women had been present in smaller numbers than men, and only some leading roles were taken on by women. I have since identified 184 women militants active in the party; the most active — or those who took up leadership positions — are more visible in the sources, so these are doubtless just part of the total number. But women were (as elsewhere) clearly a minority in the ranks of the PCT, whose total membership varied from three thousand to as low as thirty. Women were also a minority on the central committee, if not outright absent: seven women sat on this body, with three of them reaching the politburo and one the secretariat.

PCT central committee members by gender (women in red, men in pink).

Even so, the share of women within the PCT and its leadership bodies was still higher than all other parties in Tunisia; they had also become involved earlier and remained so in a more enduring way.

The PCT’s rhetoric put no emphasis on gender. But as per the recommendations set out by Moscow in 1921 (and thus like in other countries), it did seek to organize women on a specific basis. In 1936 it created the Tunisian Young Women’s Union (UJFT) in 1936, which was then re-founded in 1945, a few months after the emergence of the Tunisian Women’s Union (UFT). While this strategy was implemented rather belatedly (there had, in fact, been debates on the women’s question in Tunisia since the beginning of the century), the PCT was the first Tunisian party to organize women in an affiliated association.

Much like other forces in Tunisia, the UJFT and UFT obeyed a naturalist definition of women’s concerns. This meant foregrounding demands related to women’s classic roles, especially as mothers. For instance, they called for the creation of nurseries and schools, cuts in the price of food and basic necessities, and an end to armed conflict. This was also the approach of the communist-affiliated Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), created in 1945, to which UFT belonged.

Bessis’s comments reflect a refusal — common among the Communists of this era internationally — to consider the fight against women’s oppression as a specific battleground. In this view, equality between the sexes would come from the victorious revolution — so, there was no need for any separate fight outside of the preeminent class struggle.

The PCT did prioritize various aspects of this struggle, at different times: an anti-imperialist fight for independence, in 1921-22 and then again in the 1950s; antiracism, which in the 1930s–40s assumed an antifascist guise; and the labor movement itself. But equality among the sexes was never a central political demand. In the post-1945 years the party did call for universal suffrage, but more central were subjects related to motherhood such as childhood, pacifism, and better living conditions for families. A full demand for formal equality came only in 1956, insisting that all should participate equally in the birth of the independent state.

Indeed, the few PCT articles and flyers that did refer to women as a specific group almost always associated them with femininity and the social positions that resulted from it. When party strategy commanded, women were organized in special women’s associations like the UJFT and UFT. But these latter sought to train women to join the party’s overall struggle, not to highlight the gender oppression to which they were subject. They presented motherhood as the very heart of womanhood — not questioning gender roles any more than the other women’s associations of the time.

Yet these organizations did politicize women’s everyday lives and the functions and values associated with femininity — promoting protection and the virtues of the caring mother. This approach sought to encourage women to be politically active at a time when they were little visible in the public space and either absent from political parties or present in tiny numbers. This activity thus sought to spread the Communists’ sense of the model woman — a conscientious mother and autonomous working woman.

This terrain of action was doubtless highly gendered. But also decisive was what women militants strove to do with it. Juliette Bessis’s comment that “mankind is all of us” well expresses these militants’ ambition to raise women to an equal level to men, even while implicitly assuming a masculine norm.

In emphasizing the lack of any specific women’s role, Bessis is also insisting that women were committed militants. During our conversation, she was keen to make clear that male domination was not felt within party ranks. Yet she recognized that this domination was an obvious fact in all fields of society — and further highlighted the exceptional character of these women’s commitment given the realities of the wider social world.

Even if these women were relatively few in number, and both the intensity and the persistence of their engagement could vary, this takes nothing away from the importance of their choice, committing to revolutionary organization at a time when political engagement was anything but an obvious avenue for women. The PCT in theory represented a context favorable to their presence, though it did not always provide conditions liable to draw them in.

Subversive Commitment

Recovering the history of a few of these women’s lives can help sketch out a panorama of their engagement — their both marginal and subversive commitment to Communist politics — and give a sense of their particular strength of character.

Take Marie Raimbault (née Bernard), one of the militants who first gave rise to the Tunisian Communist group. Born in mainland France in 1877, this feminist, trade unionist, and schoolmistress was treasurer of the Tunisian Federation’s first politburo. Or Eliska Coquus, born in 1867, formerly an anarchist in Paris, who took over the leadership of the federation from her husband Robert Louzon when he was jailed.

Women remained in the minority, but it was in Communist ranks that an (unidentified) Muslim woman first made a public political intervention in Tunisia. From 1923 to 1927, both repression and the Communists’ focus on workplace organizing undermined women’s presence in its ranks. But strong women did join, such as Paulette Martin, a French schoolteacher who chaired party meetings around 1930.

From 1936, in the period of France’s Popular Front government, appeals were addressed to women, in particular by using a focus on maternity as a tool for peace mobilizations. The PCT’s women members grew in number — or at least, visibility — and young Tunisian women were active like never before. For instance, Denise Slama joined the UJFT, and Lina Valensi (née Boccara in 1908) became active in a related cultural organization. Like the women militants of previous years, Slama and Valensi were each well-educated; indeed, given its expectation on militants to write and express themselves, the PCT had a rather harder time sinking roots among the mostly poor and illiterate masses. This also explains why the women militants were mainly “Israelites”; the large majority of “Muslims” had no formal education.

Doubtless, Communist internationalism also had a particular appeal among the “Israelite” minority. From 1938 the Communists’ priority focus on antifascism was an essential factor in mobilizing young Jewish women from politicized backgrounds, for instance, two Italian sisters from a communist family, Nadia (1916-2008) and Diana (1919-2010) Gallico. Under the Vichy regime and then the Nazi-German occupation, Nadia Gallico, Juliette Bessis, Béatrice Slama, and twenty or so other women were active in the shadows, supporting the continuation of the banned party’s activities and protecting underground militants who often braved death.

Some, like Diana Gallico and Sabine Narboni, were themselves jailed under the occupation regime. Narboni, born in 1916, had been a militant since age twenty. Both the specific reason for her imprisonment (the fact that her handwriting was found on envelopes containing clandestine tracts) and the fact that only men were arrested on the grounds that they were party leaders, point to a division of roles. But women were nonetheless active on the underground; one young Tunisian woman, Suzanne Bokobza, led one of the groups that restructured the clandestine PCT.

The Allies’ arrival in Tunisia in 1943 brought a period of enthusiastic organizing. The Communist Party’s role on the political chessboard in the late war years had attracted new members, including an unprecedented share of women. The PCT now addressed renewed appeals to women, not least given that in 1945 French women had finally won the right to vote. In 1946, for the first time since 1928, the central committee had a woman member, Simone Vaïs (née Bessis), a Tunisian born in 1919, herself jailed in 1942.

In the postwar years, most women militants engaged in the UJFT and UFT. As we have seen, these organizations expressed demands concerning women’s living conditions as well as more general struggles. But these were also spaces for political formation, in which women could discuss and plan for action, learn the importance of educating themselves, exercise a trade, and take charge of their own existence.

“Muslim” Tunisian women also joined the PCT. Their presence is explained by a (very small) increase in the number of women who had access to school education but also by the party’s dynamism in this period and its creation of communist cells which organized meetings at hours suiting most women’s daily routines, even when women’s engagement in politics remained rare. In 1951 Cherifa Saadaoui (née Daly), a militant since 1946, joined the UFT’s leadership bureau and the PCT’s central committee.

While the women’s cells prioritized oral communication to allow illiterate women to take part in PCT activities, Cherifa Saadaoui was one of the few militants to come from a modest background. Conversely, a prominent “Muslim” militant like Soad Jrad (née Abdelkrim; 1926–2006) was a teacher. One of the UJFT leaders from 1949 and an active Communist, she addressed assemblies and all manner of protests. The so-called Tunisification of PCT leadership organs boosted the role of “Muslims” but also an Arabic-speaking “Israelite,” Gladys Adda (née Scialom; 1921–1995), who sat on the party’s central committee from 1949 to 1956.

Thirty other women were active in propaganda, meetings, and protests on a day-to-day basis, like Denise Sfez (née Dana; 1920–2009) and Suzanne Jrad (née Meïmon; 1920–2007), both active from the war period onward. Jrad’s self-education allowed her to leave her typist job and become head of service at a large bank, at the same time as raising her three children. Indeed, most of these women combined their militant activity with a job — or even a career — and raising a family. In general, most shared their family life with a Communist husband, though this hardly implied a sharing of domestic labor, which was also not discussed in the Communist movement. Some women did, however, use their political involvement as a tool for negotiating this problem.

The postwar Tunisification of the PCT was followed by its turn toward an open call for independence — a demand hitherto blunted by both the antifascist alliance and the hope that a socialist France was around the corner. In 1951, Cherifa Saadaoui brought the pro-independence message onto the WIDF congress in East Berlin wearing the traditional women’s clothing, the sefseri. The following year, when the colonial authorities repressed the Tunisian national movement, women Communist militants organized a solidarity mission to help the prisoners and amplify their demands.

Tunisia did finally become independent in 1956, to the Communists’ joy. But the party’s dynamism was soon quashed. Hit by both colonial-era repression and splits in the international communist movement, following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, PCT ranks were further thinned in this period by obstacles created by the post-independence regime. Such was the case of the UFT, which in these years sent aid packages to the National Liberation Front (FLN) on the other side of the Algerian border, during its struggle for independence. In 1959 the UFT was denied authorization, foreshadowing a fate that would also befall the PCT itself four years later — putting an end to both the women’s union and the legal party.

Standing Up for Themselves

In committing politically, taking up important roles, and expressing their views, these militants were hardly representative of colonial Tunisia’s mostly illiterate and poor Muslim population. But they did break out of the positions generally attributed to women. The PCT also represented a rare internationalism in action — it was the only space where individuals from the different population “categories” imposed by the colonial authorities worked together. For, these women it thus also provided a site of identification, allowing them to define themselves outside of their assigned social and racial roles by affirming their Communist attachment.

For some of the “Israelite” women militants from bourgeois-Francophile backgrounds, their activism as Communists made them aware that they truly belonged to Tunisia. In addition, a few women, such as Paulette Martin, Gilda Khiari, Suzanne Jrad, and Eugénie Ennafaa, transgressed the colonial order and social divisions by marrying men officially labeled “Muslims.” Some of these 184 activists, like some men, made the PCT into more than a party: as one of these militants’ daughters put it, it was simultaneously “their belonging, their hopes, and their family.” After independence, many militants joined the wave of mass emigration to France which emptied Tunisia of its “Israelite” population — an even stronger pull given the party’s loss of dynamism and final suppression.

These women’s commitment would nonetheless shape their lives in an enduring way — and leave a mark on Tunisia’s own history. As inspiring figures who had fought for women’s autonomy, they helped prepare the ground for the blooming of Tunisian feminism in the 1980s. These 184 militants’ commitment owed less to the historical conjuncture and the program of action offered to them than their own powerful desire to struggle. Four years after Juliette Bessis’s passing, the former Communist’s words tell of what her revolutionary commitment brought to her life. Like her comrades, Juliette Bessis was a woman and a militant too.