Wilson Center Experts
I grew up in a society emerging from a long colonial past and have always sought to understand how the past both persists and can be transcended in the present and future. This led me to certain generic concerns-how to construct ethical social practices that may help us deal with past wrongs and contribute to a more just and equitable society-and to an approach that is multi-disciplinary, privileging anthropological, historical, and psychological perspectives. During my early studies in psychology and psychoanalysis in Paris and my participation in the women's movement of that period, I found myself simultaneously in contact with people from all over the world, yet in a context that appeared dominated by European concerns and that neglected crucial problems particularly relevant to the South and to the Arab world. This quickly led me to an anthropological problem. The research I began in France was greatly influenced by this experience and focused on such questions as the relationship between medical practice and women's bodies and the relationship between state and family (with regard to birth control and, consequently, relations within the couple). When I returned to Tunisia the contradiction I confronted-between a discourse about women that was pervasive and a situation in which women were marginalized in public and political space-was equally formative. Here I adopted an historical perspective, as I sought to uncover the history of Tunisian women's participation in political action, a subject that until then had been largely ignored. This work led me to a better understanding of the ties between the political domain (history and rights of women), medicine (sexuality, reproduction, death in childbirth, and undernourishment of daughters), and moral values. This research developed into a broader project concerning the connections between medicine and culture and, in the early 1990s, led directly to my interest in how attitudes toward life and death were related to culturally constructed gender identities. In 1994, I expanded this project, beginning field research in Egypt into the cultural and ethical effects of applying advanced medical techniques. Taken together, these two issues raised the broader problem of how supposedly "rational" techniques interact with social interests and how discussion of such questions proceeds in the public sphere. While continuing research on these topics, I began in 1996 to examine other aspects of morality in the public sphere and to extend my research into new geographical areas. In addition to beginning work on the notion of solidarity which, in Tunisia, is employed to bridge differences between social classes, regions, and the sexes, I initiated field research in South Africa on the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in Senegal on family reorganization. Taken together, these four areas of research-solidarity, advanced medicine, surmounting past injustice, new developments in family structure-allow me to address in a systematic way how societies across Africa construct the public sphere and how they discuss, debate, and elaborate responses to the crucial problems they face.
Public morality in developing countries; women's history and women's rights
This project involves four case studies from Africa and the Arab world, each reflecting a fundamental issue that developing societies face and each showing a society moving in encouraging ways toward the construction of new values based on increasingly open debate, higher levels of civil society participation, and growing attention to human rights. The studies address the relationship between science and ethics in the medical sector (Egypt), the capacity to surmount past injustice (South Africa), ethical foundations for wealth redistribution (Tunisia), and new attitudes toward family (Senegal). Taken together, these studies have policy implications for development problems world-wide.
- Origines des mouvements féministes en Tunisie (in Arabic), 1990.
- Cabra Hachma: sexualité et tradition. 1989.
- From Sexual Submission to Voluntary Commitment: The Transformation of Family Ties in Tunisia. Cairo Papers in Social Science, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.