Impressions from the World Social Forum 2013 in Tunis

By Ilse Hanak

The World Social Forum this year took place in Tunis from 26 to 30 March at the campus of El Manar University. Expectations were high by Tunisians and other participants from the Maghreb and Mashrek region. Civil society organisations from all over the world, about 60.000 participants from 135 countries, responded with a huge wave of solidarity. Still the majority came from Arab countries. The key word of the endeavour was DIGNITY, as many here so far had lived a downtrodden life of powerlessness, poverty and disrespect. But women rights’ issues in this context were not among the most prominent ones.

Those who had experienced the “Arab Spring” were keen on spreading the message of their struggles against political and economic repression by dictators, by the financial markets and neo-liberal capitalism. And they hoped to benefit from exchange with social movements from other parts of the world struggling for similar aims. They hoped for “deepening of revolutionary and decolonizing processes“, to restore “self-determination and sovereignty over their resources“, to fight domination of debt regimes, free trade agreements, the grabbing of riches and submission to transnational companies.

Of course all the other burning questions of global concern were present: preservation of the planet and sustainable energy sources; equality of all human beings regardless of genders, cultures, religions, sexual orientation, etc. as well as their freedom of movement; rights of migrants, asylum seekers and minorities; social, fiscal and tax justice; end of wars, militarism, violence and discrimination, to name but a few.

Countless groups and initiatives had registered and offered almost 1.500 workshops, seminars and lectures. Even two events on the same subject (for instance on “Migration and Development”) could be held at the same time at two different places by two different organisations: Caritas internationalis and FORIM based in Paris (Forum des Organisations de Solidarité Internationale issues des Migrations). To gain an overview on general trends and main statements of the Forum was therefore difficult! If those two had joined into one single meeting the situation could have been more transparent. This happened likewise with other topics. To read through the programme of a single day took a long time, it was too crowded. Press releases that could have helped were issued only at the end of the Forum.

Due to this situation my remarks will give my personal impressions and not a general evaluation. The big ‘Women’s Tent‘ shown in the map of El Manar was not erected. Several events announced in the programme were not realized. For one workshop on: “Feminism between Universalism and Cultural Relativism“, announced by UniEs-vers-elles / Association Tunisienne Des Femmes and others, the speakers did no appear, but one feminist from France and one from Tunis finally held it by calling for questions from the audience. The theoretical question whether women’s rights existed as universal rights or not, remained in the centre of discussion. The statement of a sturdy Muslim woman clad in a ‘veil’ (actually a tight head scarf), who said she was Islamic but not Islamistic (that would be political), revealed that the most important right for her and her sisters was the right to work, while she would not need the right of abortion.

The same tendency could be derived from the well attended lecture on: “Women in the workplace and union“ organized by ATFD (Association Tunisiennes des femmes Democrates). Statements were to the tune that it was generally hard for women to find jobs. It was especially difficult to attain positions of higher level, even within the unions. It was deplored that many women themselves see men as stronger and more suitable as women for certain tasks – in all a situation that we know from our own past in Europe.

The Palestinian cause was very present in many events, marches, demonstrations, flags, loud public discussions and spontaneous actions. However, hostile acts like stepping on an Israeli flag placed on the ground, or burning it openly, were not appreciated by most witnesses – they felt it was not in the spirit of the Forum. In that spirit of tolerance the statement of a young volunteer who expressed the wish that the next forum should be again in Tunis, because they had had no chance to attend the lectures, was accepted readily although the speaker was a member of a Muslim brotherhood.

World Social Forums do not issue concluding (and binding) statements. Only the ‘Social Movements Assembly of the Forum” held on March 29 issued a lengthy Declaration that was put on the Forum’s website afterwards, see: It contains a paragraph on violence against women. Likewise there is a Declaration of ‘La Dynamique femmes internationale’, see:, produced on March 30 with a valuable analysis of women’s situations and very justified demands (for the English version:

In a concluding meeting only recommendations or regretful remarks were collected. They confirmed some of the weaknesses of this Forum: too many offers to get an overview, at the other hand too little possibility for small discussion groups that should have created personal relations and acquaintances between people of different backgrounds. Locations were difficult to find, no signs were put up on the many buildings. However, we must appreciate that all the deficiencies were somehow compensated by a host of truly committed Tunisian volunteers, female and male, that would never lose patience and tried to help in any possible way, even if they did not know the answer. This can be said generally of most people in Tunisia , they are friendly and patient. Thus I would like to finish off with a great “Thank you” to this brave and enduring country.

Ilse Hanak, Salzburg , WIDE Austria

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