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A Look at the Women Behind Tunisia’s Democratic Revolution

In her new documentary, Jessie Deeter tells the story of how Tunisia assembled its constitution following the Arab Spring—and what it means for two women in particular.

As the international marches demonstrated last month, women in some of the world’s oldest democracies feel their rights are currently under attack. How are women faring in some of the world’s youngest, still-forming democracies—in Bhutan, Somalia, and Tunisia, for instance—where the appeal of free and fair elections is still fresh? That’s the question posed by the new documentary A Revolution in Four Seasons, which tracks the prelude to and aftermath of the signing of a democratic constitution in Tunisia—what some outlets have called the sole “success story” to result from the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 to 2012, following an ouster of its former president.

As director Jessie Deeter’s film shows, that legal framework, adopted in 2014, turned out to be good for women: The Constitution of 2014 established significant individual and political rights for women, especially relative to other countries in the Middle East (and on par for a country that was one of the first in the Arab world to establish women’s right to vote, and where polygamy is outlawed while abortion is legal). Nevertheless, equal rights haven’t exactly led to equal treatment in Tunisia, where husbands are still legally considered the heads of their families, and almost half of women experience some form of violence in their lifetimes.

Documenting the push-pull between the country’s cultural tradition and revolutionary, pro-democratic fervor, the film tracks how two women from opposite sides of the political spectrum experience the transition: Emna Ben Jemaa, a well-known secular blogger and columnist, hopes that her country will model itself on European countries like France or Sweden. Jawhara Ettis, an Islamist teacher who becomes a member of the Constituent Assembly over the course of the film, wants to preserve the country’s Arab identity as it gives power to the people.

Deeter didn’t originally intend to film two women. She began production following Emna’s husband, Bassem, a former Yahoo engineer who returned to Tunisia from the United States to rebuild his country post-Revolution. But over the course of the film’s five-and-a-half-year production process, she decided the parallels between the women’s lives made the film feel more “urgent,” she says when we meet at a cafe one day after her film’s premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. “If you listen to them talk about their country, they say they want the same things,” she says. “But the ways in which they hope to achieve that are incredibly different.”

As A Revolution in Four Seasons continues to visit film festivals (it will be distributed in the U.S. by Women Make Movies), we chatted with Deeter about the women’s similarities and differences, Western stereotypes about Islam, and what Americans can learn from Tunisia’s budding democracy.

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Tell me a little bit about how A Revolution in Four Seasons got started for you.

I was a Fullbright scholar and I was living in Oman, Morocco, and Tunisia for a year when the Arab Spring happened. As a journalist who had spent a lot of time living in the region—my husband was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia back in the ’90s—this was like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nothing was ever going to be the same again.

I had three little children, so I knew I wasn’t going to be the person in the trenches making the film about the Revolution, but, for me, the more interesting question was: Then what? To have a revolution in a country that’s never had democracy with the idea that [it needs a democracy], but what do you do with all the Islamists who have been disenfranchised and exiled? That’s why it was important for me to find Jawhara—I wanted an Islamist perspective. I also wanted to have women, because I think that a measure of democracy in a given country is their treatment of women.

We wanted two very distinct perspectives, because that’s where a lot of this is playing out right now—you have to believe in the experiment of Islam surviving within a context of democracy, Tunisia has got the best shot I’ve seen of [realizing] that.

Your film-making partner is Tunisian American; you’re an American filmmaker. What different perspectives did you bring to the project?

We were the only team that could have made this film. In Tunisia, the filmmakers are either one of two things: They’re either internal propaganda for each party, or, if they’re doing films like we think of film, they’re pretty much secular, and they really don’t come from a perspective that countenances an Islamic perspective. They literally don’t view enough of those perspectives as a valid one, period.

Whereas I have the advantage from coming from the outside as an American. I can say, well, if we’re going to take seriously this idea of democracy, then that means that maybe we should listen to these other voices. And, clearly, that’s what they did because in that first election they voted into power the [Islamist Ennahda party]. The Islamists weren’t just leading because they had a governing coalition and they shared power—the Islamists were just at the head of it. I also thought it was very important to do the film with a lot of Tunisian influence because I didn’t just want to be the person who was looking from the outside.

You filmed your subjects across the span of four years. That’s a long time—how did this film change from your original concept as you followed them?

Originally we thought we were following a man and a woman [Emna’s husband Bassem and Jawhara], and that it was going to be a very simple two-year process. I thought that it would be easy to get grants and get money to make it, but it turns out that, because it wasn’t about war, Afghanistan, or Iraq, American dollars were hard to get. And then, because the director wasn’t Arab, we weren’t going to get any Arab funding either.

Because we didn’t get funding immediately, we kept filming, and the story kept getting better and better. The two women ended up getting married the same summer, and then they ended up getting pregnant the same summer—you have them giving birth two weeks apart to little baby girls, which increases the stakes and the risks for them dramatically. The story of Tunisia plays out writ large in their bodies: Everybody has to grow up in the making of this film, everyone starts off innocent and naive. The women have ideas about what it means to be women and mothers, and the country has ideas about what it’s going to mean to be a democracy, and everybody gets slapped in the face with the reality of trying to [become one].

At one point in the film, you ask Jawhara point blank, “Are you a feminist?” Were there particular stereotypes of Islamist women that you intended to subvert with this film?

It was kind of funny because, when I asked Jawhara that, I really thought her answer would be “no.” I did not think that she would say that she’s a feminist. Conversely, Emna does not consider herself to be a feminist, but I chose to leave that out [of the film], because I think her actions belie her words and that I think that it gets too complicated for a viewer to have to parse that out. And it reminds me of some friends I know who have had all the privileges and luxuries of having women’s rights and don’t consider themselves feminists—Jawhara has seen the way women are treated in a lot of the Arab world.

[I learned, too, that] Jawhara isn’t the only woman in the Ennahda party who was in the Constitution-writing process. And these women are up until one or two in the morning with strange men in the process of forming the government. Also, when I first went to meet Jawhara’s family, and I put on a hijab, and when she was like, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, you know, I’m trying to be respectful of your family.” She told me, “Yeah, but you’re not Muslim… you look ridiculous.”

Some notions about secular women in Tunisia may also be shattered by this movie. Toward the end, Emna’s husband essentially leaves her unhappily at home as a single mother to pursue his political career, while Jawhara’s husband takes care of her child as she’s helping to write the Constitution.

That was absolutely not part of the plan at all. If you look at Jawhara and Emna, they’re just representatives, you can’t say all secular relationships are like this, but yes, I was surprised that things started to fall apart in their relationship, while Jawhara was pretty much getting support in her relationship pretty much throughout. I certainly didn’t look for things to start falling apart—I tried to be very circumspect, and very careful of the fact that we were witnessing a really hard time in her life, and that she was letting us in, and she was being really real.

Actually, [Jawhara’s husband] was distrustful of our project for a long time, and it wasn’t until the fourth year that he really stepped out and gave me, personally, an interview [about her role in the Assembly]. Finally I told Jawhara we had to do an interview with him. She said, “Well, why?” and I said “Our audience has to know that he supports what you’re doing … they need to hear it from him, and they need to hear it in his own words because otherwise they’re not going to believe it.” So she finally convinced him that he needed to say why he let her go to the Constituent Assembly and be gone all the time—that is something that I had really fought for for years, and that was one of the most important things, I think, for rounding out the story.

There’s a lot of talk going on stateside about how President Donald Trump is testing the strength of American democracy. What did you learn about democracy and the challenges in maintaining a democratic system while making this film?

Today, I think the ordinary Tunisian is frustrated by what they would call the slow pace of change, meaning there is still corruption in the country left over from a while ago, and there are still systemic problems in the country. But I still think it’s impressive how quickly Tunisia did manage to get two free and fair elections under its belt; they did manage to do one entire change of regime between those two elections, and create a constitution that’s really being a model, at least in the Middle East, if not in the world, for democracy.

The way they complain is also similar to the way they do here, already—like, “Well, that person doesn’t represent me.” But I think it’s worth noting that the [secular and Islamist parties] are sharing power. What you don’t see [in the film] because it gets too complicated is the way the heads of government—even when Hannoushi is in power, or now that Essebsi’s in power—are not ruling alone. People complain that too much compromise has to be made, but I think we can a learn a thing or two about making compromises.

And there’s a lot of debate and dialogue going on now that the government isn’t leaning on the one man on the top anymore. As Emna says [in the film], before the revolution nobody knew the names of ministers and nobody cared—now everybody knows and everybody cares. I think there is a parallel in this country now—after the election, we’ve been activated, too, in a way.

Have you screened the film for Jawhara and Emna yet?

Yeah, they both were at the U.S. premiere—it was the opening-night film at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York. They met for the first time there. What was interesting was that you saw who they were play out onstage in the Q&A. They had very different perspectives. But I feel like it was good because I feel like the more that people like Emna and Jawhara can get on the same stage together, I feel like that’s a starting point. And not that they necessarily change their points of view, but at least they listened to each other. However that turned out, I thought that was a really good thing, I felt good about that.

What do you hope viewers will take away from your film—when they walk out, what will they be thinking and talking about?

I hope that they’ll be thinking that it was a great story, and that “those people” are really like me, and that was unexpected. I do hope that people will take a slightly different take on Islam and realize that not all people who are wearing a hijab are hiding bombs—that’s a political thing. But I really want people to see a great story first, and then go home and think, I guess those people who come from different cultures and have different religions, their voices should be heard too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.