By Jaime Seltzer
The turn of the century brought about social reform worldwide, and Northern Africa was no exception. Reformers fought for women’s rights, including education, the right to go un-veiled, the end of traditional practices that were detrimental to women, and the vote. Muslim Arab girls enjoyed slightly more access to education than their less fortunate neighbors; in Tunisia, the school École Louise-Renée Millet taught young girls the basics of reading, writing, and mathematical calculation. Tewhida and her two sisters were some of the school’s first graduates.
Tewhida never knew her father, who had passed away before her mother could give birth to their last child and only boy. Her mother, however, was a powerhouse of strength and determination. She could only speak Arabic, when Tunisia was a colony of France. She had no formal education, but was determined that her children should receive schooling regardless of their gender. So it was that Tewhida completed her bachelor’s degree in 1928, the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in the entire country.
Tewhida’s education had made her very aware of the difficulties women faced in her country, so she decided she might become a social worker. Then she met with a young couple who would change her life: the Burnets.
Dr. Etienne Burnet was a French microbiologist and medical researcher living in Tunis at the time. His wife knew one of the professors at the École Louise-Renée Millet, and took an interest in Tewhida, recommending that she discuss her career path with him.
In a muzzy afternoon in the midsummer of 1929, Tewhida made her way across Tunis to meet with the doctor at his home. He wasted no time, asking her point-blank what she wanted to do with her life. She informed him of her interest in medicine, but that she figured she could not pursue it, since there was not a medical school nearby.
“My little one,” he said, “If you want to accomplish something, to study medicine, you must enter by the big door. You must go to Paris.”
Despite her mother’s open-mindedness, Tewhida’s extended family was rigidly traditional, and as a result, she had never left the city where she had grown up. Now, here was this Frenchman telling her to pack up and move to Europe!
She was so shocked by such an idea that it was all she could do not to laugh aloud. “You are dreaming, sir,” she said. But he protested he would help her make it happen.
Tewhida made her way home in a daze, and told her mother and sisters and brother what Dr. Burnet had said. Rather than laugh or forbid her to travel so far away, her mother remained quiet. Tewhida did not know, but her mother had already decided that Tewhida would go.
While Dr. Burnet wrote away to book Tewhida a room by the college (without asking!), Tewhida’s mother announced to their extended family that Tewhida would be leaving the country.
The family went into an immediate uproar, saying that the matriarch of the family had lost her mind, and that Paris was a city of ‘perdition’ and unimaginable horrors from which Tewhida would be lucky to escape with her life.
The day Tewhida was to leave for Paris, the family staged an intervention, circa 1929, calling an Islamic cleric and the entire family to the house to convince Tewhida’s mother to relent. As they walked past Tewhida where she stood waiting for the car that would take her to her ship, an older cousin whispered, “You know, everybody knows that you aren’t allowed to leave.”
So the men of the family re-hashed all their arguments over again for why Paris was a city of evil and why a young Muslim woman of Tewhida’s gentle character could never make it there on her own. Meanwhile, Tewhida’s car had arrived and was idling in the drive. Tewhida managed to convince the driver not to leave, no matter who told him to go. When the men relented enough to state that a man should accompany her if she were to go, and therefore she should wait until one of them could be bothered, Tewhida snatched her coat off the hook and slipped out while they were still arguing.
She was a few minutes late to the boat, but it had not left without her.
Tewhida saw Paris and fell in love with the city, and her dormitory, which housed 100 students of 25 different nationalities. She eventually came to live with the Burnets, where she met doctors from all over the world, gaining exposure to a wide variety of medical techniques, perspectives and ideas. Just as she finished up her studies in 1936, Dr. Burnet was named Director of the Pasteur Institute in Tunisia; and so Dr. Burnet, Mrs. Burnet, and Dr. Ben Sheikh returned home all together, and Ben Sheikh started up a practice there. She was the first North African woman to earn her doctorate and the first Tunisian female physician to practice in her home country. It would be another ten years before a second Tunisian woman would follow in her footsteps.
Ben Sheikh started a general practice at first, but quickly moved her focus to women. The cultural strictures against a woman’s body being examined by a man prevented Tunisian women from going to a doctor until they were so ill that their pain overcame their shame. Tewhida’s practice became the first place that women could go for preventative care.
Therefore, she made it her life’s work to help educate the women of her country about reproduction and family planning, often offering health services to poor women free of charge, including contraceptives and abortions. She included men in the discussion, inviting husbands to listen to weekly talks about family planning. Meanwhile, she trained dozens of physicians in the most modern gynecological techniques available.
Tewhida was also deeply involved in Tunisia’s independence from France; she was the Vice President of the Tunisian Red Crescent, an organization much like the Red Cross. She also wrote about the depredations of war and presented her findings in Europe.
She lived to be a hundred years old, and was still giving talks and interviews about her remarkable life at age 90.
Houston, P. (1992). Motherhood by Choice: Pioneers in Women’s Health and Family Planning (pp. 95-105). New York, NY: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
Imperialism in North Africa: Interview, Tewhida Ben Sheikh. (n.d.). In Women in World History. Retrieved from http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/p/184.html