Tunisia's First Female Doctor: The Life of Tawhida Belsheikh

Tunisia's First Female Doctor: The Life of Tawhida Belsheikh

Since the 1920s, Tunisian women have suffered from social repression. At the time, this state of affairs opened the discussion about the status of women, their rights and freedoms. Many reformists and reforms appeared, most famous of which was Taher Al Haddad’s book “Our women in Sharia and society” which led to a controversy across the Arab region.

Despite all the difficulties that Tunisia was facing at the time, such asFrench colonialism and the general situation of women, Tawhida Belsheikh was able to create her success story. She finished her studies, and received her baccalaureate, then traveled to France and came back with a diploma in medicine.

Tawhida Belsheikh was born in January 1909, to a well off family from Benzirt in the north of the country. In a testimony given to researcher Leila Ben Tamim, Belsheikh mentioned that her father was a farmer who died a few months after her birth.

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She adds: “We were 4 siblings, three girls and a boy born after my father died. My mother Hallouma Ben Ammar (sister of Al Taher Ben Ammar, the Tunisian prime minister in 1954) raised us. She was a wonderful woman. She was a cultured practicing Muslim. She was open minded though she did not speak French nor know much about French culture. And she made sure to educate her kids.”

Belsheikh continues her story: “I went with my siblings to the Nahj Al Basha school, where we completed high school, and was then sent to the Armand Valiere institute where I received my Baccalaureate in 1928.”

Choosing medicine

After getting her Baccalaureate, and being the first Tunisian woman to receive it, Tawhida Belsheikh did not know what she wanted to study. She then met Ms. Burnet, the wife of French researcher Dr. Etienne Burnet, who had just been appointed as the director of the Pasteur institute in Tunis.

After this meeting, Belsheikh says that: “I was introduced to this lively energetic woman of Russian descent, by one of my teachers who wanted me to pursue my education. When she asked me what I wanted to do in the future, I said that I would like to do something socially useful, and help those in need.”

Ms. Burnet suggested that Tawhida meets her husband: “I remember the day I met him in June 1928. I found myself alone in their house on the Belvedere hill. And when he saw me, he asked me what I wanted to do. I answered that I would like to perhaps study medicine. But since there was no medicine school in Tunis, I had to head to Algeria.” Mr. Burnet, said to her that if she wanted to get into medicine she should get there through the main gates, and go study in Paris.

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Tawhida Belsheikh says that at that moment she laughed out loud, saying, “you are dreaming sir”. Dr. Burnet, however, said that he could help her, since he knew many people there, and could arrange it for her to go.

Convincing the family and going to Paris

Upon her return home, Tawhida who was only 20 at the time spoke to her mother and siblings about the french doctor’s suggestion: “I thought it was going to be impossible to convince them of the idea, especially my mother, who had refused the idea that my brother travels to Paris for his studies after his baccalaureate. She was afraid that her only son would marry a French woman and settle there.”

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The refusal front was strong. Her grandmother and uncles told her mother not to allow her to travel, while Dr. Burnet was writing to his friends to find her a family that would host her while she is studying. At the end he found a foyer for girls that an American woman in Paris had opened.

Tawhida Belsheikh faced a lot of difficulties to convince her family. Despite convincing her mother at the end, the rest of the family was still opposed to her traveling. Trouble continued till the end. Even a few minutes before she left, while the car that was going to take her to the port was in front of the house, the debate with the family was still going. At the end her mother ended the discussion by saying that “my daughter wants to study, and learn, and you know very well that this is required in Islam for both women and men.” As everyone fell silent, the young lady took her luggage and went towards Paris.

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The Parisian life, and the return

Belsheikh recounts how she found herself in a city that looked like heaven. The student housing was comfortable, and was a good place to learn. It had students from 25 different nationalities.

Her expenses were paid by her mother, and she could not remember if she had received a scholarship or not. She would come back regularly to Tunis at the end of every school year. After her fourth year of study, she had to leave the student house to make room for other students. “Luckily,” she recalls, “the family of Dr. Burnet had moved back to Paris, so I lived with them.” At their house, she could meet and mingle with scientists, writers, and medical personalities.

During her studies, she worked as a trainee doctor in a hospital in Paris, and was under the supervision of some of the best doctors at the time. In 1936, she received her diploma in medicine, and went back to Tunis amid great celebrations by the family and the political and cultural circles in the country. The press was celebrating her achievement, and the Tunisian Muslim Women Association organized a celebration for her on the 18th of April 1937, according to Leila Tamim.

Building the Tunisian independent state

Upon her return to Tunisia, Tawhida Belsheikh worked in her own clinic. She says that she could not work in the hospital because it was in the hands of the French. There were many female doctors there, but it was hard for a Tunisian woman to work there.

She first worked as a general practitioner, but she then specialized as a gynecologist because many women would come to her.

In 1942, she married her brother’s colleague who was studying dentistry in Paris, and she had three children with him before he passed away in 1963.

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Belsheikh says that she was not interested in politics. Bashira Ben Mourad invited her to join the Tunisian Muslim Women Association, but she was never really active in it. All she wanted to do, was to do her job and help people through medicine.

Belsheikh was the head of the Tunisian Red Crescent and during the events of 1952 in the North of the country, she went there and wrote a report condemning the French authorities.

After the independence of Tunisia in 1956, she started her struggle for women’s reproductive health. She joined the state’s project for family planning and opened a special unit for family planning at the Charles Nicole hospital in the capital in 1963. She was appointed director of the family planning program in 1970.

Tawhida Belsheikh is part of the intellectual elite who fought against colonialism and contributed to building an independent state. She was part of many political, social and cultural initiatives.

She supervised the magazine “Leila”, which was the first Tunisian women’s magazine in french. The magazine was first published in 1936 as a weekly, and then as a monthly before closing down completely in July 1941. Belsheikh used the pseudonym Leila Mani when writing for the magazine.

Tawhida Belsheikh was highly celebrated in Tunisia. Her life was depicted in a special film called “The struggle of a female doctor”, and the Tunisian post issued special stamps with her picture. Furthermore, a group of doctors started an association called the “Tawhida Belsheikh association for medical support”, to honor this exceptional committed doctor.

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