Tewhida Ben Sheikh [1909- ] was the first North African Muslim woman to earn a medical degree from the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, in 1936, while Tunisia was still under colonial rule. After she was awarded her medical diploma in France, Madame Ben Sheikh returned to Tunis, where she opened a women’s reproductive health clinic, often providing free medical services for poor women. She was also very active in the nationalist movement until independence from France was won in 1956. Julia Clancy-Smith interviewed Madame Ben Sheikh at her lovely home in Tunis during the summer of 1998; the two-hour discussion was conducted in Tunisian Arabic and French.

Clancy-Smith asked Madame Ben Sheikh to narrate the events leading up to her medical studies in Paris in the inter-war period. She recalled the pivotal role that her illiterate, widowed mother played in her education from primary school on, and then the assistance of a French doctor, Dr. Etienne Burnet, and his Russian wife, then residing in Tunis. After Tewhida graduated from secondary school 1928, she wanted to engage in social work. Dr. Burnet—who worked at the Pasteur Institute in Tunis—and his wife realized that Tewhida showed promise in the medical field. At the time, there was only one place in North Africa to obtain a medical degree—Algiers; but Tewhida’s family did not want her going there. This left the School of Medicine in Paris, where the Burnets hoped the young woman would be able to enroll. But Tewhida’s family was of elite status and very socially conservative; she had never been outside of Tunis, thus the idea of going to Paris with the Burnets was unthinkable. Tewhida had been so gifted in secondary school that all her professors went to her family and urged her mother to allow her to pursue medical studies in Paris. One of them said: “It is a crime if she does not pursue her studies in Paris.”

Here is a verbatim transcript of another interview with Dr. Ben Sheikh, recorded by Perdita Huston circa 1992, that provides additional details on her family and life.

Source: Huston, Perdita. Motherhood by Choice: Pioneers in Women’s Health and Family Planning. New York: The Feminist Press, 1992.


Dr Tewhida Ben Sheikh

I come from a well-known Tunisian family. I never knew my father: we were four children, three girls and a boy. The son was born after my father’s death. I was thus raised by my mother who was a most extraordinary woman. She was educated in Arabic and did not speak French. She was a devout Muslim and very open minded. Despite the fact that she was alone, widowed young, she managed to see to it that all of us had secondary school educations. My sisters and I were the first Tunisian girls to complete secondary school. That’s the way she was, my mother, she wanted us to go as far as we wanted in school. I was the first girl to pass the baccalauréat degree In Tunisia, in 1928. But, of course then came the question, what was I going to do with it?

It was about then that I met a Russian woman, the wife of a well-known French doctor, Dr Burnet. He was the Deputy Director of the Pasteur Institute here in Tunis. His wife was a wonderful woman; she knew one of my professors at secondary school, who was interested in what I would do next. I wanted to do social work, help others; I thought I could work in one of the institutes or charities or the Pasteur Institute, So this woman suggested that I talk with her husband. Dr Etienne Burnet was a literary man, a philosopher who had studied Greek and Latin. He was also a famous medical researcher. I still remember going to see him. It was a summer day, in June or July. They lived on a hill in the Belvedere neighbourhood of Tunis. I went alone. It was 1929. I remember it so well. As soon as I arrived he asked, ‘Now my little one, what is it you would like to do?’ ‘I would like to do something, perhaps study medicine,’ I replied, ‘but there is no medical school here in Tunis — so perhaps Algiers?’ He looked at me; he hesitated, then said. ‘My little one. If you want to accomplish something, to study medicine, you must enter by the big door. You must go to Paris.’ I almost laughed. ‘You are dreaming, sir.’ ‘I can help you.’ he said. ‘I know many people in Paris and can arrange for you to go there.’ So I went home and told my mother, sisters and brother. My brother had received his baccalauréat at the same time as I, but my mother hadn’t yet thought about sending him off to pursue university studies. I watched my mother’s reaction to my story. She didn’t reject it outright so I began to think that perhaps there was hope.

My mother had never left Tunisia, but she was very broadminded and very courageous. Everyone — her mother, brothers. sisters — all of them said she shouldn’t let me go. In the meantime Dr Burnet started writing to his friends in Paris to try to find a family in which I could live while I studied. Finally he found an opening in a brand new centre for women students, a centre founded by an American woman, a Mrs Anderson. It had one hundred students rooms and was called the Foyer International des Etudiantes. They telegraphed Dr Burnet saying there was an opening and, without even consulting me, he reserved a room for me. He was about to leave for Geneva to take up a new position there but, luckily, his wife was staying on a few weeks and would join him later. It meant that I could travel to France with her just before the university classes commenced in October. People in our strict family began to say that my mother had gone crazy. I had one uncle whom I thought I could count on because he had studied in France. He joined the other, saying, ‘Your mother is crazy: she is sending you off to a city of perdition.’

I began to prepare my departure. On the day I was to leave, one of my mother’s brothers was to send his car to take me to the port and the boat for France. A family meeting was called with my uncle Tahar Ben Amar and the husband of an aunt who was our legal guardian, and an Islamic cleric. This was necessary, of course. Here was this young girl, an orphan, who wanted to go off to France to study on her own. As I was waiting for the car, I saw another one arriving. In it was the cleric, my two uncles and a cousin who was just a bit older than I. As he brushed passed me he whispered in my ear. ‘You know, everybody knows, you aren’t to be allowed to leave.’

My aunt told my mother to cover herself and run to receive these men. My mother replied, ‘Have them go upstairs, these aren’t the first men or the last men that I will see.’

So there we were, on the first floor in a sitting-room with our male guests, while the other women, my aunts, grandmother and sisters were all out of sight downstairs. Discussion, arguments. discussion — and in the meantime the car had arrived to take me to the port. I managed to tell the driver not to leave without me, no matter who told him to go away. And the discussions continued, slowly, slowly. ‘How can a young girl who has never even been out of the city of Tunis’ — I knew a bit of the city but not really even that much — ‘be permitted to go so far away?’ Mother answered simply that many people travelled, for pleasure or for health treatment, and that it wasn’t such a big thing. She added. ‘My daughter wants to learn, to study and you know that in Islam it is an obligation for both men and women to learn and improve themselves.’ The cleric became silent. Finally one of my uncles said, ‘Well, then she can leave next week because a young girl should only travel with her father, a maternal uncle or a brother.’ Again my mother replied. ‘She is leaving with a woman of whom I am as confident as my own self.’ At this point I put on my coat and ran downstairs to the car because I knew we were about to miss the boat. In fact, the boat sailed a few minutes late that day because of me.