The “Tunisian Exception”
Long acclaimed for positive policies on gender equality, Tunisia has always taken the lead in the Arab world on women’s rights. The abolishment of polygamy and repudiation through the Code du Statut Personnel (Personal Status Code) promulgated in 1956, remains an exception in the Arab world. Tunisian women were among the first in the Arab countries to obtain the right to vote in 1956. Abortion has been a full right since 1973. Access to contraceptive pills is also guaranteed. This recognition of certain women’s rights did not come out of nowhere, but instead, through the strong feminist movement in Tunisia that has existed for over a hundred years.
It is thus due to the long battles of the Tunisian feminist movement, that Tunisia is seen as the most advanced Arab country in terms of women’s rights. Besides women’s rights, the “Tunisian exception” has long been hailed, as it was the first Arab state to have a constitution in the 19th century, the first Arab country to establish a trade union, and the first Arab country to have Arab and African human rights organizations.
However, one should note that the situation is far from ideal. Tunisian women are educated but the female literacy rate is still only 65.3%, while the male literacy rate is 83.4%. The right to abortion has been recognized since 1973 and the democratization of contraception was part of a birth control policy, but many cases of forced sterilization have been reported in rural areas of Tunisia. The headscarf is not allowed in government offices and universities, but the law is not always applied in practice. Legal discrimination persists with regard to inheritance and it is now a priority for the Tunisian feminists as Tunisia still has not lifted its reservation on CEDAW articles addressing the issue of inheritance.
The role of women in public life is also limited. There are only two women in the transitional government, and 30 women out of 145 total representatives in the High Commission for the Realization of Revolutionary Goals. Few women experts are invited on radio or television programs to give their opinions on political issues.
The rise of Islamist parties: a threat to Tunisian women?
The true stance of the Islamist parties in Tunisia with regards to women is not clear at the moment. Banned for years, Ennahda and Hizb al-Tahrir parties are among the most active political groups in the country. Both Ennahda, which was recently legalized, and Hizb al-Tahrir, which is still banned, have thus far stated their support for women’s rights while at the same time indicating they could not accept equality between men and women in questions of inheritance. But many feminists and women’s rights activists see their discourse on gender equality only as a strategy to win support.
While Ben Ali has kept the Islamists in check, clamping down on political Islamic groups and discouraging women from wearing headscarves, Islamic groups are now strongly benefiting from the momentum created by the uprising and are rapidly gaining ground. It is true that the country has a strong secular identity as a majority of women are not veiled and Friday is part of the work week, but liberals worry that democracy will bring the Islamists to power with upcoming elections. Eyes are turned to Ennahda party, a mainstream Islamic party outlawed for 30 years under Ben Ali and legalized in March 2011. Although Ennahda has stated that it does not oppose the Personal Status Code and its Secretary General, Hammadi Jebali, confirmed his party’s commitment to democracy, he also stated that he does not believe in the separation of religion and state. Some political analysts prognosticate that Ennahda could win a majority in the new assembly, as it enjoys public sympathy due to its persecution under Ben Ali and is also well organized.
Despite these developments, it is not Ennahda that secular Tunisians strongly fear but Hizb al-Tahrir. Leaders and members of Hizb al-Tahrir said the the issue of their legalization could prevent them from advancing in the Tunisian political scene. The Tunisian branch of Hizb al-Tahrir is strongly backed by other segments of the party’s multinational Islamist movement with branches in over 70 countries.
New constitutional parity between men and women
A large majority of Tunisia’s High Commission, responsible for planning the July 24 elections in Tunisia, voted to ensure parity between men and women in the membership of the National Constituent Assembly responsible for drawing up a new constitution for the country. The decree, April 11, stated that electoral lists will have to respect strict parity between men and women and lists that do not respect parity will not be accepted. Tunisia is the first Arab country to take this step to guarantee women’s rights and enhance their status in the decision-making process.
There is presently a strong debate in Tunisia regarding constitutional parity between men and women as supporters and opponents of this measure largely disagree on whether such a move is wise. Critics of this decision have argued that women should earn their political rights by merit and not by being granted access to political position by parity. Some parties also expressed their concerns with the decree, saying that the gender parity principle could be a handicap that will challenge the establishment of electoral lists following the proportional representation model. The Tunisian Prime Minister, Caid Essebi, expressed his reserves about this measure, saying that although the decree is “progressive and audacious,” not all the regions will be able to meet the requirements of the parity condition and thus they will face the risk of cancellation of several lists. Essebi proposed that the principle of parity should be modified to accept lists that include a minimum of 30% of women. While some groups applauded the “progressive democratic pole”—for instance, the Ettajdid movement that described the parity measure as “historical”—others expressed their fears that parity will only be applied for the National Constituent Assembly, as nothing has been said about full parity being written into the future constitution. As Souhayr Belhassan, President of the International Federation of Human Rights, states, the next battle will be to ensure “that there are women in all the new political bodies. We must call for parity and, at the very least, quotas of women among those elected.” The Personal Status Code should also evolve to include equal rights to inheritance between both sexes.
Right to wear veil on national identity cards
In another development concerning women, the Tunisian Minister of Interior announced its plan to modify a decree issued in 1993 that banned women from wearing the veil on ID papers. According to the announcement, a bill will be adopted soon that grants women the right to wear the headscarf on their identity papers and will no longer have to remove them before being photographed. Also, while the wearing of the veil in schools and other public institutions is still officially banned, it is now tolerated.
As Tunisia is moving towards reconstruction, gender equality and women’s rights should be further consolidated at all levels and all forms of discrimination against women in law and in practice have to be removed in order to ensure that women are not sidelined from transitional priorities as illustrated by the common motto of “political transition first, women’s rights later.” Women’s rights are a priority as much as other political issues and all have to be dealt with during the transition.
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