This week, I’m going to look at women’s rights over the past year in Tunisia. It’s been over a year since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of government corruption and oppression, sparking revolutions throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and causing the ousting of, at current count, four dictators. As the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, that’s where we’ll be examining today, especially because of both the role women played in the revolution, and the promises that were made in terms of women’s rights in that country a year ago. How many have been kept? Are women better off in Tunisia now than they were eighteen months ago?
Tunisia has a progressive record on women’s rights, especially compared to its neighboring countries. Under the Personal Status Code of 1956, women were given the right to vote, have greater representation in parliament than women in many Western nations, and marriage laws are respectful of women. Polygamy is illegal, abortion has been legal since 1962, birth control is readily available, and women have the same rights to divorce as men do. Women outnumber men in terms of university graduates, and the literacy rate for women is 71 percent, the highest in North Africa. (I can’t help but point out that men’s literacy rate is at least ten points higher, depending on where you get your statistics, which to me still indicates a disparity in gender equality, but I’m a literacy junkie. And no country is perfect when it comes to women’s rights anyway.)
Tunisian women were on the front lines of the revolution that ousted dictator Ben Ali, marching and protesting on an equal standing with men. This wasn’t a revolution for women’s rights. Women, for the most part, already have their rights in Tunisia. And Ben Ali used this fact to stay in the good graces of Western governments and to encourage them to turn a blind eye towards his abuses of power.
Ben Ali was a secularist, and a big element of the anti-Ali movement has been the fundamentalist Muslim segment of the population, which has gained popularity in the country following the revolution.
Now, the relationship between Islam and women’s rights is an incredibly complicated one. I have, in previous posts, sometimes underplayed the correlation between discrimination against women and the role of Islam, because I believe that Islam as a whole gets a bad rap when it comes to women’s rights, especially in the Western world. Issues such as poverty and corruption can play just as great a role in the subjugation of women in situations where a casual observer would simply blame religion. Although respect for women’s rights in Tunisia is equal if not greater than it is in the non-Muslim world, activists and analysts believe that the rise of fundamental Islam in Tunisia is indeed a threat to women’s rights in the country. At the same time, Islamic extremists are partially popular due to their rejection of Western values and beliefs (and seeing as Tunisia was a French colony until 1956, the rejection of colonial powers is understandable.) Additionally, Tunisia under Ben Ali was so rigorously secular that many devout-but-not-extremist Muslims felt marginalized and excluded by the government, and believe that the extremists will better protect their religion.
The past year has been marked by increased activity on the part of the fundamentalist movement in Tunisia, notably the Salafis, an Islamic movement similar to Wahhabism in their insistence to return to a strict traditionalism Islam, leaving little room for women’s rights and none for secularism. An Al-Jazeera article from August of last year reports that criticism of gender equality, something long forbidden in Tunisian discourse, is on the rise. The ideas that polygamy should be legal, and that women should stay at home in order to decrease unemployment, have both entered public discourse and the media. Salafi gangs have also been gaining in popularity and power, attacking everything from police stations to beach parties, vigilantes enforcing a strict religious code not followed by the majority of the country.
Women’s voices were also not being heard in debates, a direct change from pre-revolution Tunisia. While a law in April required gender parity in election lists, seen at the time as a revolutionary step forward for women’s rights, the quotas ensuring that women would have a guaranteed number of seats in the Assembly are gone, and men are the leaders of most of the lists, meaning that they will hold the more important positions in the Assembly.
The October 2011 election results are cause for new concern for some. The Al-Nahdra (or Ennahda, I’ve seen it both ways) party has been voted into power, and it is very much a toss-up as to what this will mean for women’s rights. Souhad Rejeb, of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, says it best:
They have two lines: on TV they say, “We are for equality, we won’t touch woman’s rights,” but in the mosques or abroad, they say, “The Personal Status Code is not in the Koran.”
The Personal Status Code, mentioned earlier, is the landmark 1956 law ensuring gender equality in the country. Al-Nahdra is either a victory for moderate Islam, modeling themselves after countries like Turkey and Indonesia in their combination of Islam and democracy, or they are an uncomfortably large step towards extremist Islam in what was a very secular country. And while Al-Nahdra won the largest percentage of seats in the Assembly — 89 out of 217, the fact that the party did not win a majority means that they entered into a power-sharing deal with the 2nd and 3rd place parties, both of whom are secular. Indeed, the current President (a less powerful position than Prime Minister) is a secularist and a human rights promoter.
So where are we now? The current government has been in power for barely two months, so it may just be too early to see how this new, post-revolution Tunisia treats its women. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Tunisia a few days ago, and at a youth town hall meeting, stressed the importance of ensuring women’s rights and individual freedom in the face of religious extremism. “Protecting Tunisian women’s rights is an irreversible necessity that cannot be disputed,” she said, and whether her message was directed to the Salafis or the government, it stands as solid fact.
The largely-peaceful ousting of a dictator, replacing him with a democratically-elected government committed to reform, is a huge accomplishment for Tunisia, especially when you look at the global impact of the revolution. At the same time, women’s rights must not be the price of the revolution. At this point, they’re definitely on the table, a step backwards if there ever was one. Time will tell as to whether the new government is sincere in their professed commitment to gender equality. One thing is clear, though – women in Tunisia have their rights, and I strongly doubt they’ll give them up without a fight.
CIA World Factbook: Tunisia
Hilary Clinton: protecting youth who made revolution is duty for every citizen
Security Forces Clash with Islamists in Tunisian Town
Tunisia’s Election Through the Eyes of Women
Tunisia: Women’s Rights Hang in the Balance
Women’s Rights a Strong Point in TunisiaWomen’s Rights in Tunisian Elections