International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: The Potential Challenge to Women’s Rights in Tunisia

Before we get in to this week’s column, I’d like to congratulate Saving Face, a documentary about acid attacks in Pakistan, for winning an Oscar last night. I strongly hope the success of this film brings attention (and, you know, funding) to the prevention of acid attacks and support to people who are survivors of this horrific phenomenon.

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 Profile
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



9 replies on “International Women’s Issues: The Potential Challenge to Women’s Rights in Tunisia”

Very well written.  I love how you distinguish the difference between Islam and the suppression of women.  While it is true that predominately Islamic countries that suppress women often site the religion as the “excuse,” I don’t believe sexism is encoded in the Quran.  I have many friends who choose to wear the hijab because it is a beautiful part of their culture.  Christianity can go the same way!  If you pick and choose out of the Bible, you can be a “justified” sexist asshole.  It’s all about context and interpretation.  Also, not being an asshole.

Similarly, I heard about the revolution a few days before it was on the news because my high school had an exchange student from Tunisia and he facebook chatted me about it (Isn’t facebook incredible?).  I don’t know much about the grand scope on things, but from what he said it was not “largely peaceful.”  Perhaps that was just his area though, I ‘m not sure.

It’s all about context and interpretation.  Also, not being an asshole.

And how!

As for the violence on the ground, apart from the police clashes in the capital and in the rural southern regions (where there were many beatings and and other violent means of breaking up the protesters), I think the other “non-peaceful” aspects of the Revolution came from gang-like criminal activity. There was a lot of speculation that around the time that Ben Ali was clearly beginning to lose ground, that members of his police force were dressing in plain clothes and stirring up problems, perhaps at Ben Ali’s behest (now, I’d take that bit with a grain of salt, but there are some claims that seem to be substantiated, especially in instances where pro-Ben Ali “civilians” were clashing with protesters). I know that many neighborhoods formed patrolled neighborhood watches because these people were looting houses and businesses. They’d close off the road and stand guard, armed with baseball bats, golf clubs and axes. Fortunately, things never got as violent as Libya or Syria, or even Egypt. But it’s true that the Jasmine Revolution wasn’t all peaceful demonstrations and singing Kumbayah.

Nicely written, and you definitely raise some interesting points.

A few personal observations about the situation in Tunisia (I apologize in advance for the rambling… I’m multi-tasking as I write this!): I will say that as far as Ennahda is concerned, my impression is that they pretty adequately represent moderate Islam, which is exactly what the majority of the population in Tunisia practices (whether the government condones it or not –*ahem*BenAli*cough–).  While I’m not sure I would have voted for them if I were a Tunisian national (I’m a firm believer in separation of church and state), I know my husband did and I trust his judgement on the matter as he is very pro-woman and pro-equality.  I will also say that I truly believe that Rashid Ghannushi wants to do right by his country by unifying the citizens under a system of government that represents everyone. I mean, he was himself a political prisoner (he was tortured and spent years years in solitary confinement) and ultimately wound up in exile because of his beliefs… I don’t believe that he’d return only to govern with the same heavy-handedness that he suffered under. And I believe he has actually invited the PDP to co-author the new constitution, even though he wasn’t necessarily required to do so (I’m not 100% sure on this, so I’m looking for an article to link, but can’t find one at the moment… it’s possible it’s in Arabic, so I’ll have to get back to you guys on that one), and he has indeed expressed that he hopes to model Tunisian government after Turkey several times. Honestly, if he succeeds in his expressed aim, I’m really not that worried for Tunisian women. Yes, it’s possible that the new constitution won’t necessarily reflect the model of Western feminism, but true Progressive/Moderate Islamic practices do much to ensure the rights of women, including access to education, employment and family planning resources. It might not seem like they’re going far enough for us, but I also absolutely think that it could serve as a positive example for political and social reform in the area.

As for the emergence of Salafis… well, there are extremists in every country, and they tend to come from the poorest and most desperate areas. My husband is actually from the south (Kasserine), which was a major hot-bed of the protests due to high unemployment rates. We were actually there only a few months before the Revolution began. The level of neglect down there is incredible. While I don’t think that any circumstance justifies extremism, I’m also not surprised that it’s there. I only hope that Tunis will quickly realize they need to invest resources into those regions to create jobs, raise the standard of living and improve education facilities, because ultimately, I see that as being the only way to keep them at bay and to keep them from growing in numbers.

One thing is clear, though – women in Tunisia have their rights, and I strongly doubt they’ll give them up without a fight.

100% in agreement. Seriously… I’ve never known a Tunisian woman to back down from a fight :)

Thank you so much for your perspective – I’ve read such mixed reviews of Ennahda, I wasn’t exactly sure how to portray them, nor what the general consensus was on the ground, so it’s great to hear more firsthand information. The internet being what it is, it’s so much easier to get the opinions of Western NGOs than, you know, the actual people within a country!

The impact on poverty on the growth of extremism is huge, you’re right, and not just within the Muslim world.

I’m heartened to hear your positive outlook for Tunisia’s future. The next few years are going to be interesting, to say the least!

No problem! I myself am still learning about Ennahda and trying to separate fact from fiction (it’s true that many Western-influenced sources tend to be wary of Islamist parties, sometimes for a good reason, and sometimes unfairly so).  I think have a positive opinion of the party because I generally like what I’ve read about Rashid Ghannushi as a person and as the party’s figure head… But obviously others in the party don’t necessarily have to share all the same opinions as him, so there certainly are questions about the party’s long-term potential to enact positive change in the country. However, I do think Ghannushi’s politics can do much to set a positive precedent for finding compromise in Tunisian politics. The Tunisians I’ve known are so incredibly warm and kind, and I really do believe that the country has a lot of potential to become an open, progressive Islamic society. I’m definitely still waiting to see what happens and hoping for the best! I know our family will definitely be paying attention! :)

I feel like so many governments and people are looking at Tunisia as the new example for how democracy and Islam can be combined. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing, the people of Tunisia should have an inwards look on what’s best for everyone involved, not how other countries will follow/look at them/condone them.

If that makes sense.

What an excellent article. I think it’s important to point out that no matter the religion, less secular governments almost always lead to the erosion of gender equality. It’s not just Islam. I don’t believe it’s the religion itself that is the problem, but the type of person attracted to a gov’t where the rule of law is not paramount.

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