Tunisia: Women’s rights hang in the balance

While Tunisia’s revolution successfully ousted Ben Ali, women’s rights could now be in jeopardy.

Tunisia women demonstrating
Tunisia’s Higher Election Authority announced that, out of the 3.8 million Tunisians who have voluntarily registered to vote, some 45 per cent are women [EPA]

For 55 years, Tunisia celebrated Women’s Day every August 13, representing the push for gender equality that has been one of the hallmarks of the North African nation’s post-colonial era. 

Women were active players in the uprising that ended the rule of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, and many hope that event will translate into a more visible role in the country’s soon-to-be democratic political life.

Yet some are worried that the rights women have enjoyed for the past five decades might soon be swept away by the tide of social conservatism that has emerged in the wake of the uprising. 

“We know that the former regime took advantage of women’s rights,” says Faiza Skandrani, who founded an organisation called Equality and Parity shortly after the uprising.

Despite the legal rights, women suffered from the same climate of fear and oppression as men, she says.

Now that the old regime is out, activists are hoping that this will mean women will become politically empowered and active members of the new democracy.

Not everyone shares the same vision of what the new Tunisia should look like, and Skandrani says that women’s rights activists are facing a conservative backlash that is drowning out other perspectives in the media. 

“It is very difficult for us to have our voices heard, whether on the TV or the radio,” she says. For women and men alike, everything hinges on the election of the constituent assembly on October 23.

‘Rights’ in the balance

That assembly will be tasked with writing a new constitution and choosing what form of political system the country will have in the future, rewriting the ground rules that have piloted political life in the years immediately after Tunisia won full independence from the French.

Al-Nahda, the Islamist party led by Rachid Ghannouchi that was outlawed under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is one of the most well-organised political movements. It enjoys strong support, particularly in rural areas.

Ghannouchi has long called for a moderate, pro-democratic brand of political Islam, and has given many interviews promising that fundamental humanism of the previous regime is not up for debate.

“I think some values which were values since independence are accepted by all parties … [including] Arab-Muslim identity [which] is accepted even by the Communists. And women’s rights are accepted by all sides, among them Islamists,” he told me in an interview in Doha, a few weeks after the revolution.

But some secularist critics say that Al-Nahda is sending mixed messages, playing to more conservative segments of the population even as the party seeks to win over more progressive voters. 

Cherifa Abdelhafidh, a mother of three and a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, says she is scared of how Al-Nahda, the country’s most influential Islamist party, might leverage its newly found political might.

The 41-year-old, who lives with her husband and daughters in the industrial coastal city of Sfax, does not agree with the conservative agenda that she believes Al-Nahda will pursue if they are given the chance.

“I think they are aggressive. Islam doesn’t say that a woman must stay at home, that she shouldn’t work,” she says.

She feels that politicians from Al-Nahda are not being clear about what they represent, and that they are using Islam for political aims.

“That’s why I’m uneasy. They are taking two [conflicting] stances, to build their popularity,” she says.

Abdelhafidh battled with conservatism in her own family. She married her husband when she was 16, and her father-in-law forced her to quit school.

He forbade her from working, and it was only after he passed away did she begin her job as an administrator at a local high school. Abdelhafidh’s husband, who has very different values from his father, has no problem with her working.

To the contrary, the couple struggled to make ends meet on a single income.

“It’s bad for women, and for men too,” she says. She supports religious freedoms, and thinks the state should allow polygamy.

But the Sfaxian says she plans to cast her vote for one of the country’s two most well-known centre-left, secular parties – either Ettajdid or the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

New freedoms?

Other women, meanwhile, see in Al-Nahda the potential to gain new freedoms they have never had before.

Manel Sekmani, a 24-year-old who is studying for a masters in genetics in Tunis, says the most significant barrier to entering the workforce is discrimination against devoted Muslims such as herself.

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Al-Nahda is the party, she says, that will challenge the prejudices encouraged by previous governments and allow women more, rather than less, liberty. 

“Al-Nahda will protect women’s rights,” she says. “I was derided during the time of Ben Ali and I don’t want another government like that.”

Like Abdelhafidh, the student rejects conservative interpretations of Islam. In her view, however, Al-Nahda is clear on its progressive values and is not calling for women to stay at home.

“Women who don’t wear headscarves already have freedoms, and those freedoms cannot be taken away from them.” Sekmani does not want to see strict Islamic law introduced, but rather a hybrid legal system that reflects the diversity of Tunisian society.

“We live in an Islamic country, but it is also a modern society,” she says. 

The young woman’s desire to see a fusion of secular and Islamic law, leaving existing rights intact, is similar to what some of Al-Nahda’s most vocal critics are calling for.

She rejects the idea that voters like her are being misled about what Al-Nahda really stands for.

Indeed, many of Al-Nahda’s most active members are female, and, Farida Laabidi, a member of the party’s executive branch, says they have some clout within the movement. 

“Many thousands of Al-Nahda activists were imprisoned [during the previous regime] and it was their wives who worked to support their families,” she says.

Laabidi denies that her party is encouraging women to quit their jobs. 

“Women must participate in the economic, social and political life of the country,” she says.

Rights in jeopardy

The tension between those who want to keep politics and religion separate, and those who would like to see Islam become more integral to the Tunisian state is hardly new to the North African nation.

At the dawn of independence, even before President Habib Bourguiba abolished the monarchy and introduced the present constitution, the anti-colonial leader gave Tunisian women legal rights that he hoped would break the shackles of tradition.

Bourguiba introduced the “Personal Status Code” (CSP by its French acronym) in 1956.

Women were given the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, to earn equal wages to men and to divorce.

Polygamy was outlawed and a woman’s consent became a requirement for marriage.

Then came the legalisation of abortion in 1961, at time when it was still a taboo topic in many European countries, including France.

In a 1966 reportage on Tunisian women – marking the tenth anniversary of the CSP – the former president said: “Beneath men, who were victims of the colonial regime, were women, who were also victims of an appalling situation … which came from old habits, traditions, which have a sacred character, which meant that women themselves were resigned to their fate,” he said. 

The video shows him lifting rural women’s veils, a characteristic act that represents emancipation for some, while showing a lack of respect for religious beliefs to others.  

Until now, critics of the progressive stance on gender equality have been forced into silence.

Under Ben Ali in particular, most prominent Islamists had to chose between prison and exile.

The phenomenon that is stoking fears in some quarters is the increasingly conservative tone that, they say, is encroaching media, mosques and public discussions.

With freedom of speech, topics that have long been taboo in the public arena, such as polygamy and the argument that women should stay at home as a solution to unemployment, are suddenly arousing widespread debate.

And women are largely being excluded from the discussions.

“There are many political debates taking place, but few women are given the chance to participate,” says Ahlem Belhaj, president of Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD by its French acronym).

“There is a lack of any debates about women’s rights, certainly not in terms of how to take them forward,” she says.

“Partly, it’s a reaction to the way the former regime used women’s rights, and partly it’s a concession to the Islamists.”

There have also been a series of murky violent incidents linked to fringe Salafist activists, including attacks on a cinema screening a film about secularism in June and on a police station in the town of Menzel Bourghiba in July. 

Al-Nahda was not involved in these events but neither did the party side squarely with secular groups who have come under attack from the ultra-conservatives.

“Attacks on our liberty have already begun,” Belhaj says.

“Every time [there is an incident] Al-Nahda says it isn’t them, but exactly who it is, I don’t know.”

Laabidi says that Al-Nahda is a party based on dialogue and does not condone violence.

She stops short of supporting the showing of films like the one that the activists deemed an offence to Islam, however, saying it is not the time to raise such divisive questions.

“Freedom of expression has its limits,” she says.

Activists say the trend is linked to the emergence of a long-suppressed sector of Tunisian society that wants to cast off the perceived Western influences in favour of a stronger Arab-Islamic identity, looking east to the conservative Gulf countries, rather than north. 

This viewpoint is founded on a total rejection of Bourguiba’s vision, and is about taking society in a very different direction.

Since the late 1980s, Ghannouchi has declared himself in favour of maintaining the CSP, given its integral place in contemporary Tunisian society. 

Whether the confusion among many Tunisians about Al-Nahda’s programme is the result of misinformation against the party, its own deliberate political strategy or simply fear born of a lack of information depends on who you ask.

“There are no contradictions. I believe we are clear about our position on women,” Laabidi says, arguing that much of the fear is based on groundless speculation. “It is too early to judge us on our intentions.”

For Skandrani, however, there is a deliberate doublespeak.

“They have a double discourse,” she says.

In one example of the type of statement that can be interpreted in a number of ways, a video posted to his party’s Facebook page shows Ghannouchi explaining how, in his view, the institution of marriage has been denigrated since independence. 

“The problem in Tunisia is that a young man is unable to marry even a single woman, let alone many wives,” he says in response to a question about polygamy.

“The regimes under Bourguiba and Ben Ali have destroyed our society, and now you don’t find many children in our schools,” he continues – arguing that many schools have been forced to close because of “a drop in reproduction caused by misguided social polices”.

Samir Dilou, Al-Nahda’s spokesperson, called polygamy a “fundamental principle” of his party’s political programme in an interview with Investir en Tunisie published on June 1.

“We are determined to add this right to the Tunisian Constitution,” he told the website

In response to the controversy that followed, Dilou released a statement arguing he had been misquoted and that the party had no intention of legalising polygamy. 

The outsider has no way to judge whether it is Dilou or the journalist who is being dishonest – another example of the type of incident that is leading to confusion over Al-Nahda’s position.

As Laabidi argues, it is impossible to judge Al-Nahda without the party having any track record in power.

And whether political parties are the driving force behind the groundswell of religious conservatism is another question again. 

Framing the debate

In Sidi Bouzid back in January, a crowd of desperate young men explained their anger over their economic, social and political marginalisation under both Ben Ali and Bourguiba’s governments.

“In Tunis, they are libertines, they have no values,” one young man said emphatically, asking not to be named at a time when it was too early to take freedom of speech for granted.  

We were among the first journalists to reach the town where the revolution began and his words were raw, well before the media or opposition parties had kicked in to gear.  

Whoever they vote for, the real test of women’s engagement in the political process will be how many of them vote, and their ability to stand alongside men on the campaign trail.

Those who support gender equality obtained a considerable victory in April, when the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution, a body created to help oversee the transition process, announced that gender parity was an obligation for electoral lists.

Come October, 50 per cent of candidates fielded by every party must be female. Moreover, the lists must alternate between genders (man-woman-man or woman-man-woman), putting Tunisia ahead of not only the Arab world, but also most other countries.

The Tunisian Higher Election Authority (ISIE by its French acronym) announced on Tuesday that, of the 3.8 million Tunisians who have voluntarily registered to vote, some 45 per cent were women. 

The figure given to Al Jazeera by the ISIE a week earlier was 37 per cent, suggesting a high number of women enrolled in the last week of inscriptions. 

More than half of the 1.7 million women who signed up are between the ages of 21 and 30.

So while older Tunisian women are lagging well behind men of their age group, younger women are ensuring that they will partake in the fruits of their engagement with the uprising – and help to frame the limits of the debate. 

Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan

Source: Al Jazeera