When Tunisia’s National Constitutional Assembly published the new draft constitution, a storm broke out over its words about women.
It read: “The State guaranties the protection of women rights and the promotion of their gains, as a real partner of men in the mission of the homeland building, and the roles of both should complement each other within the household … The State guaranties the extermination of all kinds of violence against women.”
Thousands of Tunisians were not impressed.
“Oh woman, rebel – guarantee your rights in the constitution,” chanted supporters of gender equality as they marched on August 13 from the 14 January Square to the Conference Palace in the capital of Tunis, defying government orders to cancel the protest.
Estimates placed the number of protesters between 5,000 and 30,000.
“Equality all the way – no complementarity in the constitution,” they shouted. Sister marches were held across Tunisia, in celebration of National Women’s Day.
New gender roles
Men and women demonstrated against the language in the new draft defining gender roles, fearing what they believe is an increasing threat from Tunisia’s rulers, the Islamist party Ennahdha.
“This position threatens and undermines the achievements of women and could create a patriarchal system that gives all power to the men and denies women their rights,” read a joint press release by human rights groups and the Tunisian General Labour Union, the country’s largest, following the release of the draft. “This position [will] deny women their full citizenship and independence as human beings, as equals of men whose duty is to enjoy their human rights just like men.”
“The chaos of parliamentary politics, in a country ruled by two presidents, often deemed dictators, for 55 years, is swirling with new parties and changing coalitions just as politicians jockey to craft the nation’s new constitution.“
Ennahdha’s language would define women’s roles with respect to men, cutting their place in society from independence to dependence, according to the press release. They fear that a woman would be legally considered a wife, daughter or mother – but not a citizen.
This interpretation of the draft constitution is alarmist and wrong, according to Farida Abidi, a National Assembly member and an Ennahdhaoui. She described the controversy as overly focused on the term mukammil, or complement, defining the household roles of men and women.
“The use of the term of complementarity should be construed in a positive way,” Abidi said in an interview with the state-run Tunisian Press Agency, adding that a specific provision in the constitution fully grants women equality. Article 22 states, “All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law notwithstanding any kind of discrimination whatsoever.”
A history of parity
Despite other similar public reassurances, Ennahdha’s “complement” has scared and angered many across the country who celebrate the Tunisian tradition of gender equality.
Just after independence from France in 1956, Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba began a Westernisation campaign modelled on former Turkish President Kemal Ataturk’s reformation. Bourguiba unveiled women before camera crews and instituted in 1956 the Code of Personal Status, which abolished polygamy, helped start National Women’s Day, and reformed divorce and marriage laws.
Three years later, women won the right to vote, and today Tunisia ranks above the United States in the United Nations’ Gender Equality Index.
However, not all celebrated this society-wide institution of women’s equality, according to Radhia Nasraoui, a human rights activist and lawyer famous for publicly defending imprisoned Islamists during Ben Ali’s reign. She now believes her former clients disagree with her views.
“Islamists were never happy with the content of the Code of Personal Status. They have made this point very clear [during former President] Ben Ali’s regime,” said Nasraoui on the TV channel Hannibal. “We were looking forward to improving the content of the Act and not to see its content contested.”
The protesters ended up issuing their own decree, the August 13 Charter, which called upon the Constitutional Assembly to exorcise the word “complement” and unequivocally solidify equality in the embryonic constitution.
However, one of its main authors, former head of the Democratic Women’s Association and current Secretary General of the International Federation of Human Rights in Tunisia Khadija Sharif, is enroped in a different controversy. Sharif infamously worked with Ben Ali to suppress women’s choice over veiling, which was countered by a popular women’s movement that demanded they be allowed to don the headscarf, arguing freedom of religion and expression.
Ali agreed with secularists to keep the veil forbidden, upholding Bourguiba’s 1986 secret decree known as called Circular 102 that forbid veiled women from entering public buildings – a move since criticised as patriarchal. As a result, many have blasted prominent feminists, like Sharif, on the issue, questioning whose feminism they are truly guarding.
The clamour of Tunisia’s democracy
All of this public debate is happening during a major shift in Tunisia. The chaos of parliamentary politics, in a country ruled by two presidents, often deemed dictators, for 55 years, is swirling with new parties and changing coalitions just as politicians jockey to craft the nation’s new constitution.
“I am here to defend my right of demonstration. Every time we asked for an authorisation to conduct a demonstration, the Ministry of Interior simply denied us the authorisation.“
– Abdennaceur Laouini, lawyer
When Ali fled Tunisia, he left behind a broken civil society that quickly took the reins of power. The country’s first free election saw Ennahdha win the largest vote percentage, but no clear majority. The fact that it was forced to rule by coalition with Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic didn’t matter to commentators, who feared Ennahdha had a secret Islamist plot to install an Iranian-style theocracy.
The party has been unable to assuage these fears, especially on sensitive issues when no clear majority is possible.
“During the votes of the Committee of Rights and Freedoms [regarding the ‘complement’ text], 12 members of committee backed the draft article, but 7 voted against the article,” said Selma Baccar, a theatre director, and a member of the Constitutional Assembly. “Ennahdha claimed to work to find compromises and consensus. This is not a consensus.”
During the August 14 protest, Ennahdha pushed back the new constitution’s ratification timetable from October 23 to an indefinite time in 2013, and said the next national election, scheduled for March 2013, might also be delayed.
Ennahdha said Tunisia needs more time to hash out details like problematic wording, but critics argue it is a ploy to ensure continued Islamist leadership in Tunisia.
“I am not here to celebrate the Women’s Day. I am not here actually to take part to the demonstration celebrating the Women Day,” said Abdennaceur Laouini, a lawyer famous for his viral tirade against Ali, at the Women’s Day protest.
Laouini bemoaned the Ministry of Interior’s ban of the protest and others across the country – and fears Tunisia hasn’t fully cast aside the former regime’s authoritarian tactics.
“I am here to defend my right of demonstration. Every time we asked for an authorisation to conduct a demonstration, the Ministry of Interior simply denied us the authorisation,” he said. “I want to support any efforts that would help protect my right to demonstrate and express myself.”
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