Tunis, Tunisia – A controversial poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the status of women in Arab countries has stirred debate in Tunisia, long seen as the Arab world’s leader in women’s rights.
Greater religious freedom after the 2011 revolution and the rise to power of an Islamist party have raised complex questions about how these issues should be addressed in the new Tunisia.
While the poll addressed a multitude of issues relating to women’s rights, critics argue its breadth came at the expense of country-specific nuances and, at times, factual accuracy.
The poll notably ranked Egypt as last among 22 countries surveyed on women’s rights. Tunisia fared well in the poll, ranking sixth overall. Readers were quick to call out the foundation for errors, citing Tunisia’s longstanding legal protections for women.
I am an Islamist and I know some have a backward mentality but they won't get anywhere. They cannot take us backward with them.
The foundation initially stated that “polygamy remains widespread in Tunisia and contraception is illegal” in the country.
Tunisia officially banned polygamy under its 1956 Personal Status Code, making it the first country in the Arab world to do so. The code was amended in 1973 to legalise abortion. Contraception is legal and available.
The code granted women a range of rights that were not yet seen in many other countries. It required the consent of both parties to marriage and raised the minimum marriage age for girls to 17. It also gave women the right to file for divorce and abolished the “unilateral repudiation” on the part of the husband. Prior to the code, a man was able to divorce his wife by simply uttering “I repudiate thee”.
Tunisia signed the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1980, and ratified it in 1985. However, the Tunisian government made a number of reservations on the convention, stating that it would not comply with decisions contradicting Article 1 of the Tunisian constitution, which declares Islam the country’s religion.
The Reuters poll comprised several scaled response and open ended questions, meant to measure respondents’ perceptions of women’s rights issues in their country. In the results, Tunisia’s lowest ranks were on questions addressing inheritance law and violence against women. This means on average, Tunisian respondents agreed with statements such as “inheritance laws are biased toward men” and ranked answers like “impunity for perpetrators” as “very important” motivators of violence.
The country also fared poorly on reproductive rights issues, despite legal safeguards for women’s reproductive rights. The wording of the poll asked respondents to rank access to reproductive education, birth control, pre- and post-natal care, and legal and safe abortion from “not at all important” – a score of one – to “very important to address” – a score of five. The higher a country’s average score, the lower the country ranked by Reuters’ measure, treating support of these services as a sign that they were lacking in the country.
Claims on polygamy
After receiving criticism from readers, Reuters updated its press release to read that “contraception is legal, but polygamy is spreading” in the North African country. The foundation stated these findings were based on two anonymous free responses that mentioned polygamy.
The transitional period is when the most important laws are formulated and the most important decisions are made.
“We have not seen any solid evidence that can support this claim,” said Tara Vishwanath, lead economist at the World Bank for the Middle East and North Africa.
Mosbah Sherni, an Amnesty International regional officer in the southeastern town of Medenine, agreed that the prevalence of polygamy is unclear. He argued that if polygamy were happening in Tunisia it was through untraceable, extrajudicial marriages.
“‘Illegal marriages’ are becoming widespread,” Sherni said, but qualified that “from a legal point of view, it is hard to give actual data”.
According to Sherni, it is hard to prove illegal marriages are occurring because they are being used to exercise the banned practice of polygamy.
“To prove them, the ‘victim’ [would] need to file a complaint. Yet in this case, the victim is the woman who is taking part in it,” Sherni said.
Since the revolution, discussions on various aspects of human and religious rights, once stifled under the former regime, have become the centre of charged political debates. In terms of women’s rights, North Africa researcher Jeremy Farrell said that a resulting tension has developed between secular feminism in Tunisia and a competing “type of feminism… emphasising religious freedoms and rights”.
This blend of Islamism and democracy has been repeatedly advanced by Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.
Conflicting statements and controversial proposals have put the party at the centreof these women’s rights conversations, especially those concerning polygamy and women’s issues in the draft constitution.
Perhaps the most visible example of this tension was the 2012 proposal of an article of the draft constitution. Many translated Article 28, which defines women’s role in society, as referring to women as “man’s associate” and “complementary” to men.
|Tunisians outraged over ‘indecency’ case, fear growing religious conservatism [first aired May 28, 2013]|
Many women’s rights activists bucked against the proposal and on the country’s 2012 Women’s Day, thousands marched in the streets in protest.
The translation of “complementary” and the article’s significance has been debated, but Oxford doctoral candidate Monica Marks argues the crux of the issue is that the failed proposal defined women’s rights in relation to men and the family, a manner that “departs somewhat from the liberal, individualistic template of Western human rights norms”.
Selim Kharrat of Tunisian watchdog organisation Al Bawsala said Article 28 was the main post-revolutionary development that raised concern for women’s rights.
“It’s a good thing it has been amended, and now the third draft of the constitution talks about ‘complete equality’ between men and women,” Kharrat said.
Law graduate and entrepreneur Lamia Horchani said that Islamism would not impede on women’s rights in the country. “I am an Islamist and I know some have a backward mentality but they won’t get anywhere. They cannot take us backward with them.
“There cannot be room for interpretation in the constitution,” Kharrat added. “Even if there are other articles in the constitution that cancel out the ‘complementarity’ article.”
Emna Aouadi, member of the National Bureau of Working Women of Tunisia’s largest union, the UGTT, believes this is a crucial moment for the future of women’s rights in Tunisia.
“The transitional period is when the most important laws are formulated and the most important decisions are made,” said Aouadi. “If it weren’t for the women’s march on [Women’s Day] August 13, 2012, women’s rights would’ve been reduced to complementarity with men.”
Though the report addresses property ownership and discrimination concerns in the workplace, it does not address factors that might impede women’s entrance into the workforce.
“Women were not compensated or done justice in terms of true and actual equal participation,” Aouadi continued. “The main revolution demands were dignity, liberty, equality, and active citizenship. Women found themselves to be the weakest links in all these demands.”
Political and security concerns are likely to exacerbate these problems.
We link everything to the revolution. Yet we will not benefit from the fruits of the revolution until generations to come.
These factors have slowed economic recovery, which, according to the World Bank’s Vishwanath, “will likely worsen unemployment from the already high levels of about 27 percent for females and 15 percent for males in 2012 [according to data from Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics].”
“In times of crises with fewer jobs, women are likely to face a tougher time getting one,” said Vishwanath, adding that the situation was “markedly worse in the interior regions of Tunisia as compared to coastal areas”.
“The revolution shed light on the huge socio-economic gap that exists between the regions,” echoed Aouadi, saying again women were disproportionately disadvantaged.
An ongoing conversation
“When I ask my female family members or other Tunisian women,” said Kharrat, “they answer that, while things are not worse in terms of their rights, they did not get better, either.
“Tunisia has always been perceived as a pioneer in women’s rights compared to the rest of the Arab world. I think this is used in Tunisia as political capital to sell nationally and internationally,” Kharrat continued. “Women’s rights are at times used for political ends.”
The longview of the situation remains to be seen.
“Everyone is talking about things ‘before and after’ the revolution,” said Horchani. “We link everything to the revolution. Yet we will not benefit from the fruits of the revolution until generations to come.”