The gender fault line in Tunisia

Women’s rights fail reality check despite advanced laws that promote equality and freedom.

'I’ve never believed that Tunisia is a leading country in terms of women’s rights,' says Ben Ghazi [Rabii Kalboussi]

Tunis, Tunisia–The extensive rights in gender equality in Tunisia are failing to achieve their full potential as many women remain unaware of their existence, especially in rural areas. This is at least what Myriam Ben Ghazi, a Tunisian journalist, believes.

Last September, Ben Ghazi began a journey in rural regions, documenting the lives and hardships suffered by women and girls in those remote areas.

After meeting hundreds of them, Ben Ghazi narrates her experiences with those women and sheds light on the hard circumstances they go through, which makes it difficult for her to appreciate the gender equality advances which Tunisia prides itself on.

Myriam says that setting right gender injustices through legislation alone is not enough, pointing out that true women’s emancipation can be achieved only if awareness campaigns are intensified to include all women from all walks of life in both cities and rural areas.

“I’ve never believed that Tunisia is a leading country in terms of women’s rights, simply because I am a woman and I live in Tunisia,” Myriam told Al Jazeera.

She noted that coping with life’s daily burdens is a struggle for the vast majority of Tunisian women, who remain unaware of such privileges and incapable of claiming their rights.

“I met an 85-year-old woman who works from dawn to dusk to feed a family of five for less than $3 per day,” Myriam said.

“Sexual harassment starts from around the corner from your house.”

Tunisia is generally considered relatively advanced in terms of women rights compared to other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. 

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Abortion was legalised in 1965, and women had access to birth control measures from 1962.

The country granted women the right to vote in 1957, preceding countries such as Switzerland in providing this opportunity, and presenting a picture of a liberal and advanced society, embracing gender equality.

However, the reality is quite different. Around 23% of Tunisian young women do not graduate from high school, and many rely on men from an early age.

“Women are always dependent on men, they are raised that way,” Myriam said.

Tunisia’s new constitution recognises the issue of discrimination and violence against women, and addresses the problem. 

It stipulates that “the state is obliged to act through public authorities by taking measures to eliminate all forms of violence against women”.

However, this has done little to alter the way in which women are viewed in Tunisia, according to Amel Grami, professor of gender studies at Manouba University.

“Despite these achievements, the gender gap is apparent. It is related to a state of mind. There is always a gap between discourse and practice in our society because people are not able to assume their choice,” Grami told Al Jazeera.

Despite these achievements, the gender gap is apparent. It is related to a state of mind. There is always a gap between discourse and practice in our society because people are not able to assume their choice.

by Amel Grami, professor of gender studies,

Grami says that the lack of awareness about women’s rights, and regression within the education sector of the country continue to play a major role in the gender imbalance in Tunisia.

As the country heads to the polls on October 26 to elect a parliament under the new constitution for the first time, the female presence remains modest, with only 15 percent of women atop electoral lists, and only one female candidate for presidential elections, set to take place in November.

Meherzia Labidi, vice president of the Constituent Assembly, says she was nominated by her party based on her leadership skills and political experience, and not because they felt compelled to appoint a woman.

Labidi, who has chaired 70 percent of recent assembly sessions, told Al Jazeera that gaining the nomination, and breaking down gender barriers within her party, was not an easy task.

She was surprised at the attitudes displayed by members of her own party, whom despite claiming to be “modernists”, felt it wrong that a woman could assume as important a role as she has within the Constituent Assembly.

“I have been working under fire,” Labidi told Al Jazeera, adding “many of my male colleagues thought it would be easy to not respect me.”

Comments made by the former premier and leader of the secular Nida Tounes party, Beji Caid Essebsi, in a recent television interview, have sparked outrage among Tunisian women.

“She’s just a woman,” said Essebi, without providing any explanation or elaboration, raising serious questions about a party which portrays itself as defending women’s rights.

“I was reassured when women from his party called me and expressed solidarity with me,” Labidi told Al Jazeera, explaining that while she is satisfied with the presence on women within her Ennahda party, she hopes that the number of women in the party will increase.

The Islamist party is contesting with 46 percent of women in its electoral lists.

If elected, Labidi vows to work on enhancing the presence of women in the political scene.

Article 24 of the recently-introduced constitution guarantees parity between the genders in all elected assemblies, noting that the state is responsible for encouraging equality and taking affirmative action to this end.

Labidi considers herself a feminist and argues that being a member of an Islamist party does not contradict her feminist ideology.

“Can Meherzia Labidi defend the demand for equality in inheritance laws? Or the sexual rights for women?” Grami asked. 

“It is not realistic to be feminist in an Islamic party because feminism is a culture, an everyday struggle; not only slogans,” she added.

“We have to improve women rights,” says Labidi [Rabii Kalboussi]

In terms of inheritance laws, Tunisia’s constitutions since independence follow Islamic rules that stipulate that a man inherits twice as much as a woman.

According to Grami, feminist activists in Tunisia have committed serious errors by developing into an elitist movement, opting to ignore marginalised women and adopting a western model of feminist activism.

Over the past two years, feminist activists have chanted “Tunisian women are not Meherzia”, arguing that a veiled woman is not representative of the general female population of what is considered a liberal country.

“I am not aiming to break this image (that a feminist activist has to be secular). We are all Tunisian women, we are looking for diversity. We have to meet in a mutual aim which is improving women rights,” Labidi told Al Jazeera.

“My daughters are not veiled. Shall we divide the house? Of course not! There is a place for me and for them; this is how I see women in Tunisian society.”

Source: Al Jazeera