Women’s rights in Tunisia: promising future or religio-political game?

When Habib Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first president in 1957, his government legislated multiple new rights for women, and many argued that this contradicted the Koran. The new laws received support inside Tunisia, but numerous Arab and Muslim leaders abroad considered them “illegal” because they undermined Islam. Bourguiba fought back, arguing that he had, in fact, based his decision on Islamic principles. Indeed, as Medina points out elsewhere on openGlobalRights, it is possible to reconcile women’s rights with certain interpretations of Islam; it just depends who is doing the interpreting, and to what end.

The post-2011 revolution governments, however, have not built upon these rights but have instead modified them with the help of more conservative religious interpretations. The “Islamic basis” for women’s rights, it seems, changes with the political winds. How did Tunisian presidents use women’s rights as a political manoeuvre aimed at camouflaging their other interests and agendas? And who is supposed to defend and protect women rights in Tunisia now?

Progressive legislation dates back to the Code of Personal Status (CPS) in January 1957, which specified women’s rights to abortion, divorce, establish businesses, and open bank accounts without spousal consent. The 1957 code also outlawed polygamy and banned hijabs at public institutions, making Tunisia the first Arab country to do so.

The CPS code had real teeth, imposing serious penalties on those who breachedi ts provisions. Married men who proposed to another woman, for example, were subject to a year’s imprisonment and a substantial fine.

Women’s rights under Bourguiba and Ben Ali

The rights of women, however, were not the real motivators for the changes. Bourguiba(1957-1987) and his successor, Zein El Abdin Ben Ali (1978-2011), used the progressive gender legislation to portray themselves as secular modernists and pro-western, or as Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of the Islamist Ennahda movement, puts it, to portray a “country totally moulded in the French cultural identity.”

According to the US-based think tank Freedom House, the former Tunisian leaders also emancipated women to curb the influence of radical Islamists and other political opponents citing conservative Islamic principles. For example, wearing headscarves in public was banned because it advocated extremism—people were allowed to pull down a woman’s headscarf if spotted on the streets. In other words, the Tunisian leaders used their moderate interpretation of Islam to counter another, more radical interpretation, since the latter threatened their power.

In practice, however, none of these measures have achieved much. Although many women have completed higher education, only 38% of adult women are employed compared to 51% of men, according to UNESCO’s report on women in the labour force in 2009.Another study found out that 47% of women were subject to violence at least once during their lifetime because Tunisian society, according to the study, is still traditional in the sense that women are considered to have a secondary role inside the household.

Women’s rights in the post-revolution Tunisia

The Ennahda Party has called for a “moderate brand of Islam" which supports women’s freedom. In reality, however, women’s rights are yet again being used as part of a political game. 

The Ennahda Party, which has governed Tunisia since Ben Ali’s 2011 departure, has a reputation as an Islamist movement. Yet its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has called for a “moderate brand of Islam”. In one of his interviews on Reuters, cited on Al Jazeera just three months before the National Council elections, he said that his party supports women’s freedom and Ennahda has a number of active female members working next to their male counterparts. Some of them are unveiled.

In reality, however, this is just a lip service. Women’s rights are yet again being used as part of a political game, and the party has adopted such measures simply to rebuild its support base. Until 2011, Ennahda’s supporters mostly belonged to the rural poor who adhere to traditions and Islam and are far from the advances that engulfed central cities such as education, women’s rights, etc. Using the women’s rights issue here helpedexpand its support from rural areas to influencing the elite, which in turn helped them win the 2011 elections with a comfortable majority.

Moreover, after the 2011 revolution, women have continued to fight violence and harassment. If a young woman is raped by a police officer, she can be charged with indecency and perhaps imprisonment. According to some women activists, harassment had become a widespread phenomenon due to the absence of security.

Another example is the draft proposal of the new constitution, where one of the articles defines the role of women as “complementary” and not “equal” to that of the man (echoing similar statements in the Koran). This has generated huge public debate because it threatens women’s rights and their status in society.

Tunisian women’s organizations: active or passive recipients?

When Tunisia became a sovereign republic, women’s organizations sprung up across the country to defend women’s rights. Examples are the state-sponsored National Union of Tunisian WomenAssociation of Women in Research and Development, the Association of Democratic Women (AFTD) and after 2011, the Association for Equality and Parity, and the League of Tunisian Women Voters.

Over the years, these organizations have empowered women in education, agriculture and employment.They have also called for greater participation in elections and political life. Many Tunisian women were active participants in the 2011 uprising, better known as the Jasmine Revolution, which ended with the ousting of Ben Ali and his regime. Just like their male counterparts, women asked for democracy, transparent elections, social justice, prosperity and more job opportunities.

However, the reaction of women’s organizations against recent violence, harassment and other changes related to their rights was not visible. Instead of influencing legislators directly or changing what politicians wanted to impose, they embraced cyber activism. Women activists have fought back through an unlimited number of pages and groups on social media seeking more support. And women’s organizations have echoed that by showing similar interest in online activism and social media, of which Viva the Tunisian Woman is a living example. But even with these new avenues, women struggle to effect actual changes.

Tunisian legislators and leaders have “theoretically” acknowledged the role of women and their rights in society. But in many instances bestowing these rights seems to be a strategic move within a bigger power play. In post-revolution Tunisia, women’s organizations face the significant challenge of putting this theoretical approach into practice, enabling them to have a real influence on political and economic decisions. It might be the time to learn from Ennahda, which sang the tune of women’s rights to gain support from the elite. Women organizations should now sing a similar refrain to lobby and win the support of the ruling government. Perhaps then they can achieve real freedom.