Tunisia: will democracy be good for women's rights?

History reveals an abundance of democratic paradoxes: cases in which progress on women’s rights regressed in the aftermath of revolution. Coming to terms with the battle between secularism and Islam – a dispute long silenced by Ben Ali’s rabidly secular policies – will require a redefinition of women’s rights. Are the secularists or Islamists ready for that step?

Kristine Goulding
13 June 2011

Falling tyrants and rising freedoms have been a recurrent theme of the Arab Spring. Invariably, in every discussion of democratization in the Middle East, the question of women crops up. The key conundrum: will democracy be good for women’s rights?

While the social and political movements gaining momentum in the Middle East and North Africa appear to be opening the door for democracy, initially progressive revolutions do not often result in sustained improvements for women’s rights. While Arab women have been crucial in the revolutions that have shattered the status quo, their role in the future development of their own countries remains unclear. In Tunisia, for example, the fear is that women will be sucked into an ideological and religious tug-of-war over their rights, reducing the complexities of democratization into a binary secular/non-secular battle.

In contrast to vivifying images of flag-waving female protesters taking over Avenue Habib Bourguiba and Tahrir Square in January and February, women are barely present in the interim governments: two in Tunisia and one in Egypt. Valentine Moghadam, an expert in social change in the Middle East and North Africa, describes the first months of post-revolution Tunisia as a "democracy paradox"- a post-protest period of democratic freedom that simultaneously witnessed the disappearance of women’s representation. The lack of female voices in Tunisia’s transitional government seemed an early warning sign of such a trend of exclusion. “Unless women are visible during the negotiations,” Moghadam argues, “a nation's new sense of freedom may not be shared by all”. Many women involved with Ben Ali’s party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), were excluded from the transition processes, and massive structural impediments hindered the political mobilization of others. In the first weeks of independence, despite the high hopes for nationwide democracy, optimism for women’s rights slipped away.

More recent winds of change seem to be blowing in a favourable direction for Tunisian women. The commission responsible for planning the elections has voted for parity between men and women on the candidate lists – the first step in establishing a clear-cut role for women in building a government and constitution. The radical move to guarantee women’s 50 per cent representation in Tunisia’s politics is a fresh kind of revolution for women in the Middle East. Surprisingly, the decision was welcomed by all members of the commission, including representatives of the recently legalized Islamist group al-Nahda. Yet questions still linger regarding the role that different political parties – notably the Islamists – stand to play in the democratic transition, especially given the interim government’s decision to postpone the elections until 23 October 2011. Of the 3 million Tunisians who still need to be entered into the electoral database and the hundreds of thousands of others who must get valid identity cards (the government’s justification for postponing the elections), a large proportion are women. In the long term, many fear that what started as a women-driven secular Arab spring might give way to an Islamist summer.

History reveals an abundance of democratic paradoxes: cases in which progress on women’s rights regressed or even reversed in the aftermath of revolution. Before the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe during the early 1990s, women were guaranteed seats in parliament through a complex quota system established by the Communist party. After those governments collapsed, the proportion of female officials declined from an average of 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent. Post-1979 Iran witnessed a disastrous truncation of women’s rights, despite the pivotal role that women played throughout the 1970s protests. Today, women are nearly non-existent in Iranian state politics. In Algeria, women were active agents in the 1962 revolution, fighting beside men, planting bombs, carrying weapons; yet the dictates of the 1984 Family Code, subsequent conservative amendments, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism rendered them minors under the law. Although women have played starring roles in struggles for national independence, and have been used as symbols of nationalism in countries from El Salvador to the former Yugoslavia, many have found that despite (or even due to) “democratic” progress, their rights fall between the cracks.

For three decades, former president Ben Ali used women’s rights as his bulwark against Islamists at home and his alibi with Western governments in response to their inquiries about human rights abuses. But it appears that this strategy came back to haunt him. “The men and women marching for democracy last month were all the children and grandchildren of women who had grown up with an education and a sense of their rights,” said Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a Tunisian psychiatrist who lives in Paris. “It’s no coincidence that the revolution first started in Tunisia, where we have a high level of education, a sizeable middle class and a greater degree of gender equality”.

From the onset of the protests in December 2010, women played an active and visible role as bloggers, journalists, Tweeters and demonstrators. “Women massively participated in the Jasmine uprising to make sure their demands would be taken into account, that they would get to be represented in post-revolutionary political institutions,” said Souhayr Belhassen, a Tunisian and president of the International Federation for Human Rights. Rather than passively watching the revolution, women flooded the streets of Tunisia – much to the delight of Arab and Western media.

Yet following the flight of Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, women and their interests were swiftly sidelined. The majority of women in the pre-revolution government were RCD members and therefore “tainted” with the stain of Ben Ali’s leadership. Large numbers were summarily excluded from early bureaucratic processes. Women’s organizations that had benefited from state patronage floundered in the first weeks of the Jasmine Revolution. Fears spread that women's rights in Tunisia were being undermined.

To further complicate the equation, the bogeyman of Islamism that has haunted Tunisian policy makers since independence in 1956 has been unleashed in the post-revolutionary state. While Rachid Ghannouchi, al-Nahda’s leader, is a moderate Muslim scholar and human rights lawyer – a far cry from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini – many Tunisians are understandably cautious about including an unknown, unpredictable Islamist party in the upcoming elections. The question of how hard-line - and how popular – al-Nahda will be, worries critics, especially women. Coming to terms with the battle between secularism and Islam – a dispute long silenced by Ben Ali’s rabidly secular policies – will require a redefinition of women’s rights. But are the secularists or Islamists ready for that step?

Was life better for women under Ben Ali’s secular reign? During the height of his power, scores of women were arrested and incarcerated in the name of secularism, for instance, for wearing hijab in public spaces or marching in favour of Islamist political parties. The president used “state feminism” as a relatively soft alternative to moving towards genuine democratic participation or a social justice agenda. Further, secularization and indutrialization have gone hand in hand, often forcing women into low-paying, socially insecure, informal positions. In an attempt to promote a powerful market economy machinery, women were reportedly employed by sub-contracting companies to work 16 hours a day for 150 dinars – below a living wage and in violation of labour codes. While the state seems to be progressing in a more inclusive and unifying direction in Ben Ali’s absence, the same threats to women’s rights persist if ardent secularists are democratically elected to power.

There is a great deal at stake for Tunisian women: the 1957 Code of Personal Status (CPS) which broke with Shari’a law in important respects, notably by introducing a ban on polygyny and requiring juridical divorce and marriage by mutual consent, may yet be debated. Rights to education, employment and political participation, also outlined in the CPS, have been identified as crucial to the development of future generations of Tunisian women. Many are prepared to fight to maintain those liberties. Whether or not an Islamist party will challenge the CPS remains to be seen, but as a Mounia, a student in Tunis told the author, she would rather be “safe than sorry” and hopes al-Nahda’s popularity will fade before July’s elections.

Tunisia’s political landscape has been transformed from an overlooked quasi-dictatorship to a media darling and proto-democracy. October's elections hold the potential to play out the West’s fondest dream: an open and fair election that will pit Islamists against secularists, with control over the future of women’s rights as the prize. But as has been seen in Central and Eastern Europe, Iran and Algeria, the Jasmine Revolution could yet spell disaster for Tunisian women. Both secularist and Islamist politics have the potential to detract from the advances of the last decades, and the Arab Spring could mark the end of an era for women’s freedom.

But we cannot underestimate the capacity of Tunisian politicians and civil society to promote moderation and restraint in the polity. Despite the legacy of autocracy and totalitarianism under both Bourguiba, Ben Ali’s predecessor, and Ben Ali himself, Tunisia has never been a hotbed for extremism. Even until his final days, Ben Ali was seen as a “benevolent dictator”; while self-serving, nepotistic and corrupt, he never condoned the kind of sectarian strife that has torn apart other Arab states. Likewise, the tradition of women’s rights Ben Ali inherited and helped to nurture will not disappear overnight.

Tunisians’ grievances and frustrations have been bubbling for the past decade due to widening social inequality, unemployment, the persistence of poverty, the suppression of dissent and because of a lack of social and economic justice – not just because of a harshly secular president. A successful political party will have to address all of these concerns in order to be victorious in October's elections.

Likewise, the predicament faced by the women of Tunisia is rightly not centred on the inclusion or exclusion of religion in the political sphere. Instead the focus is on ensuring women’s participation in a future Tunisian government. To sustain Tunisia’s growth and prosperity, it is important that everyone, Tunisians, Islamists and Westerners alike, put any outdated views they may have about women aside, and welcome everyone into the creation of transformative social policies that prioritize equitable job creation, social protection and inclusive development.




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