North Africa, West Asia

Despite Tunisia's positive reforms, more changes are needed

Many in Tunisia feel that the lifting of the ban on women marrying non-Muslims is merely a small step, and greater democratic reforms are needed.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
3 October 2017
Chedly Ben Ibrahim/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Women attend a march held by the movement "Manich Msameh" ("I don't forgive" in Arabic) on Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis on May 13, 2017, to protest against the economic reconciliation bill put forward by Tunisia's president Beji Caid Essebsi. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Tunisia is once again lauded for its progress in human rights. President Beji Caid Essebsi recently scrapped a 44-year old bill prohibiting marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. Despite such a progressive move, many in Tunisia still feel that their country faces issues that threaten democracy and equality.

Tunisia is considered the most progressive country in the region. Human rights commentators, while recognising issues within the country, still view it to be a model Arab nation for women’s rights and equality. Tunisia’s first president since independence, Habib Bourguiba, strove to promote liberal and secular values enabling women to have prominent positions in society.

Now women will be freer to choose their partners. Such marriages did take place, in limited amounts, but men were forced to undergo illegitimate conversions, just to show the authorities “proof” they had converted.

Essebsi first announced his wishes to make this change last month. I heard many Tunisian women express their views at the time. There was much skepticism about his sincerity - along with his ability to make such a change, believing he would face much opposition from society and fellow parliamentarians. His comments fell on Tunisian Women’s Day, raising suspicions that it was a publicity stunt, to appease those who had for long demanded such reforms to be made.

Many were quite rightly stunned, believing it would take years to pass. Others were convinced the idea would never actually be implemented.

Yet despite such a remarkable, historic transformation, much more needs to be done. Many Tunisian activists and human rights workers feel this is merely a small step, and other issues need to be addressed.

Tunisian-based civil society activist, who campaigns for democratization, Mariem Masmoudi said that while this is a positive move that will enable women, like men, make their own decisions, the government urgently needs to prioritize other problems that also directly impact the lives of Tunisians, such as fair wages and educational reforms.

“I look forward with infinite anticipation for President Essebsi and PM Chahed to get back to the important work of improving the real political, economic, and social realities of the Tunisian people,” Masmoudi added.

After all, corruption still lingers in Tunisia, and many issues relating to equality and justice still need addressing. While this law relating to marriage was passed, Tunisia is still rife with unemployment and police brutality.

Others feel this way. Amna Guellali, a Tunisian researcher at Human Rights Watch, lauds this landmark decision as a sign that women’s rights are improving in Tunisia. Yet she warns that this law comes amid a widespread level of corruption that still exists within the Tunisian establishment.

“Unfortunately, it was abrogated one day after the Tunisian parliament adopted a controversial law enshrining impunity for former regime violations. So while it is important, it has to be read in the broader picture of a country still struggling with corruption and not yet immune from a relapse in autocracy,” Guellali said.

Last week, the Tunisian government granted amnesty to hundreds of officials from the era of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, causing an uproar in Tunisia. The country clearly wrestles with the ghosts of its past. Despite Tunisia’s efforts to banish Ben Ali’s autocratic regime, their efforts for democracy were dampened by this recent move. It is no surprise that many feel betrayed.

Despite this, some remain optimistic that this recent move can lead to greater change. Lina Ben Mhenni, an activist and assistant lecturer at the University of Tunis, maintains this law as a positive step that could trigger further reforms.

 “Let me say that this came as a result of years and years of work on the part of Tunisian feminists.  I think that passing this law is very important for Tunisian women and the Tunisian society as a whole. It is a first for Arab societies. It will pave the way for other reforms,” she said. 

There is a glimmer of hope, as the government has recently shown. Along with last month’s marriage law, Tunisia passed a historic anti-violence law in July, which tightens penalties for violence against women, criminalizes sexual harassment, along with scrapping a colonial-era ‘marry-your-rapist’ law.

This could be the start of a ‘domino-effect’ scenario, in which other activists become inspired to push for greater reforms. After all, both changes came after years of campaigning and pressure from women’s rights movements.

In his speech last month, President Essebsi also pledged to tackle other laws that create inequality for women, such as enabling women to receive equality in inheritance. This also looks set to be reformed soon.

The fact the Tunisian government made such an unprecedented move shows that unexpected progress can occur. Yet there is clearly a desire for greater democratic reforms in Tunisia. With further pressure from activists, this could transform into a series of changes that improve Tunisian lives. Many will look to use this momentum to address inequality, poverty, tolerance of corruption, and other issues that plague Tunisia. 

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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