Tunisia: the backlash in women‘s rights amid the rocky political transition


The announcement of the long awaited new government in Tunisia coincided with International Women‘s Day. Ironically, only 3 women were appointed in the new cabinet. The exclusion of women from key posts in the government is not a new phenomenon in the history of modern Tunisia.

Meriem Dhaouadi
12 March 2013

 The announcement of the long awaited new government in Tunisia coincided with International Women‘s Day. Ironically, only 3 women were appointed in the new cabinet. The exclusion of women from key posts in the government is not a new phenomenon in the history of modern Tunisia. Under, the former president Ben Ali, women were denied access to high ranking decision position making as well. Under the dictatorship, women‘s status in Tunisia was embellished to the outside world. Tunisian women were among the more liberal and empowered women in the region in the Secular North African country this was the image projected in the mainstream media. However, the police state feared the potential of rebellious women in subverting the status quo and made oppressing women one of the premises of the survival of the regime. Beyond the Westernized image of modernization propagated by the one rule regime, women experienced discrimination and emasculation at the hands of the state institutions especially that that the social realities (high unemployment and poverty) further aggravated their plights.

Frustration over deterioration freedoms and blatant injustices has driven more women to become politically active citizens. Prior to the revolution women activists were harassed and intimidated but never grew weary to fight for their cause. I remember Fatma Arabica , a young Tunisian blogger who was arrested back in 2009 simply because she spoke out for rights in her blog. I also remember ordinary women demonstrating in the streets holding the Tunisian flag high and chanting the people want the fall of the regime only two years ago. The gesture of The widow of Chokri Belaid, the recently assassinated leftist politicians, displaying the V for Victory sign with her fingers in the day of the funeral of her husband blew my  mind."Pleurer j'aurai le temps. C'est pas grave. Maintenant il faut lutter".( I will have the time to grieve it is no problem. Now it is time to continue the struggle) Said Basma Khalfaoui.

The struggle continues

Understanding the status of women today in Tunisia is rather a complex issue since the realities of women today stem mainly from the policies of the old regime and the culture at large that favor men over women.  This however does not negate the fact that women‘s rights are threatened in the midst of the political turmoil today.

 The ambiguity of the wording of article 148 of the draft constitution may jeopardize the already gained rights of women since it emphasizes that “Islam being the religion of the state”. A possible interpretation of the article may reintroduce polygamy in the Tunisian society since in Islamic Jurisprudence (sharia) polygamy is tolerated. Polygamy is prohibited under the Tunisian Personal Status code since 1957. Tunisia can also brag about the underlying of the value of equality between men and women in citizenship rights.

The current reality of women in Tunisia is also shaped by fear of the extremist ideologies that thrived following the fall of the old order. The lack of security and the rising of violence add to the climate of fear that may hamper women from fulfilling themselves and cherish the freedoms they gained following the ousting of the old regime. Abuse of women is still tolerated especially in the climate of weakening rule of law and high rate of crimes. Only last October, Meriem was ruthlessly raped by two policemen and thus was humiliated when reported the incident to be brought to the court on charges of immorality and public indecency. The victim was at last cleaned from charges but only after she was stigmatized in the courts and in the streets only because she dared to bring her perpetrators to the court. In the absence of robust recognition of women’s rights, the combat for equal opportunities and against violations of women ‘s rights, the road seems to be painfully long to mark a turning point in the road towards meaningful equality between citizens in Tunisia.

To ensure an inclusive and smooth transition, women should not be ignored. Indeed the political dimension is just one element of women empowerment yet it is a significant means for upgrading the status of women in the process of democratization. Can Tunisia make progress towards democracy while almost half of its population remains marginalized? The increase of opportunities for women to get into the realm of decision making is indispensable if we want to set the example of a young democratic country.

 The participation of women in writing a new chapter in the history of Tunisia back in 2010 and long before should translate in more gains for women’s rights. The earlier achievements of women must not be lost today in the new constitution. In post revolution Tunisia, women are entitled to reaching political posts. Women are eligible to participate in determining the future of this country.

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