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Tunisia: What Challenges are Women Facing?

Tunisian women are now being democratically elected instead of appointed into public life but obstacles remain.
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Courtesy of Aida Ben Hamouda

Women have been at the forefront of the uprising that has shaken the Arab world and led to the ousting of presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya or Syria, women have displayed an immense amount of courage and strength in protesting, defying tear gas, smuggling arms, delivering humanitarian aid, writing blogs, lobbying governments for support and creating awareness through the media. Veiled or unveiled, women have proved their commitment to being part of change and their longing for a democratic state.

The Nobel Peace Prize recently jointly awarded to Tawakul Karman of Yemen came as an acknowledgement of Arab women’s tremendous role in the protests across the region and, as declared by a member of the Prize committee, was a signal to “the whole Arab world that one cannot set aside women if one wants to build democracies."

In Egypt and Tunisia, women’s movements have been very active in advocating for gender equality, and pro-democracy movements have included gender equality, along with democracy and religious tolerance, as one of their chief principles. However, it appears that once the protest phase ended and the transitional political processes began, women were once again sidelined.

Women’s involvement in the revolution is indeed not to be regarded as a mere expression of their will to topple such dictators as Gaddafi, Salah or Al’Assad, but also as a proof of their demand for more equality and women’s rights in general. It is a struggle which began, for some of them, with the colonial era. However, although women have taken part in fights for freedom and political struggles whenever it was necessary, they have always been the forgotten members of past revolutions and have repeatedly been sent back to their homes. As has so often been the case, now replicated in the Arab world, women have often been put aside when the moment of reform and freedom comes. The challenge now therefore is for women to claim a position where they will be heard and considered as actual members of the public sphere of the Tunisian or Egyptian society.

Women and the transition

In Egypt, where the constitution was amended after the fall of Mubarak, women were not included in the Constitutional Committee created to take up the task. Furthermore, only one woman was appointed to the new 27-member interim government, which has in turn revoked the quota system that ensured women 64 seats at the 444-seat Egyptian parliament under the excuse that this law had been passed by the previous dictatorial regime.

Additionally, protests calling for women’s equality after the revolution were met with hostility and violence. According to Amnesty International, some of the women who marched to Tahrir Square on March 8,  International Women’s Day, were beaten, verbally assaulted and sexually harassed by groups of hostile men. It was also reported that the military forced some women arrested in Tahrir Square to take tests establishing their sexual virginity and, after torturing them, threatened to sue them for prostitution.

In Tunisia, only two out of the 31 ministries of the provisional government were allocated to women, and less than half of the members of transitional body, The High Authority Council for the Achievement of the Revolution’s Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, are women.

Yet women in Tunisia have had somewhat more positive experiences in the transitional political process thanks to the gains women’s rights activists have made over the past 50 years or so. Tunisia is a country considered to be relatively progressive, with a Code of Personal Status, laws aimed at redressing the gender balance, which is one of the most modern in the Arab world. Women are consequently more represented in the public sphere in Tunisia than elsewhere in the Arab world as they constitute 26.6 % of the labour force and represented 27.6% (59 out of 214) of members of Parliament under President Ben Ali.

The transitional period, too, is relatively promising for women in Tunisia. Indeed, the transitional authorities have imposed that parity be respected on the electoral lists to be registered to the October 23 elections of the representatives to the National Constituent Assembly. This assembly will be in charge of electing a new president and, more importantly, of creating a new constitution, thereby deciding what type of regime to implement in Tunisia. It is of concern, however, that parity was not imposed for the chief candidates of the electoral lists. Consequently, it is estimated that the assembly will merely consist of 10% women. Although the figure is inferior to the one under President Ben Ali’s Assembly, it is still remarkable, for this 10% represents energetic women elected rather than appointed, and who will be able to count on modernist parties' support to fight for the women’s cause.

This historic transition will therefore not only bring opportunities but also countless risks, one of them notbaly being the counter-revolutionary forces of the old regime which are reorganising to destabilise the country and hinder the democratisation process. Women are finally being given a voice, politics has become accessible for them, yet they are also concerned with the return to public and political life of Islamist parties, such as Tunisia's al-Nahda. This party has indeed made some progressive statements about women’s equality and its support for women’s rights, such as its opposition to legalising polygamy, but some of its statements and behaviour has led women’s rights activists to question its motives and suspect a hidden, more conservative, agenda.

The risk of stagnation

As to whether a post-revolution Tunisia or Egypt augurs a better future for women’s rights in the region, the answer remains uncertain. Trends seem to indicate that if new decisions are not taken to protect women’s rights in politics, there could be stagnation, if not regression.

Today, the condition of women continues to be balanced between universalism and a return to the “Arab-Muslim authenticity”. And although the Tunisian code still accounts for progress compared to the rest of the region, vigilance and caution are still needed, especially with Islamist parties. Indeed, both Islamic parties, al-Nahda and Hizb Al-Tahrir, are considered to be the same side of a single coin. Even as al-Nahda was legalised on March 30, 30 years after its creation, it stated that it would comply with the achievements highlighted in the Personal Status Code. A more radical party, and a proponent of a Khalifa regime, Hizb Al-Tahrir, has not been allowed to be part of the political sphere. 

The threat of religious parties

For many Tunisians, a real revolution is a secular one, and the presence of political parties which are based on religion represents a threat against women’s rights and their social status, even if these parties say that they are supporters of democracy. Worse still, these parties have gained important popular support that draws its source in the perpetual sexism and the degrading conception of women’s role within society. Thus, they slow down the movement towards women’s rights and total equality.

Feminists are more worried by the al-Nahda movement because it has more financial means than any other party, and it takes a more important position in the political landscape with each passing day. The contradictory discourse carried out by al-Nahda, where the party spokesman's proclamations are at odds with newspaper coverage, is also to blame. A call for a debate on the role of women and the personal status code is required.

Although women will paradoxically be less politically represented now than under presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali, they will have a better chance of making improvements since they will have been elected rather than just given seats. And, critically, they will have the opportunity to lobby for their cause and rally people around them, especially members of the modernist parties in favour of parity and equality between men and women.

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