North African Dispatches Tunisia’s female revolution

In this week's North African Dispatches, Imad Mesdoua takes a look at women's rights in Tunisia. Despite being ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the region, the country boasts the best provision for women's rights in the Arab world. This however is now under threat.

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, November 24, 2010 11:01 - 3 Comments

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By Imad Mesdoua

A newspaper article I came across this week suggested that a majority of young Tunisian bachelors are looking to neighbouring countries for marriage. What, you might not be forgiven for asking, can possibly be so off-putting about Tunisian women that is making these men look to foreign brides for marital bliss?

According to the study presented in the article, most male respondents in a recent poll believed Tunisian women were entitled to “far too many rights”. As I write this, I can already imagine readers gasping with horror at the idea that gender equality can generate such a seemingly absurd reaction.

One thing should be clear from the outset: despite Tunisia being, in a significant number of ways, a repressive and undemocratic country,Tunisian women do enjoy a lifestyle and societal prominence unmatched in any other nation in North Africa or the wider Arab world. They are fully integrated into the nation’s cultural, economic and political spheres and are able to carry out their aspirations in independent and often ambitious ways.

Habib Bourguiba, the nation’s first president is, in many ways, the person to be credited for this rarely mentioned female revolution within the small north African nation. He was the driving force behind Tunisia’s 1956 Code of Personal Status which is unlike any other piece of legislation in the Arab world. Quite simply, Bourguiba single-handedly revolutionised the condition of Tunisian women, against entrenched patriarchal traditions, by leveraging his vast political capital, earned through leading his country’s struggle for independence. His unimpeachable standing enabled him to spearhead gender equality reform along Western secularist standards despite vehement objections from conservatives. To his credit, Habib Bourguiba did so knowing it ran against certain unshakeable principles in a male-dominated society.

Prior to the promulgation of the status, Tunisian women were, as is still the case in most other Arab and Muslim societies, subjected to the dictate of the ‘Wali’ or ‘male legal guardian’. In effect, a woman is forever a minor, unable to take any life-defining decision (marriage, buying a house) without the consent of her ‘Wali’. This is no longer the case.

Another major step forward introduced by the reform was the outright elimination of polygamy. No other Maghreb state has dared discuss the topic for fear of antagonising the popular Islamist parties in their respective parliaments. For instance, this was the case in Morocco which opted for a “diplomatic” approach to this thorny, sensitive socio-religious topic and where polygamy, though not explicitly outlawed in text, is so in practice. Morocco’s 2004 ‘Mudawana’ law allows polygamy only when mandated by a judge which, in effect, amounts to a prohibition, since no judge is likely to allow it.

Finally, Tunisia’s Code of Personal status has given married women equal status as heads of family, rejecting the idea that a women has to obey her husband (and her husband’s family), and eliminating the right afforded to men to unilaterally divorce their wives. More than anything, it has been the political will of the authorities (notably the backing of the elites) that has been crucial in getting these laws accepted, giving Tunisian women privileges no other Arab woman enjoy.

Two major examples help illustrate this commitment. Firstly, the harsh penalisation of female aggression has made sure that women are able to walk the streets freely, as in any European country. The penalties for improper conduct toward a female, in certain cases, vary from community service to imprisonment. This has evidently gone a long way to ensuring women are not dissuaded, as is the case for some of Tunisia’s neighbours, from enjoying the nation’s nightlife, even when unaccompanied by males.

Perhaps the most visible of changes brought about by the authorities’ attachment to this theme (from Bourguiba on to his successor Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali) has been the banning of headscarves in all public schools and administrations. Campaigns, heavily sponsored by the government and aided by liberal women’s groups discourage women from putting hijabs, often labelling them as un-Tunisian and thus unwelcome. The police have also served as enforcers for this campaign by stopping women in the streets to ask them to justify what the state considers extreme forms of headscarves (e.g. Saudi type abaya).

More recently, however, the backlash from Tunisia’s male population has made itself an increasingly evident consequence of this proactive, some would say aggressive, approach. The backlash has come in various forms, the worst of which has been the significant rise in domestic violence. Frustrated by the newfound power and status of their women in society, Tunisian men, particularly in the poorer sections of society, seem to have taken ‘refuge’ in violence to exorcise their perceived emasculation.

This new phenomenon has highlighted some of the downfalls of top-down approaches to legal reform. Society, or at least its male component, has adapted to the law by creating a situation whereby domestic violence is met with silence by women in an attempt to avoid escalation or social embarrassment, despite the legal net of protection afforded to them. Surely this raises the question as to when a state is or is not overdoing it in an effort to enforce laws that protect women. In this respect, the strong legal framework already in place could be coupled to new measures which do not merely enforce decisions from the powers that be, but also explain them.

Whilst Tunisia’s march towards total legal equality can and should be the model that other nations in the region need to adopt, its experience also provides policy makers and civil society activists with valuable lessons as to the downfalls of wanting too much too soon or moving too slow in an effort to please everyone. In the meanwhile, supporting or not acting on a unjust status-quo can also prove counterproductive to the development of a nation in desperate need of its women’s contributions.

Imad Mesdoua writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire. His interests include politics, current affairs and Real Madrid FC.

His column appears every Wednesday.

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3 Comments

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Liam Murray
Nov 28, 2010 1:21

Mr Mesdoua, your article was greatly enlightening to the status of Tunisian women and the fact that many men are seeking “easier-it-please” partners is no doubt a sign that women’s rights are advancing from the restaints of their society. This fellow, Habib Bourguiba, sounds like a well intentioned bloke for sure. But measures such as banning the headscarf in order to appeal to European and Western norms can be just as patriarchal, especially given the fact that a woman will have to justify to a, most-likey male police officer, her choice of clothing. Surely, the idea of being condemned as un-tunisian is just as oppressive as being un-islamic, if such an idenitity is not the personal choice of the individual woman in question. None-the-less, the advances in Tunisia far outway the consequences.

CC
Dec 29, 2010 9:11

I am an American woman who traveled to Tunisia for a month back in 2006. I can say, from first hand experience that at no moment did I feel uncomfortable or lessened by being a woman. I got more attention for being of Asian descent. I like the fact that women can hold any profession and are accorded proper respect and societal position. I don’t think the ban on headscarves is of any consequence and even in the US, there are restrictions on what to wear in schools. There are restrictions against gang colors, low hanging pants, ball caps and even clothing with questionable text. Thus is the nature of schools. I found that older women, grandmotherly age, continued to wear head coverings but were reminiscent of Italian countrysides and less Saudi deserts. Women are even taking a very active part in the current Tunisian revolution as of December 29, 2010. Good for them!

ellen
Jan 22, 2011 17:28

“Women are even taking a very active part in the current Tunisian revolution as of December 29, 2010. ”

How do you know this?

I have been watching Presstv (Iran) coverage of the revolution since the middle of December. And I look at videos on Aljazeera and elsewhere.
I see 98% of the demonstrators are male.

Why is this?

I am not suggesting the previous commenter is wrong, I just would like to know-
what IS the role of women in the Jasmine Revolution?

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