Tunisia is viewed as being ahead of most Arab countries on women’s rights. This is the last part of our cycle of articles written by the brilliant teacher and sister Iman Hajji!
Tunisian women played an important role in the Tunisian revolution of 2011 and took part in the protest as participants and as leaders. They were and remain present in all kind of social and political struggles that Tunisia had to face since Ben Ali left the country.
But in post-revolution Tunisia, Islam and Islamist views became part of the women’s rights discourse, as religious freedom has been particularly restricted under Ben Ali. For that matter, women’s right to veil for instance, became a part of the human rights discourse. Women’s freedom means that a woman should be free to choose her way to dress. To that point, female member of the Islamist party Ennahdha consider themselves as freedom fighters and modern women. In fact, Ennahdha was the largest party involved in the constituent assembly and therefore provided the most important number of female representatives. By the way: In this constituent process one of the very first draft provisions proposed by Ennahdha stated that men and women had “complementary roles”. In fact, the article that stressed equality of men and women should be changed so that men and women would become “a complement” to each other.
This proposal launched massive protests supported to a huge extend by civil society and especially women, but it seems important to stress that it was also women, particularly Ennahdha deputies, were involved in supporting this complementarity clause in the assembly.
However, civil society became more vigilant than ever and exerted great pressure, together with leftist opposition so that this draft proposition has been abandoned. Finally, the government step down and was replaced by a government of technocrats. The constitutional assembly finished the constitution which was adopted on January 26th 2014 and which states that “the state commits to protect women’s accrued rights and work to strengthen and develop those rights”. The state guarantees the equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility in all domains. The state works to attain parity between women and men in elected assemblies. The state shall take all necessary measures in order to eradicate violence against women (article 46). This article means not only a continuity of the status quo, but a reinforcement of it.
Despite these achievements in the fields of women’s rights, violence against women has remained a major problem in Tunisia. On July 26th, 2017, a new law was passed to fight violence against women, adopting a broad definition of violence, which includes physical, economical, sexual, political and psychological violence. According to this new law:
- Men who have sex with underage girls or who violate a girl or a woman will no longer be allowed to escape prosecution by marrying their victims which was hitherto possible as a sort of loophole
- Workplace and wage discrimination are now punishable
- Sexual harassment now is a criminal offense punishable by two years in prison and a fine of 5000 Tunisian dinars.
- Marital rape has been criminalized: it is treated as rape now with no room for ambiguity
Two months later, in September 2017, the ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslims has also been lifted, arguing that this existing practice violates Tunisia’s new constitution. In fact, a non-Muslim man who wished to marry a Muslim Tunisian woman had to convert to Islam and submit a certificate of his conversion while a Muslim Tunisian man was allowed to marry a non-Muslim woman.
Tunisian president BCE, who had called for the government to lift this ban, also created a commission, led by a female lawyer and rights activist, to examine the possibility of equal inheritance as daughters are still entitled to only half the inheritance given to sons, unless the parents order equal inheritance in their will.
However, country’s leading imams and theologians have issued a statement denouncing the president’s proposals as a “flagrant violation of the percepts of Islam”. Recently, on July 2018, the COLIBE published its report in which it put forward a number of recommendations about law reform, in matters of individual rights and freedoms, and equality, including gender equality and with regard to inheritance. The publication of the report provoked a public debate in Tunisia and the equal inheritance claimed by the COLIBE has been rejected not only by the Islamist party Ennahdha, but is also not supported by the UGTT, Tunisia’s most important trade union and major political actor. The national assembly must now decide whether or not to accept the COLIBE’s proposals, including the proposal to modify the law of succession. Will Tunisia become the first Arab country with equal inheritance law?
Like we have seen, until the promulgation of the Personal Status Code, it was, in fact, men who liberated Tunisian women and who imposed the code. There has not been a feminist movement demanding the changes which had been introduced by the code. Anyway, it is women who watch over their status and who speak up for further rights today. Leila Toubal, Tunisian playwright, actor and activist stressed once that women have never been so afraid for their rights and themselves in Tunisia like during the Islamist transitional government after the revolution. Women had understood that they had to stand up and to stay up for their rights and so they gained the streets and turned it to their battlefield. The presidential elections of 2014 also revealed that Tunisian women have become an important political clout; statistics point out that 61% of women have voted for Tunisian president BCE as he opposed the Islamist’s favorite candidate Moncef Marzouki. (Women were granted the right to vote by Bourguiba in 1957)
Nevertheless, half of Tunisian women estimate having been a victim of violence; almost all of them claim that the violence is a part of their life. It seems that violence has become the norm and that there is indeed a great cleft between voted laws and reality: women are afraid from their family, from their father, their husband, their brother and even their son when he is grown up. It seems that male supremacy is well enrooted in Tunisian society and it will surely take a while to change local mentality. To this effect Bourguiba once declared: “In the task of changing people’s mentality, we have difficulty not only with the men but also with the women themselves, who cling to this state of servility, decadence, and bondage just as if they considered it their normal state in this base world”.
Concluding, we can admit that Tunisian women have gone a long way and still have a long way to go..
In 2009, Iman Hajji graduated from the University of Cologne with an excellent Master’s degree in Islamic Studies, Ethnology and Public Law. She held various research assistantships and lectureships at the Oriental Institute of the University of Cologne and at the University of Lyon. In 2009, she published her book “Ein Mann spricht für die Frauen. At-Tāhir al-Haddād und seine Schrift “Die tunesische Frau in Gesetz und Gesellschaft” (Klaus Schwarz Verlag/Berlin), which dealt with the life and work of the Tunisian reformist thinker al-Haddād and his feminist interpretation of Islam. In 2015, Hajji became civil servant and currently she works as a German teacher at a Collège in Meyzieu (Lyon).
Recently, Hajji wrote and submitted her doctoral thesis at the University of Lyon 2 in Arabic linguistics, literature and civilization on “First World War, Pan-Islamism and Tunisian Nationalism. Tunisian figures in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century”. The disputation is to be held in December 2018.