Bridging the gap between women’s rights and practice in Tunisia
Tunisian Minister of Women, Family and Children’s Affairs Neziha Labidi said she was pleased with legislation providing equal rights for women in Tunisia but also acknowledged that the road ahead required great effort to achieve equality.
Tunisia has a distinguished record in women's rights activism. The first comprehensive legislation in favour of women in the Arab world was enacted in Tunisia in 1956 at a time when women's rights were ignored in the region. Tunisia’s Personal Status Code created a unique set of laws dealing with the rights of women and other family legislation.
Labidi said there is a gap between theory and practice when it comes to women’s rights in Tunisia because of legal twists that the issue has undergone.
“These turns can be seen in the difficulty of amending the Personal Status Code in 1993, when the principle of obedience, which places women no matter their status under the custody of their spouses, was abolished. They had to obey their husbands in everything, including work and study,” Labidi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
The law, outlined in Chapter 23 of the Personal Status Code, was replaced with the principle of mutual respect within the family. In 2014, Tunisia’s new constitution provided guarantees for equality between men and women.
Labidi said Chapter 46 of the constitution established that it was the responsibility of the state to support women's rights and, since 2014, laws and mechanisms have been enacted to protect women.
She noted that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs allocated a special budget for economic empowerment of Tunisian women as well as for halting violence against women and increasing their presence in decision-making positions.
Tunisian women have a strong presence in most professional sectors, notably in medicine, law, higher education, the textile industry and agriculture where they represent more than 50% of the workforce. They are, however, severely underrepresented in leadership positions, accounting for just 4% of them.
“We also included on our agenda a gender-based approach and the principle of equal opportunity between women and men, something that has led to the selection of Tunis as the capital of Arab women for the year 2018-19 and an International Capital for Equal Opportunities for Women and Men in 2019,” said Labidi.
She said she remains strongly committed to defending Tunisia’s pioneering legislation, even though many measures remain theoretical. She, however, said the gap between what’s desired and what exists is something that most of the world suffers from and stresses that Tunisia is working hard to achieve equality.
Labidi said equality between the sexes is an integral human right. It should be effectively practised in accordance with the law in public life and the family.
“We are all born on an equal footing but cultural differences are what give us social roles,” she said. “This is why we are concerned with developing mindsets, especially since it is men’s prevailing misogynistic mentality and the sexist discrimination suffered by many women that constitute the major obstacles to our efforts of guaranteeing women's rights.
“The real challenge is to overcome this mentality that manifests itself in our everyday practices."
"There are no ideal societies but, at least in Tunisia, we aspire to reduce gender gaps and violence against women, as well as to integrate women into all domains of public life. This is our vision and perception of women’s presence in society," added Labidi.
Despite efforts by the Ministry of Women Affairs, women in Tunisia must deal with economic and social marginalisation. The difficult economic situation for women in rural Tunisia poses a dilemma for the government at a time the country's economy is experiencing severe hardships.
Asked whether rural women have fewer rights compared to their urban counterparts, Labidi said: “From our point of view, when we enact a law, we do not discriminate between rural and urban women. We do it for women everywhere, in all age groups, and regardless of the environment they are living in.”
The Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture said 1.8 million women live in rural areas, 32% of all Tunisian women and 50% of the rural population.
Regarding the law on the equality in inheritance, which sparked controversy among political and intellectual currents in Tunisia, Labidi said the government referred the bill to parliament for ratification and it will become law if it wins the support of most members.
If it does, the government, as the executive branch, has no choice but to enforce the law, she said.
Equality in inheritance was one of the most difficult legal reforms that the Committee on Individual Liberties and Equality, which was created by the Tunisian president to activate the provisions of equality stipulated by the constitution, had come up against. Labidi said the proposed law lets Tunisian families choose whether to implement equality in inheritance or not.
Labidi also touched on the situation of housewives, pointing out that the Personal Status Code regulates relations within the family.
"The code was not only created for the empowerment of Tunisian women but also to coordinate the relations within the family but in the end, it is up to the family to establish the best way for internal interactions,” she said.