August 20, 2017

Celebrate progress on women’s rights in Tunisia but recognise all the challenges that remain

Tunisia recently made important strides to­wards gender equal­ity and women’s rights. In July, the Tunisian parliament passed a landmark bill that aims to end violence and discrimination against women. On National Women’s Day in Tunisia, President Beji Caid Essebsi an­nounced the formation of a com­mittee to review constitutional reforms to ensure gender equal­ity, including establishing equal­ity between men and women sur­rounding the issue of inheritance and allowing Tunisian women to marry non-Muslims.

While these are critical steps, their implementation is by no means guaranteed and other controversial draft laws threaten to disrupt Tunisia’s democratic transition.

Tunisia’s law criminalising vio­lence against women is to go into force in 2018. It defines violence against women as “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggres­sion” against women and draws from international standards for the protection of women’s rights.

The inclusion of “economic ag­gression” in the draft law was cru­cial. Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission catalogued count­less human rights violations that women suffered under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. A key effort of rights groups and civil society organisations in recording abuses was to connect violations of human rights with violations of economic and social rights and losses of opportuni­ties for women. The law takes an important step towards protecting women’s rights in Tunisia.

It remains unclear how Tunisia will fully implement the ambi­tious law and fund the policies it outlines, such as the provision of shelters for women in need. Plans to introduce programmes for med­ical staff to competently address issues of violence against women would require sustained politi­cal will and funding for adequate training. New legal procedures to protect women from violence would need to be clearly estab­lished and enumerated to ensure their effectiveness.

Tunisia’s anaemic growth rate and a massive fiscal deficit will make such efforts more difficult, although they remain necessary for the country to move forward and for the government to fulfil its promises to Tunisian women.

Caid Essebsi followed this positive step to protect women with his announcement August 13 on gender equality. “The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all,” he said.

Tunisia’s 2014 constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens, whether male or female. Still, in practice, more needs to be done to guarantee equal rights regardless of gender and Caid Es­sebsi’s announcement is a move towards that goal.

Diwan al-Ifta, Tunisia’s highest religious establishment, notably welcomed Caid Essebsi’s call for gender equality in inheritance and the right of women to marry non-Muslims. Other Islamic in­stitutions, though, were quick to condemn Caid Essebsi’s an­nouncement.

Egypt’s al-Azhar said gender equality in inheritance violates the principles of sharia law and criticised the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. Some Tunisians pushed back against al- Azhar, calling for non-interference in Tunisia’s internal affairs and asserting the right to a civil debate on the issues. Egyptian women’s groups praised Caid Essebsi’s an­nouncement as progressive.

The Islamist party Ennahda praised Caid Essebsi’s call for gender equality and emphasised recent gains for Tunisian women’s rights. Ennahda has increasingly sought to separate itself as a po­litical party from the conservative religious establishment, as exem­plified by its decision in 2016 to separate the political party from religion. Yet the absence of En­nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi from the proceedings on August 13 did not go unnoticed and Ennah­da’s praise for the announcement appeared, at least initially, to be more in principle than practice.

These as-yet largely symbolic steps towards female empower­ment in Tunisia should not drown out concern over other controver­sial legislation that threatens to scale back democratic progress. Tunisia’s parliament has delayed voting on a bill that would provide amnesty to former public officials accused of corruption during the Ben Ali era. The bill, which is to be voted on in September, provoked widespread protests since it was introduced by Caid Essebsi in 2015.

Another draft law up for debate in parliament would criminalise criticism of Tunisia’s armed forces and police and threaten to lawful­ly enshrine impunity for security forces and imperil the principle of accountability.

Moves by Caid Essebsi to bring these sensitive issues to the fore and into public debate are major steps forward in Tunisia’s demo­cratic transition. Yet the issues of gender equality raised by Caid Essebsi were couched in the lan­guage of exploration rather than enactment.