The guardian angels of the Tunisian Personal Status Code
Women in Tunisia know very well that they are the subject of envy by many other women in the Arab world. They are aware of the achievements they enjoy. Still, they are constantly worried. They are worried to the point of panicking sometimes, lest these achievements be taken away, for they know very well that if they give up one single right, other rights will be stripped away.
The daring move by former president Habib Bourguiba when he announced the enactment of the Tunisian Personal Status Code on August 13, 1956, was a momentous and unique occasion in Tunisia’s modern history and quite a shock in the legal history of the other Arab nations.
A quick comparison between laws related to women and family affairs in Tunisia and those in effect in the rest of the Arab countries reveals the wide gap that existed and continues to exist in many ways. We also realise that neither Bourguiba’s successors nor even his contemporaries possessed the courage to radically change the laws and consequently bring about a change in mentalities.
This is perhaps how we can explain the fear that grips today’s politicians and prevents them from proposing further daring legislation in support of the Personal Status Code. Sixty years after its genesis, none of the Arab countries could rise to the level of the legislation contained in the Tunisian Personal Status Code.
This is not to say that the current legal context of women in Tunisia is the desired ideal. We cannot overlook degrading flaws in the Personal Status Code that were left intentionally unaddressed to make the set of secular laws acceptable to the Tunisian society at that time. And it was later possible to bypass traditions and practices deemed obsolete by society in the fast-changing world of post-independence.
One example of the innovations was the explicit mention in the marriage contract of the joint ownership of family assets. But still, it needs to be pointed out that what was left unaddressed in the Personal Status Code in terms of parity between the sexes is increasingly difficult to touch or reform. There is for instance the matter of parity in inheritance laws. Despite the revolutionary nature of the Tunisian inheritance laws, they are far from being fair.
We believe the road is still very long for politicians and legislators to dare to declare full and unconditional equality between the sexes in matters of inheritance.
Given the difficulties ahead, I maintain that any reform must first be preceded by a change in mentality and changing mentalities requires long and sustained hard work.
Tunisian society went through a pivotal historical moment in 1956. Were it not for that moment, our fate as women would have been similar to that of many in the rest of the Arab nations.
I still consider that women’s rights in Tunisia are alive and well during the current period of democratic transition, even if they have not witnessed any improvement for obvious reasons.
The main reason has to do with the Islamists grabbing power in Tunisia.
I say “grabbing” because their victory in the elections of October 2011 was simply a mandate to participate in the writing of the new constitution and not to govern the country. What transpired afterwards, however, was that they ignored the real reason for their election and scurried in all directions trying to change the societal model in place since 1956.
They were quasi certain that they would succeed and forever bury the Personal Status Code, a code that reminded them of Bourguiba, the embodiment of secularism and apostasy.
But in the end, they were surprised by the degree of awareness among Tunisian society and its willingness to protect its modern assets. Women, in particular, constituted an impregnable fortress against chaos and reset the agenda on the right track.
There is nothing to fear for the Personal Status Code as long as Tunisian women stand as its guardian angels.