Tunisia marks long struggle for women’s rights

August 13 commemorates the anniversary of the country’s much-celebrated Code of Personal Status (CPS).
Saturday 15/08/2020
Tunisian women cheering as they work on the production of medical masks in the company's factory in the central city of Kairouan, last March.  (AFP)
Tunisian women cheering as they work on the production of medical masks in the company's factory in the central city of Kairouan, last March. (AFP)

TUNIS--Every year, Tunisian women celebrate their rights and achievements on two key dates: March 8, International Women’s Day, and August 13, which marks Women’s National Day and the anniversary of the establishment of Tunisia’s much-celebrated Code of Personal Status (CPS).

Progress in women’s rights in Tunisia is always traced back to liberalisation reforms instituted by the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba.

Since his early rule of the North African country, Bourguiba, a secular nationalist and visionary leader, embarked on a bold nation-building campaign that included instituting reforms to protect women’s rights and ensure equal access to education.

The single most important piece of legislation to this end came in 1956, when the late Tunisian leader, just months after independence approved measures securing equal rights for women and announced that he had issued a Code of Personal Status (CPS).

Tunisian women hold a portrait of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba, in Tunis. (AP)
Tunisian women hold a portrait of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba, in Tunis. (AP)

The CPS, promulgated by beylical decree on August 13, 1956 to come into effect on January 1, 1957, is now widely recognised as the most developed family law in the Arab world.

However, more than 60 years later, many legal provisions and practices still discriminate against women in Tunisia, particularly on matters of inheritance in penal code provision and participation in public life, meaning there is still progress to be made.

Tracing back important reforms

Between 1987 and 2011, women’s rights in Tunisia saw no significant changes except to consolidate Bourguiba’s pioneering legacy. There were touch ups such as the 1993 reform by former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which gave women the right to pass on their patronymic and nationality to their children the same way their husbands could.

Following the 2011 uprising in the country, women activists pushed to expand their rights to achieve full legal equality.

The first move to that end was to enshrine the principle of equality between men and women in the constitution against the attempts of Islamists to water down the legal advances through changes in the constitution.

The Islamist Ennahda party tried to replace the word “equality” in the draft text with a vague and slippery notion of “complementarity.”

But after women’s protests and pressure exerted by activists, “complementarity” was replaced with the word “equality” two months later.

In 2017, women’s rights made two more important advances. First, Tunisian women were given the legal right to marry non-Muslim men after the late President Beji Caid Essebsi called on the prime minister and justice minister to review a 1973 ministerial decree that barred Tunisian women from doing so.

In the same year, a landmark law on violence against women was approved, abolishing Article 227 (a) of the Tunisian criminal code that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims.

The new law also broadened the definition of violence against women to include “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggression against women based on discrimination between the two sexes and resulting in damage or physical, sexual, psychological or economic suffering to the woman.”

By enacting this law, Tunisia hoped to offer greater protection to women who faced significant rates of violence and domestic abuse, with nearly 50% estimated to have been a victim at some point in their lives.

Once the law on violence was approved, the controversial issue of equality in inheritance was raised. The file took centre stage during Essebsi’s presidency in 2018 after he reacted to recommendations put forward by the Commission for Individual Freedoms and Equality (COLIBE), which he had established in August 2017.

One of those recommendations concerned a bill on gender equality in inheritance and triggered a heated debate in the country that continued even after Essebsi’s passing in July 2019.

Gender equality and the adverse pressure of Islamists 

In recent years, many Tunisian organisations, such as the Tunisian Association of the Democratic Women (ATFD), have reiterated calls on authorities to open debate on the draft law on equality in inheritance and individual freedoms, hoping to speed up its approval.

However, there is still strong pushback from Tunisian conservatives, particularly Islamists, who are doing everything they can to avoid debate on the issue.

Tunisian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tunis. (AP)
Tunisian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tunis. (AP)

Controversy over the inheritance law comes as Tunisia faces severe political disputes. A new battle on complex social issues, it is feared, could serve to deepen the rift between Islamists, led by Ennahda, and opposition parties supportive of civil rights.

Unfortunately for Tunisian rights activists and women, Ennahda, which has lobbied against the draft law, has succeeded in luring some so-called progressive political parties, such as Qalb Tounes (27 deputies), to its side.

In doing so, it has shored up a parliamentary majority made up of conservative forces — namely Ennahda (54 deputies) and the Dignity Coalition (19 deputies) — and Qalb Tounes that can effectively block the draft law from going ahead.

“Conservative forces [Ennahda and its allies] succeeded in luring progressive parties, which made them stand as an obstacle to put the bill to vote in parliament,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, head of COLIBE.

“Personally, I do not consider that the project has failed because it has not yet been presented for vote,” she added.

Radical Islamists such as imam Ridha al-Jawadi succeeded in winning seats in the Tunisian parliament, and have recently led a mass mobilisation campaign against the draft law, which they believe to be at odds with the Quran.

By exploiting the draft law and leading protests against the initiative of late Essebsi and the COLIBE, conservatives, particularly the Dignity Coalition and Ennahda, have succeeded in expanding their popular base at the expense of women rights and activists’ yearning for progressive reforms.

Women rights facing dangers 

Since the draft bill on gender equality was introduced, human rights advocates have been increasingly optimistic that minorities will have stronger protections.

Nonetheless, rights violations have continued to take place, with experts warning that a climate of impunity could undermine their human rights gains and normalise violence against women, minorities and other vulnerable social and religious groups.

AFTD President Yosra Frawes said there “is a systematic targeting of the system of freedoms in Tunisia” due to the “backwardness of the Tunisian legislation” on one hand and the continued targeting of minorities on the other hand.

“The courts in Tunisia still rely in their decisions on the penal code established by the French colonialist protectorate in 1903. Unfortunately, this code does not respond to the developments of the system of universal rights and freedoms,” Frawes said.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s political and economic struggles seem to have eclipsed the fight for women’s and individual rights, which some Tunisians do not view as a priority.

When it comes specifically to women rights, there are also those who believe the focus should be on securing protection for women in rural areas who are often socially and economically marginalised.

Women in rural Tunisia

The difficult economic situation for rural women poses a dilemma for the government at a time of severe economic hardship.

On National Women’s Day, President Kais Saied visited Mraideya in the delegation of Bousselem, a marginalised region in the governorate of Jendouba, to meet with locals, including women agricultural workers.

According to a statement released Thursday by the Tunisian presidency, Saied was there to learn about “the concerns of women agricultural workers and their daily difficulties such as the dangers of transport, the low remuneration in the agricultural sector and the school dropout of girls in addition to the dilapidation of some houses.”

According to the Tunisian agriculture ministry, 1.8 million women live in rural areas, constituting 32% of all Tunisian women and 50% of the rural population.

The president seized the occasion to stress the need for “strengthening the economic and social rights of women in rural and urban areas, pointing out that the current laws, despite their importance, remain at odds with reality and should be reviewed.”

Despite the disparity between rural women and their urban counterparts, Tunisian activists insist there should be no discrimination between women anywhere, regardless of their age or socio-economic status.

While the uphill struggle continues to secure gains and advance rights for women, there are visible struggles ahead, as conservatives have managed to strengthen their clout in recent years, with Ennahda leading the charge to hinder all initiatives and projects that could improve the situation for women.

What happens next and whether women will continue to make human rights gains remains to be seen as the political landscape is expected to rapidly change over the next months.