Tunisia stays on progressive path to advance women rights

Sunday 05/03/2017
Tunisian Minister of Women, Family and Children Affairs Neziha Labidi speaking to The Arab Weekly in her office in Tunis. (Khaoula ben Amara)

Tunis - Three years after Tunisia adopted constitutional measures to safeguard wom­en’s rights, officials are looking to make further advances in gender equality.

On March 8th, women’s rights advocates mark International Women’s Day, an event designed to acknowledge the achievements of women throughout the world.

In Tunisia, the occasion has particular significance. It serves as a chance to reflect on the social transformation of women’s rights from a state-sponsored movement in the post-independence era to a mainstream ideology embraced by women and civil society and fixed in the country’s consciousness.

While significant challenges remain, the country has held firm in securing women’s rights.

“Women’s rights issues have received pushback but the deter­mination of Tunisian society and Tunisian lawmakers have stopped that pushback,” Tunisian Minister of Women, Family and Children Affairs Neziha Labidi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

She said many social forces, “including both women and men, have been out in force to prevent all attempts to roll back women’s rights.”

“My conviction is firm and solid that the rights of women cannot be easily undone because they are ingrained deeply in the souls and minds of Tunisians. As a result, women’s rights will continue their advance on a progressive path,” she said.

Such progress is reflected in Tu­nisia’s constitution, Labidi added, which was described by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, as a “break­through for women’s rights” when it was adopted in 2014.

“The most important and sig­nificant element, in this context, is that women’s rights are enshrined in the constitution,” said Labidi.

She specifically referenced Ar­ticle 46 of the constitution, which stipulates: “The state commits to the protection of women’s accrued rights and will work to strengthen and develop these rights.”

It also affirms the “horizontal and vertical parity between men and women, especially in the political field”, a principle that has led to a dramatic increase in women’s political engagement. Today, 35% of Tunisia’s parliament members are women.

“The constitution reflects people’s demands,” Labidi said, “that is why it is confirmed in the fundamental law.”

Progress in women’s rights in Tunisia can be traced to liberali­sation reforms instituted by the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, who embarked on a bold nation-building campaign that included 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 Bourguiba approved measures securing equal rights for women and announced that he had issued a Code of Personal Status (CPS). The CPS is widely recognised as the most developed family law in the Arab world.

Still, there is progress to be made, particularly in the country’s penal code.

Not only does the Tunisian penal code fail to explicitly crimi­nalise marital rape, it contains loopholes for perpetrators of rape and sexual assault. In cases clas­sified as statutory rape — in which the victim is between the ages of 13 and 20 — legal proceedings may be dropped if the victim consents to marrying the assailant. The same statute allows men who kidnap women to escape legal proceedings if the victim agrees to marriage.

“The government is determined to change these laws,” said La­bidi. “Women’s rights are human rights.”

In 2016, the Ministry of Women, Family and Children Affairs, in collaboration with civil society organisations, drafted a bill crimi­nalising violence against women. Its provisions include prohibit­ing all forms of violence against women, including marital rape, and ending impunity for rapists who marry their victims.

It also criminalises sexual harassment and allows anyone who violates its provisions to be punished with prison time and financial penalties. The bill was submitted to parliament in July 2016 but has yet to be approved.

In November 2015, the Tunisian parliament passed a law allowing women to travel outside the coun­try with their children without receiving the father’s permission. Under the previous law, authori­ties could prevent women from travelling outside the country with their children if they did not have authorisation from the father.

The government is planning to strengthen laws that protect women from workplace abuse, especially in rural regions, said La­bidi, as well as increase efforts to crack down on verbal harassment.

“We have set up a committee to study ways to promote alternative language,” Labidi said. Derogatory names and comments directed at women are commonplace and are a hindrance to women’s rights, she said.

Labidi has been asked to speak at a UN forum on women’s rights on March 13th in New York.

“We are invited to speak at the forum and participate in the workshop,” said Labidi. “The main message is that Tunisia is a coun­try of human rights and a leader in promoting women’s rights.

“Our country is still strong and progressive despite challenges in the recent past.” Iman Zayat, an Arab Weekly correspondent in Tunis, and Stephen Quillen, a journalist based in Tunis, contributed to this report.