Tunisian minister says more pro-women reform needed
Tunis - Tunisian Women Affairs Minister Samira Merai Friaa has a mission. She says Tunisian women can be proud of their achievements but should not sleep on their laurels.
“Tunisia is no longer in the lead in this domain,” she said in an Arab Weekly interview during which she examined the status of women in Tunisia. “We are stagnating. We have even regressed in comparison to the evolution of family legislation in the other Arab countries and in Africa.”
But she said she was determined to change that.
Like most women leaders in Tunisia, Merai is grateful to first president Habib Bourguiba for the progressive vision that brought about the Personal Status Code on August 13, 1956, just months after Tunisia’s independence from France.
Bourguiba took special pride in initiating the pioneering legislation, which banned polygamy and repudiation and made divorce a decision depending on the court and not on the husband’s whim.
Merai described the 1956 landmark legislation as “an achievement” and Bourguiba as a “clear-sighted” leader who “trusted the country’s women and their crucial role in building a new society”.
The minister expressed satisfaction with the “tremendous progress” reflected by the Tunisian constitution adopted in 2014. It was not always obvious the new constitution was to consecrate the rights of women.
After the 2011 elections, which gave Islamists a leading position in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), secularists and pro-women activists feared that Tunisia’s post-independence achievements in gender equality would wither away after the NCA finished drafting the constitution.
But the final text belied such fears. It went beyond re-anchoring the notion of gender equality (mentioned in the previous constitution) to consecrating the concept of parity in electoral politics.
As adopted in January 2014, Article 46 of the new constitution stipulates that: “The state guarantees the protection of the rights of women and their achievements. It guarantees equal opportunity between men and women in assuming responsibility in all fields. The state strives to establish parity between men and women in elected councils. The state takes all necessary measures to eradicate violence against women.”
Merai, a 50-year-old medical doctor and former National Constituent Assembly member, held the key legislative position of deputy speaker of the NCA after 2012. She was in a good position to appreciate the positive outcome of the constitution drafting process.
She is today clearly satisfied with the progress brought about by the new constitution, which, she says, “consolidates the existing legislative assets in favour of women and, more importantly, commits the government to re-examine all discriminatory laws against women and to fight violence against women”.
But she notes that no legislative initiatives have been introduced since 2010.
She is also unhappy about the ranking of Tunisia in terms of legislative development, as pointed out by a recent study undertaken by the African Development Bank. “We have come out 34th of 100 countries, after Morocco and Algeria, because we still have many discriminatory laws against women,” she said.
Merai wants the country to get moving again. “So, here, we are in 2015 a bit behind in terms of legislation and we need to catch up. We need laws to apply and uphold the recommendations of the constitution,” she said.
She says her ministry has set up a committee to work on new laws, adding she soon expects a new bill regarding the shared parental guardianship”.
The new legislation will try to correct the current situation, which she sees as obsolete. “For us, the legal guardian is always the father, which is shocking at this day and age,” Merai said.
On August 13th, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi announced a bill would be introduced to ensure full equality between parents in terms of guardianship of siblings. He also announced more rigorous implementation of laws establishing parity of pay between men and women in agriculture and industry.
Merai is already thinking of additional legislative reforms she says need to be undertaken to further anchor gender equality. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us regarding other discriminatory laws,” she says.