Tunisia: Women’s rights hang in the balance

While Tunisia’s revolution successfully ousted Ben Ali, women’s rights could now be in jeopardy – Published on Al Jazeera /english, by Yasmine Ryan, August 20, 2011.

For 55 years, Tunisia celebrated Women’s Day every August 13, representing the push for gender equality that has been one of the hallmarks of the North African nation’s post-colonial era. Women were active players in the uprising that ended the rule of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, and many hope that event will translate into a more visible role in the country’s soon-to-be democratic political life. 

Yet some are worried that the rights women have enjoyed for the past five decades might soon be swept away by the tide of social conservatism that has emerged in the wake of the uprising. “We know that the former regime took advantage of women’s rights,” says Faiza Skandrani, who founded an organisation called Equality and Parity shortly after the uprising. Despite the legal rights, women suffered from the same climate of fear and oppression as men, she says.

Now that the old regime is out, activists are hoping that this will mean women will become politically empowered and active members of the new democracy. Not everyone shares the same vision of what the new Tunisia should look like, and Skandrani says that women’s rights activists are facing a conservative backlash that is drowning out other perspectives in the media. “It is very difficult for us to have our voices heard, whether on the TV or the radio,” she says. For women and men alike, everything hinges on the election of the constituent assembly on October 23.

‘Rights’ in the balance: … //

… New freedoms?

Other women, meanwhile, see in Al-Nahda the potential to gain new freedoms they have never had before. Manel Sekmani, a 24-year-old who is studying for a masters in genetics in Tunis, says the most significant barrier to entering the workforce is discrimination against devoted Muslims such as herself. Al-Nahda is the party, she says, that will challenge the prejudices encouraged by previous governments and allow women more, rather than less, liberty. “Al-Nahda will protect women’s rights,” she says. “I was derided during the time of Ben Ali and I don’t want another government like that.”

Like Abdelhafidh, the student rejects conservative interpretations of Islam. In her view, however, Al-Nahda is clear on its progressive values and is not calling for women to stay at home. “Women who don’t wear headscarves already have freedoms, and those freedoms cannot be taken away from them.” Sekmani does not want to see strict Islamic law introduced, but rather a hybrid legal system that reflects the diversity of Tunisian society. “We live in an Islamic country, but it is also a modern society,” she says. The young woman’s desire to see a fusion of secular and Islamic law, leaving existing rights intact, is similar to what some of Al-Nahda’s most vocal critics are calling for.

She rejects the idea that voters like her are being misled about what Al-Nahda really stands for. Indeed, many of Al-Nahda’s most active members are female, and, Farida Laabidi, a member of the party’s executive branch, says they have some clout within the movement. “Many thousands of Al-Nahda activists were imprisoned [during the previous regime] and it was their wives who worked to support their families,” she says. Laabidi denies that her party is encouraging women to quit their jobs. “Women must participate in the economic, social and political life of the country,” she says.

Rights in jeopardy:

The tension between those who want to keep politics and religion separate, and those who would like to see Islam become more integral to the Tunisian state is hardly new to the North African nation. At the dawn of independence, even before President Habib Bourguiba abolished the monarchy and introduced the present constitution, the anti-colonial leader gave Tunisian women legal rights that he hoped would break the shackles of tradition.

Bourguiba introduced the “Personal Status Code” (CSP by its French acronym) in 1956. Women were given the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, to earn equal wages to men and to divorce. Polygamy was outlawed and a woman’s consent became a requirement for marriage. Then came the legalisation of abortion in 1961, at time when it was still a taboo topic in many European countries, including France.

In a 1966 reportage on Tunisian women – marking the tenth anniversary of the CSP – the former president said: “Beneath men, who were victims of the colonial regime, were women, who were also victims of an appalling situation … which came from old habits, traditions, which have a sacred character, which meant that women themselves were resigned to their fate,” he said. The video shows him lifting rural women’s veils, a characteristic act that represents emancipation for some, while showing a lack of respect for religious beliefs to others. Until now, critics of the progressive stance on gender equality have been forced into silence. Under Ben Ali in particular, most prominent Islamists had to chose between prison and exile.

The phenomenon that is stoking fears in some quarters is the increasingly conservative tone that, they say, is encroaching media, mosques and public discussions. With freedom of speech, topics that have long been taboo in the public arena, such as polygamy and the argument that women should stay at home as a solution to unemployment, are suddenly arousing widespread debate. And women are largely being excluded from the discussions. “There are many political debates taking place, but few women are given the chance to participate,” says Ahlem Belhaj, president of Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD by its French acronym).

“There is a lack of any debates about women’s rights, certainly not in  terms of how to take them forward,” she says. “Partly, it’s a reaction to the way the former regime used women’s rights, and partly it’s a concession to the Islamists.” There have also been a series of murky violent incidents linked to fringe Salafist activists, including attacks on a cinema screening a film about secularism in June and on a police station in the town of Menzel Bourghiba in July. Al-Nahda was not involved in these events but neither did the party side squarely with secular groups who have come under attack from the ultra-conservatives. “Attacks on our liberty have already begun,” Belhaj says. “Every time [there is an incident] Al-Nahda says it isn’t them, but exactly who it is, I don’t know.”

Laabidi says that Al-Nahda is a party based on dialogue and does not condone violence. She stops short of supporting the showing of films like the one that the activists deemed an offence to Islam, however, saying it is not the time to raise such divisive questions. “Freedom of expression has its limits,” she says. Activists say the trend is linked to the emergence of a long-suppressed sector of Tunisian society that wants to cast off the perceived Western influences in favour of a stronger Arab-Islamic identity, looking east to the conservative Gulf countries, rather than north.

This viewpoint is founded on a total rejection of Bourguiba’s vision, and is about taking society in a very different direction. Since the late 1980s, Ghannouchi has declared himself in favour of maintaining the CSP, given its integral place in contemporary Tunisian society. Whether the confusion among many Tunisians about Al-Nahda’s programme is the result of misinformation against the party, its own deliberate political strategy or simply fear born of a lack of information depends on who you ask. “There are no contradictions. I believe we are clear about our position on women,” Laabidi says, arguing that much of the fear is based on groundless speculation. “It is too early to judge us on our intentions.”

For Skandrani, however, there is a deliberate doublespeak. “They have a double discourse,” she says. In one example of the type of statement that can be interpreted in a number of ways, a video posted to his party’s Facebook page shows Ghannouchi explaining how, in his view, the institution of marriage has been denigrated since independence. “The problem in Tunisia is that a young man is unable to marry even a single woman, let alone many wives,” he says in response to a question about polygamy.

“The regimes under Bourguiba and Ben Ali have destroyed our society, and now you don’t find many children in our schools,” he continues – arguing that many schools have been forced to close because of “a drop in reproduction caused by misguided social polices”. Samir Dilou, Al-Nahda’s spokesperson, called polygamy a “fundamental principle” of his party’s political programme in an interview with Investir en Tunisie published on June 1. “We are determined to add this right to the Tunisian Constitution,” he told the website.

In response to the controversy that followed, Dilou released a statement arguing he had been misquoted and that the party had no intention of legalising polygamy. The outsider has no way to judge whether it is Dilou or the journalist who is being dishonest – another example of the type of incident that is leading to confusion over Al-Nahda’s position. As Laabidi argues, it is impossible to judge Al-Nahda without the party having any track record in power. And whether political parties are the driving force behind the groundswell of religious conservatism is another question again.

Framing the debate: … (full long text).

Links:

Tunisian revolution on wikipedia, and its External links;

Egyptian revolution 2011 on wikipedia, and its External links;

2011 Libyan civil war on wikipedia, and its External links (this article documents a current event, Information may change rapidly as the event progresses).

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