Women are Tunisia’s pillars of strength


Women in Tunisia have a distinct advantage from Arab sisters elsewhere as they enjoy near equal rights with men. And after playing an active role in the January revolution that saw the fall of their president, they are keen to keep it that way.

However, women fear Tunisia’s still uncertain future may result in Islamists gaining power, which could threaten the many freedoms they have. Women have, for example, the same rights to divorce as men, they have had access to birth control since 1962 and abortion has been legal since 1965. Polygamy is illegal.

These social reforms are largely credited to Tunisia’s founding father, President Habib Bourguiba, who led the struggle for independence from France and created a civil rights code in 1956 as he envisioned women playing an active role in the country’s development.

No one credits ousted President Zine-al-Abidine Ben Ali for any special measures in support of women, although under his rule there was a ban on religious parties. Now women are wary of their future should an Islamic resurgence translate to electoral successes.

Women represent around quarter of Tunisia’s working population and just over half of higher education students, according to Tunisia’s national institute of statistics.

Asma Belkassem, a 31-year-old lawyer, in an interview with National Public Radio said, “What is sure is that we women have rights and no one can take them away now. Not the Islamists or anybody else.”

But another woman, who identified herself as Amel when talking to Reuters expressed fears. “We are scared to lose our rights, such as being forced to wear the hijab and losing our jobs,” she said. “Women have suffered too much to lose these liberties. Nothing is clear yet about the situation of women.”

Those fears can be understood as interim authorities are reversing many of Mr. Ben Ali’s directives as a way to gain legitimacy in protesters’ eyes. One example is the reversal of a rule that forbade women from appearing with headscarves in identity card photographs.

More conservative views are also being viewed on television, reported Reuters. One program said reversing the ban on polygamy would address the demographic imbalance while a newspaper wrote that unemployment would be solved if women stayed at home.

These seemingly small acts, analysts said, could signal a shift in the political process. This adds credence to women’s fears about an Islamic resurgence, which would threaten the country’s secular fabric.

Tunisia’s revolution allowed for movements, such as the moderate Islamist Ennahda, back on the political stage after a 20-year ban.

The party’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned from exile in January, reassured Tunisians that the party believed in individual freedoms, women’s rights and their equality with men.

Although the party is trying to convince women it poses no threat to its existing freedoms, party member Chambi Riadh told Reuters: “A woman is responsible for her family, she works and she is involved in many cultural and arts activities. Now is the time to translate this on the political stage, specifically in decision-making, and for women to take on the responsibilities that reflect her contribution to Tunisian society.”

Long time feminist and activist Khadija Cherif told NPR: “The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we’ve never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society,” she says. “We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.”

Elections are scheduled for July 24 and the national assembly that is elected will rewrite the Constitution. It ruled this month that women must feature in equal number to men—a historic move in the Arab world.

Analysts believe Ennahda could gain between 35-40 percent of the vote—a far cry from the majority it garnered in 1989 before its ban.

Women activists are hopeful that democracy will safeguard and promote women’s rights.

“Women today need to have a stronger personality than before,” said 23-year-old Rihab. “She has to take up her rights much more and she has to be independent from men because as Tunisians we still think that a woman’s destiny has to be linked to a man’s.”

(Muna Khan of Al Arabiya can be reached at [email protected])