Waiting for a feminist spring in Tunisia

Spearhead Analysis – 17.11.2014

By Halima Islam
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

“Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!”
“The people want to bring down the regime!”

Tunisia Ennahda Woman

The chant picked up momentum as it meandered throughout Tunisia and then spilled over onto Egypt. Not only did the chant put the short comings of the  ‘Nizam’ the regime  in the spot light but signified the fact that the ‘shab’ the people, men and women, old and young demanded the ouster of the 23 year long dictatorship headed by Zein Al Abiddene Ben Ali, successfully achieved on 14thJanuary 2011.

The revolution sparked when a vegetable vendor was slapped in the face by a policewoman, who then out of despair, set himself alight. The shame of being mistreated by a policewoman coupled with the fact that economic deprivation left him with no option fuelled mass protests out onto the streets. Ironically, the policewoman in question with her position of authority-many would say- misused her empowerment, given to her after the 1956 laws under the rule of Bourghiba.

This woman may have stimulated the mass protests against a government that provided women with certain liberties, when compared to the rest of the regions. However, much to the contrary, Tunisian women from all walks of life took to the streets along with their male counterparts demanding the resignation of the long-standing President. The question then arises, in a state that worked towards the increased inclusivity of women in the political sphere, why did women then feverishly demand for a new government that granted them further meaningful liberalization and equal parity? Also, what role have women played in the post revolutionary period and whether the newly elected party, is working along the same agendas the women wanted to achieve during the revolutionary period.

“Any study of the rights, status, and achievements of women in contemporary Tunisia will inevitably place the state at the heart of the analysis” quotes Prof Emma Murphy [1] in her article Women in Tunisia: Between state Feminism and Economic reform [2]. This statement rings true as Tunisia took measures to not only liberalize its legislation progressively but worked extensively to alter the productive and reproductive roles of women to an extent that many critics viewed Bourghiba’s liberalized rights for women as state prescribed feminism. The element of authoritarianism tainted the picture for women sharply as the rights were granted but freedom of expression was still an anathema that women could not adhere to. The state took upon itself to curb the liberalization of legislation due o the rapidly growing Islamist movements posing a threat to the state. State feminism along with a mixture of Islamic feminism was then caught up in the cross fire between these two elements; both not being able to bear fruit, as a result.

Islamic Feminism, a branch of feminism that is concerned with the role of women in Islam, aims for equality of all Muslims regardless of gender in public and private life.  However, with Bourghiba’s secularist regime put into place, religiously motivated feminism then took on secularist views to challenge the patriarchy set by the president. Even though women tried to challenge the patriarchal interpretation of Islam in a society which banned Islamist parties, took on a more socially active role, a crack down from the top order put them back into the same dilemma; the one in which they could not be guaranteed any political status. This dilemma denoted that whether feminism was prescribed by the state or religion, women felt cornered socially and politically.

Ben Ali’s presidency, assumed in 1987 after a bloodless coup d’état ousting President Bourghiba changed little. His wife, Leila Ben Ali ironically the president of the Arab women Organization enjoyed her position in power rather than adhere to the policies set by the organization. After accusations of having enriched herself and her family through gross corruption and embezzlement of State, she automatically became an icon not to be relied upon.

Tunisian women due to the active social media in the 2011 revolutions have been able to gain access to information specifying their representation required to be in the government. The Arab spring brought about a wave of Islamist popularity in the region and women found themselves in controversy during the transitional period; with some fearful that they would lose the little rights they were given from the previous era and  others arguing for a return to traditional values.

However, Tunisian women during its democratic transition period somewhat enjoyed the transitional laws laid out by the interim government as it seemed more progressive than the previous regime’s. This was seen as an achievement when put into comparison with the neighboring countries having gone through similar revolutions. A gender parity law was introduced to ensure women would have a voice in the constituent assembly but this too came with limitations and women found themselves having to follow a law that only dictated a bare minimum standard of rights. Although many Tunisian and foreign observers applauded the initiative and expected a high number of women to be members of the constituent assembly, for many this law didn’t go far enough. There were no gender quotas for seats in the assembly, for example. And most parties had men at the head of the majority of their lists, meaning parity on the campaign trail was unlikely to translate into parity in the body that will rewrite the country’s constitution and appoint a new government. The constitution’s first draft was published in late 2012 and raised many concerns with its reference to women as being “complementary” to men. This move cried foul amongst many progressives as it went against the previous regimes somewhat anti-patriarchal constitution which would mean that women had more rights in a ‘Nizam’ they chanted to bring down.

At this point in time and after two dictatorships, Tunisia should be in a position to be more progressive with women’s rights and use gender sensitive wording in relation to key issues. The only right in which this is clear is the right to work and the right to vote in which the words “a right to work and vote is now a right for every citizen male and female” have been scribed. Although these provisions seem highly progressive in comparison to Egypt and most definitely Libya, they still fall short of real equality as the state has not touched upon issues that have already been set by previously state-prescribed Islamic tradition that has provided men and women should be unequal when it comes to issues such as inheritance and child custody rules.

Moving on to the elections in late October of this year, the electoral lists for the parliamentary elections proved to be a disappointment. Female candidates led 11 percent of electoral lists.  Given that women made up 50.5 percent of registered voters (up from 45 percent in October 2011), the low percentage of female candidates sparked outrage among female activists who had a leading role during the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and who, over the last three years, have stood steadfastly against trends that threatened to derail the democratic movement. Despite their increasing political participation and the constitutional and legislative protection for women’s political and civil rights (such as Article 24 of the Tunisian Electoral Law ensuring parity in electoral lists), Tunisian women find themselves almost excluded from “real” political opportunities.

Women have been criticized greatly on how little experience they have when it comes to politics and hence their neglect is somewhat expected. However, questions can be raised on how little experience men, too, have considering the dictatorship lasted 23 years and both genders had little say in politics. Even though Tunisia has done well in this transitional period, especially when compared to Libya’s tumultuous parliamentary ups and downs and Egypt’s reversed revolution, there is still much to be done when women’s rights and political freedoms are concerned. Tunisia has long suffered not only from patriarchy but dictatorship as a whole which oppressed both genders politically. Women activists have been increasingly vocal about women representation in the parliament but it will take much longer for them to recognize their rights and come out and not only vote in larger numbers but be a part of the parliament as well. So even though the ‘As-shab’ has brought down the ‘Nizam’ overtly, the patriarchal ‘Nizam’ still remains, which will look to soothe positively with the way Tunisia is headed currently. It is the only state that has come out somewhat successful during the aftermath of the Arab spring.

[1] Prof Emma Murphy – (https://www.dur.ac.uk/sgia/profiles/?id=490)
[2] Women in Tunisia: Between (http://goo.gl/A8bBEW)