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Islam and feminism in post-revolutionary Tunisia

Hela Ammar in her art studio. Photo by Christine Petre

Hela Ammar in her art studio. Photo by Christine Petré.

By Christine Petré

TUNIS, Tunisia – Women were at the forefront of the Tunisian revolution, fighting for freedom in their country, but some believe democracy unleashed a negative Islamist influence on women’s rights. With one of the region’s most progressive family laws, Tunisian women are not willing to negotiate the country’s strong equality legacy.

The Code du Status Personnel (CSP), Tunisia’s 1956 personal status code, also called the Majalla, gave women full and equal legal rights. It remains one of the most progressive pieces of women’s rights legislation in the Arab world. It abolished polygamy and repudiation, required consent from both parties of marriage, gave women rights to divorce and child custody and established a minimum marriage age for girls (17) and boys (20).

Its establishment earned then-President Habib Bourguiba, often called “the father of Tunisia,” another nickname: “the liberator of women.”

In 1959 Tunisian women gained the right to vote and stand for elections, the same year the first Tunisian woman was elected to parliament. In 1981 an amendment gave women lifelong alimony after divorce and mothers automatic custody over their children in the event of the father’s death. The first female judge was appointed in 1968 and by 1990 approximately 24 percent of magistrates were women.

Tunisia became known for its progressive and liberal society relative to the region.

The progressive family law was kept intact during the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and was at times used as a slogan to promote a positive image for Ben Ali.

After the revolution the Islamist party Ennahdha, banned as a terrorist group under Ben Ali, received approximately 40 percent of the votes in Tunisia’s first free democratic elections since the country’s independence. However, Ennahdha’s policies and the rise of radical Islamist groups in the country caused concern that Islamist values will be forced on a society that has been largely secular in modern times.

Ennahdha, which calls itself a moderate Islamist party, openly supports the CSP and promised ahead of the elections to ensure gender equality, women’s freedom to work, get an education and dress as they please. Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi declared at a press conference, “Ennahdha reaffirms its commitment to the women of Tunisia, to strengthen their role in political decision-making, in order to avoid any going back on their social gains.”

Women would not be forced to wear the headscarf, nor would women in government. Tunisia was also the first country in the region to lift some of the reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

But the party has stirred controversy, especially when Article 27 of the draft constitution used “complementary” (takāmul) rather than “equal” to describe a woman’s position in society compared with men. The wording was soon redrawn and changed to “equal” after fierce opposition. Demonstrators took to the streets chanting, “Rise up women for your rights to be enshrined in the constitution.”

But currently there is no reference to Shari’ah law in the constitution despite efforts from some Ennahdha members, and the drafting of the constitution is now closely monitored, as activists fear it will not protect the position of women in Tunisian society.

Hela Ammar, a visual artist and a member of the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD), is worried about the future for Tunisian women. “Ennahdha and a big part of the more conservative population of the society threaten women’s rights today,” she said, expressing concern that Islamic values and Shari’ah will be the source for the constitution and that its wording will be left to interpretation, which Ennahdha will be able to take advantage of if the party remains in power.

A number of human rights and women organisations have denounced and called attention to what they say is a rising threat of women’s rights violations since Ennahdha came to power.

Radhia Jerbi, President of the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), announced in August the bankruptcy of the oldest women’s organization in Tunisia. UNFT has been fighting for the improvement of the women’s status since 1956. Jerbi blamed the government, claiming it had refused to release necessary grants to support its administration.

Is the strong tradition of women’s rights in jeopardy in the new democratic Tunisia?

To Faouzia Charfi, former secretary of state to the Minister of Higher Education (a position she voluntarily resigned from in 2011), with an academic background in science and writer of the book La Science Voilée on Islam and science, Ennahdha’s stance on women’s place in society is clear.

“When they [Ennahdha] refer to the woman they do not refer to the individual but to the family.”

According to Charfi there is no place for the independent woman in an Islamist society. She disagrees with Ennahdha self-labeling as a moderate Islamist party.

“There is no moderate Islamist,” Charfi said firmly. “The Islamists want to apply Shari’ah. It is not a moderate vision of the society, it is contradictory. But they want to appear moderate.”

During her time in office Ennahdha also discussed separating the sexes at universities.

“Ennahdha wanted to impose no-mixing between the sexes within the university, to have one part for boys and one part for girls.”

The majority of the university students today are women at approximately 60 percent. Even in Tunisia’s engineering schools, usually a male-dominated sector, 40 percent of students are women. But after graduation women are the majority unemployed and their rate of unemployment is twice that of men. According to Ammar, economic discrimination and domestic violence are the biggest challenges for women in Tunisia today.

In light of this development some claim that the revolution was a “lost revolution” for women and that women were forgotten. Charfi disagrees that women were forgotten. She believes the larger issue is the existence of two different camps within Tunisia’s Islam.

“Women are not forgotten but we must remember that there are two visions of society that are currently in opposition: the modern vision with the universal values of freedoms and the project of Ennahdha which has another aim for the society.”

The role of feminism within Islam is an ongoing historical debate not exclusive to Tunisia. In 1930 Tunisian scholar and reformer Tahar Haddad wrote a book on women and Shari’ah. He advocated for expanded rights for women, arguing that traditional interpretations of Islam repressed women. At a time when women were not yet allowed to vote in France, Haddad’s ideas were revolutionary.

Scholars Jane Tchaïcha and Khedija Arfaoui have examined the history of Tunisian women’s rights and the role of “Islamist feminism” in creating a feminism discourse in a Tunisian context today. They were quoted in Jadaliyya as saying, “[Traditional] feminism has been associated with the foreign, with the western thought, with a certain attitude about women, and it is not welcomed.” According to Jane Tchaïcha and Khedija Arfaoui, Tunisian feminism today is multifaceted.

Ennahdha member of parliament Jawhara Ettis Benmohamed said one of the benefits today, compared to before the revolution, is that she is no longer harassed because of her headscarf. “Thank God we are now free and we will defend this freedom. I would give my life without hesitation to not go back to the way it was,” she told France 24 television channel.

A 1981 law prohibiting Islamic clothing in universities, for example the niqab, was challenged in 2012 by young female students demanding their right to veil.

In May 2011 a law was introduced mandating that party voting lists alternate between women and men, guaranteeing a composition of half women, half men. The result was that women comprised approximately one-quarter of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly.

But Charfi is not worried about Ennahdha’s influence over the constitution. “I think the resistance is really strong and the situation is no longer the same as it was during the election because people have realized that Ennahdha is not really a democratic project and the situation now shows that they want to Islamize our society.”

She continued, “I am still optimistic for our country, when you see all the manifestations in the last months, many women are in the streets, because we are a developed country when it comes to the relationship between women and men and we cannot regress.”

“Women are the future here,” said a former UNESCO employee who has worked with the Tunisian employment sector for three years. She believes Tunisian women show much more determination and ambition than Tunisian men.

As history has demonstrated in the United States, Algeria and Iran, revolutionary movements do not always result in gender equality. However, despite uncertainty regarding the future of Tunisia’s prominent women’s rights legislation, Tunisia’s women will continue their battle to keep Tunisia’s legacy intact.

Christine Petré is an Atlantic Post contributor based in Tunis, Tunisia.

Posted on October 7, 2013

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