American University

Women will Ensure the Democratic Future of Tunisia by Anagha Kadambi @ American University

Tunisia was thrust into the international spotlight when a protest movement that swept the nation led to the resignation of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime dictator of the country, on January 14, 2011. Tunisia has served as a model of how effective civil resistance can be. Its 2011 Jasmine Revolution set off a series of protests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It has been touted as the only success story of the Arab Spring, primarily because it reflected domestic frustrations with domestic political circumstances.[1] For their efforts in ensuring a successful democratization process, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four organizations of Tunisian civil society, received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.[2] Intractable problems plague the small North African country: over 35% of the youth population is unemployed,[3] terror attacks have cut into the burgeoning tourist industry,[4] and youth protests over political and economic conditions continue.[5] Despite the problems Tunisia faces, there have been no calls to return to an autocratic form of government, as seen by women’s protests demanding equality in March of 2018. This democratic deepening counters broader international trends of democratic erosion.

The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 mandates gender equality before the law, offering women a number of rights that remain unrivaled in the MENA region.[6] The rights of women have been ensured in Tunisia since the Tunisian Code of Personal Status, a document that entered into force in 1957, that outlines the rights of men and women in issues of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The Code of Personal Status was one of the first acts of the first Tunisian Prime Minister, Habib Bourguiba, as part of his major package of social reforms designed to give women an equal role in Tunisian society. Bourguiba continues to serve as an inspiration to Tunisian women, who cite his influence as one of the major reasons for the various freedoms they enjoy to this day.[7] Tunisian women’s activism on a variety of issues is notable, especially during the 2011 revolution, where the feminist movement marched alongside men to demand respect for women’s rights. Some women claimed that Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia as an authoritarian from 1987 until 2011, only pretended to show respect for women’s rights to please Western countries, so they aimed to have the new regime protect the freedoms guaranteed by the Code of Personal Status.[8]

Recent government initiatives have led to more improvements in women’s rights. In 2017, President Beji Caid Essebsi took a series of steps to promote women’s rights. On July 26, the Tunisian Parliament, led by Essebsi’s party Nidaa Tounes, passed a law that criminalized domestic violence and other abuses against women. In August, Essebsi disclosed that the Tunisian state would revisit its religion-based inheritance laws, which decreed that men are entitled to double the inheritance received by women. He also announced, in September, the overturning of a 1973 law that banned Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. These measures were praised worldwide as another sign that Tunisia “has led the region in transitioning to democracy and advancing women’s rights,”[9] and yet the issue of female inheritance rights remains contentious. This contention is especially prevalent among religious scholars who stress strict adherence to religious text in the crafting of these laws.

On March 10, 2018, the streets of Tunis were filled with women – and men – demanding that the Essebsi government move forward with its previously proposed reforms. While marching to the Parliament building in Tunis, many women carried signs with slogans demanding equal treatment before the law on matters of inheritance, stressing that Tunisian society should amend its laws to reflect its current democratic status.[10] Essebsi has pledged that a commission established in August would address the interrelated issues of individual liberties and equality, especially for women. By taking to the streets to peacefully demand their rights, women have indicated that they will continue to hold the government accountable for their promised actions.

Tunisia has faced countless challenges to its nascent democracy. Religious extremism and sluggish economic growth continue to threaten the foundation of its hard-fought democratic institutions. Recent trends point to democratic erosion in both developed and developing countries around the world. And yet, as the women’s march indicates, Tunisia once again offers the world a glimmer of hope for democracy.

[1] Kurt Weyland, “The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848?Perspectives on Politics 10.4 (December 2012), 928.

[2] Norwegian Nobel Committee, “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2015,” published October 10, 2015, retrieved March 26, 2018.

[3] World Bank, Youth Unemployment Rate for Tunisia, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, retrieved March 26, 2018.

[4] Frank Gardner, “Tunisia Tourism: Is It Safe for UK Holidaymakers?BBC News, published February 12, 2018, retrieved March 26, 2018.

[5] Jason Burke, “Who is protesting in Tunisia and why?The Guardian, published January 11, 2018, retrieved March 26, 2018.

[6] Article 21, Tunisia’s Constitution of 2014, Constitute Project, published January 14, 2018, retrieved March 26, 2018.

[7] Eleanor Beardsley, “In Tunisia, Women Play Equal Role in Revolution,NPR, published January 27, 2011, retrieved March 26, 2018.

[8] Beardsley, “In Tunisia, Women Play Equal Role in Revolution.”

[9] Catherine Powell, “Women’s Rights Reforms in Tunisia Offer Hope,” Council on Foreign Relations, published December 4, 2017, retrieved March 27, 2018.

[10] Tarek Amara, “Tunisian women march for equal inheritance rights,” Reuters, published March 10, 2018, retrieved March 27, 2018.

*Photo by Haythem Gataa (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license

1 Comment

  1. Minch

    May 19, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    I appreciate the insights that went into your post. I agree that the women of Tunisia are consequential and indispensable democratizing forces. We all know that Tunisia is a society where patriarchy and women exclusion are deeply ingrained and thus historically structured the way society perceives and treats women. Democratic openings particularly with the Constitution embodying the “equality of male and female citizens before the law without any discrimination” are one of the significant push factors in uplifting the civil liberties, political rights and other forms of secular freedoms that can be enjoyed by all Tunisians. Come to think of it, since 1956, when all other countries were not yet conscious about the importance of women in moving the national interests of societies forward, Tunisian women, from its laws, initiatives and policies that are already in place to protect their rights and interests, have already been reaping the gains from the liberalized mindsets of its leaders. The Arab Spring, at least, we can think of it as pressure valves releasing the tensions of undemocratic rule and inequitable distribution of wealth in participating countries also benefitted from the participation of Tunisian women.

    Tunisian women and their impact on the outcomes of the revolution in their country show as you have said that “Tunisia has served as a model of how effective civil resistance can be”. The international recognition of Tunisian civil society and women reveals that there are prospects for demonstration effects in other countries from other regions, if not within the MENA itself. Perhaps, their activism could focus on not resting on their laureates by sustaining and intensifying the institutionalization of women’s rights, political and economic liberties and other freedoms such as access to education, scholarships, energy and transportation and others that can help them be more consequential to democracy and development. We all root for Tunisian women to fulfill their roles as vanguards of democracy but they should not show signs of any slackening given that their society, as influenced by neighboring Arab countries, still possess tinges of conservatism leaning towards patriarchy. This could cancel previous gains and can make the way forward precarious. Seeking more cooperation and support from international partners and friends to ensure that their efforts are sustained and the gains are redistributed to Tunisian society so to create the requisites for democratic consolidation which impact transcends borders.

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