Revolution wears a skirt


Unforeseen developments in female emancipation are affecting the democratic transition process in the run up to the 2019 presidential elections

A group of women appears to be dancing down the street, so light is their movement, their faces framed by their white hijabs. Then the camera lingers on one of them as a man’s hands stretch out to unveil her. She seems to clutch her veil and smiles shyly before allowing it to be slipped off and she then receives a light caress. Habib Bourguiba is also smiling in this propagandistic footage, which nevertheless contains the seed of change. In the Arab world the status of women in Tunisia is still considered a particular and unique model and, although the reasons for this emancipation are many, the actions of the father of decolonisation and modern Tunisia have played a crucial role. The Code du statut personnel (Personal status code), approved in 1956, the first act of the country’s independence which came three years later with the approval of the post-colonial constitution, in its 213 articles ratified the ban on polygamy and on the husband’s right to reject his wife, introduced a minimum age for marriage and divorce and applied these legal institutions to women. Bourguiba also added his own personal rejection of the veil, the “odious rag” as he referred to it in public. For the Arab world this was a radical change of perspective, for Tunisia it was the sign of a policy – then completed by the “state control over religion” – whereby all Islamic hierarchies were subject to the will of the state – based on European secular architypes (and those of the former French coloniser in particular) rather than on the Islamic precepts in force in other Arab countries.

The revolution that took place between 2010 and 2011 has not changed the general approach. In fact, one gets the impression that Tunisia’s political destiny is once again dependant, at least symbolically,  on the process of affirmation of women’s rights and the modernisation of society in spite of the influence acquired by the Islamic and conservative movement Ennahda, which has also had to take stock of the unprecedented role played by women. During its tormented democratic transition – in a country that boasts a rich and pluralist society and is very sensitive, in its secular component, to gender equality issues – a further aspect that has affected the alignment of men and women has been introduced by the 2014 constitution. In article 21 it states that “male and female citizens have equal rights and duties” and that “they are equal before the law without discrimination”; article 34 also establishes women’s role in politics and their right to representation within “elected assemblies” and article 46 reinforces the concept by providing that “the State undertakes to guarantee equal treatment between women and men in elected assemblies”. These dispositions have been translated into electoral laws, for both political and municipal elections, that contemplate gender alternation. In the first municipal consultations last May, 47.5% of elected councillors in the 350 municipalities were women.

The most ambitious project of a legislation that has already introduced a law condemning violence against women and repealed a 1973 circular which forbade Tunisian women from marrying non-Islamic men, hinges on the work of the Individual Freedom and gender equality Commission (COLIBE) established by the current president of the Republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, a minister post under Bourguiba and founder of the secular and centrist party Nidaa Tounes, currently ruling with with Ennahda despite their many differences. The Commission was set up to transpose the constitutional dictate and completed its proposal in June, summed up in two intensely negotiated bills that outline a “Code of individual rights and freedoms” and a similar legal text on combating discrimination against women and children. The point that has been most divisive for Tunisian society is equality on matters of inheritance because it calls into question Quranic prescriptions and the deeper order of the social structure. The surah 4 dedicated to women is ambivalent: on the one hand (verse 7) it established women’s right to inherit and thus grants it legal validity; on the other (verse 11) it establishes that “the male (should receive) the parts of two women”. Therefore, in a case involving a brother and sister, the first will inherit twice as much. The bill drafted by the Commission envisages three options: equality guaranteed by law; equality guaranteed by law with the possibility of it being challenged in court; equality guaranteed by law provided a prior agreement is reached between the heirs. “With this deed we will reverse the situation, making equality the rule and inequality an exception” Essebsi has remarked, having decided – partly for electoral reasons – to complete the process. But the complex proposal includes other particularly sensitive changes such as the abolition of the dowry (legally protected by the Code du statut personnel), the cancellation of the ‘head of the family’ concept and the possibility of passing the mother’s surname onto one’s offspring. The two bills, already approved by the Council of Ministers, will be discussed in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and Bochra Belhaj Hmida, the chairman of COLIBE, has ruled out negotiations on the most controversial point, inheritance equality. The positions are expected to converge partly because presidential elections are to take place in 2019 and the issue is being bandied about to garner consensus. After all, the women’s vote in 2014 played a crucial part in securing Essebsi’s success over Moncef Marzouki.

The debate over the emancipation of women and the arguments that have been raised over more than a century – though problems still exist given the disparities between urban and rural areas – have always seen the involvement of the feminist movements which now also have an Islamic representation. The Muslim Union of Tunisian women was first established in 1936 – promoted by the activism of Bashira ben Mrad – as part of the Neo-Dustur  party’s drive to find new areas of consensus and address new social issues, while the same party headed by Bourguiba, which after independence became Tunisia’s social party, promoted the launch of the National Union of Tunisian women to increase awareness of the Code de statut personnel and by 1960 the Union had as many as 14,000 registered members. One of the historic movements and a major promotor of demonstrations on hereditary equality is the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, but the post-revolutionary processes have cast new subjects onto the social stage partly connected to modern forms of communication, which in certain cases are even open to the participation of men. Some represent spinoffs from previous experiences, like the Coalition pour les femmes de la Tunisie, while others represent the new generations (the Chouf and Chaml collectives) that display a critical take on the historic movements. And then there are the web voices, individual and collective bloggers who take issue over specific matters. In general, next to the party and state representatives, new independent factions have now established themselves that have led to a fragmentation of policy lines but also a much more diversified offer, an obvious result of the greater freedom of expression achieved thanks to the democratic transition process.

The Islamic camp has taken a contradictory reformist attitude. Ennahda is the party that most strongly disapproves the reform of family law, but also the one that has the most women elected into parliament and in councils. In some cases, like the new mayor of Tunis, Souad Abderrahim, they are modern, cultured figures, who do not wear the hijab (while sections of the Rebirth party have accompanied its rise to power with the appeal that it is best to wear it). So these at times subterranean and shifting transformations meet opposition but nevertheless keep women at the centre of power strategies. The response to these new calls for emancipation will to some extent decide whether the democratic process can be pushed through all the way.


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