Backwards is the Future? Women, Tunisia, and Constitutional Debates

Following the Arab Spring, there has been considerable debate on whether women’s rights are under threat from Islamist political parties and the seemingly patriarchal modes of politics they espouse. Despite the very public and vocal role women have played in many of the uprisings in North Africa, the concerns that surround this debate seem particularly pertinent in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Image courtesy of Parti Mouvement Ennahdha, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Parti Mouvement Ennahdha, © 2011, some rights reserve

On the 12th of November 2013, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 336 gender studies experts surveying twenty-two countries involved in the Arab Spring concluded that these states had, by and large, backtracked on women’s rights.[i] In Tunisia, fears of a move towards a less secular, more conservative state have been voiced by a number of women activists, notably the award-winning blogger Lina Ben Mhenni. However, with the drafting of a new constitution delayed and new elections imminent, the exact outcome of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ for Tunisia’s women remains unclear.

Before the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and the Jasmine Revolution that began in December 2010, Tunisia was already widely regarded for its stance on women’s representation and women’s rights compared to its Arab neighbours. Its previous constitution, established by the country’s founding father Habib Bourguiba in 1957, proclaimed in Article 6 that all citizens had equal rights and obligations. The constitution built in no small part upon other moves by Bourguiba such as the outlawing of polygamy and ensuring equal legal status for women. His successor Zine el-Abadine Ben Ali continued this work by further expanding the rights and opportunities open to women before being ousted by the revolution.[ii]

However, many of the fears concerning a backlash by Islamist political parties stem from other policies pursued by Bourguiba and Ben Ali. In a state where Article 1 declares the religion of Tunisia to be Islam, the 1980s onwards saw a crackdown on religion in politics, as well as on wearers of the veil. That being said, the immediate aftermath of the revolution did not give way to radical parties of a religious nature, or immediately jeopardise the status of women in Tunisian society.

The Secretary-General for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) went as far as saying that democratisation in the country was notable for continued moves towards gender equality in 2012.[iii] Vidar Helgesen commended the introduction of a quota for women’s representation on electoral lists as exemplary. The level of women’s representation in the new Tunisian Constituent Assembly is indeed unrivalled by the legislatures of its neighbours, with around 24% of representatives being women,[iv] a statistic higher than certain well-established democracies, the number being about 22% in the British House of Commons. However, with only 49 out of 217 representatives being women, it is clear that women are still underrepresented in post-revolution Tunisia.

While these numbers may seem like a sign of progress, Lina Ben Mhenni takes exception to this view. With 42 out of 49 female representatives being members of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, she has claimed that while the party that won the most seats in the country’s 2011 elections clearly does not frown upon women’s representation per se, its female candidates are helping promote a “double discourse” on women’s rights.[v] She points to several occasions where Ennahda members have spoken out against the current status of women in Tunisia. They have not been criticising it for a lack of parity, but have done so because laws such as those governing divorce encourage immoral behaviour. For instance, she quotes from a statement by Farida Laabidi (a member of Ennahda’s executive) in which the latter claims that equality between men and women should not be spoken of in “absolute terms”.

Ben Mhenni’s claim of a “double discourse” points to two important areas in the current debate. Firstly, it merely underscores the fact that not all women who were involved in the revolution have the same expectations for the upcoming constitution (and they also participated in it for a wide variety of reasons). From the perspective of some female Ennahda supporters, the revolution has allowed voices suppressed by the previous regimes to be heard.[vi] Secondly, it points to the source of the fears many Tunisians have about ‘Islamisation’ in the run up to a new constitution.

In his 2012 comments on Tunisia, Vidar Helgesen described Ennahda using words like ‘moderate’ and ‘inclusive’, but there appears to be significant confusion and a growing sense of trepidation amongst those unsure as to what the stance of the party is towards Tunisia’s constitutional future. From its spokesperson Samir Dilou flip-flopping on his party’s views on the reintroduction of polygamy into Tunisian law to the party’s lack of condemnation of violence surrounding Salafist protests. The disconnect alleged by more secular voices concerning Ennahda’s pledges of support for the Code of Personal Status established before the revolution and the controversial constitutional proposals while the process of forming a constitution is also frequently alluded to by those suspicious of the party’s motives: Article 28.

The exact wording of Article 28 is deemed worrisome by some of those who wish to maintain the relative equality between women and men because it changes the language from equality to women being complementary to men as their partners, prompting protests of an estimated 7,000 people in Tunis in August last year. However, some commentators have noted that the language may simply reflect the Ennahda party’s outlook on society, and does not point towards an Islamist attempt to undermine legal rights as some have suggested.[vii]

Indeed, it is misleading to paint Ennahda with the same brush as more widely known Islamist parties with track records of conservatism that severely restricts women’s representation and rights. Harvard Professor Leila Ahmed highlights this caveat in her claim that current ‘Western-based’ approaches to women in the Arab world presume that “Islamic cultures and religion are fundamentally inimical to women in a women in a way that Western cultures and religions are not”, a presumption she has challenged in claiming that they can be reinterpreted in just as many ways as those of the West.[viii]

While their representation is certainly not presently being undercut, the legal rights and status of Tunisian women remain central to the Islamic-secular discourses currently involved in the delayed drafting of the constitution. Dealing with the tension between Islamic and secular influences remains Tunisia’s most significant challenge, and in this regard it is not at all dissimilar from other states seeking stability in the wake of the Arab Spring. However, the arguments of both sides require informed scrutiny, and whether an equitable fusion is possible between Sharia principles and those seen under a secular Tunisia remains to be seen. This latter concern, as well as the apprehension amongst many Tunisian women about the future is unlikely to be resolved until the new constitution is revealed.

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