Tunisia's women strive for equal rights

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Tunisia is widely considered to be the only real success story of the 2011 Arab Uprisings. The first nation to overthrow its repressive dictator, Tunisia has since embarked down a new path of societal progress and social development.

Tunisian demonstrators shout during a protest seeking equality between men and women in Tunis, Tunisia, 10 March 2018.However, Tunisia's transition from an autocracy to the freest and most democratic nation in the Arab world was far from smooth. The nation has been rocked by a series of political assassinations, and dialogue on a proposed new constitution broke down at one point due to disagreements between political factions.

Nevertheless, with the post-uprising Arab world deteriorating into bloodshed around them, Tunisia's leaders were sagacious; negotiating their way to an eventual agreement. After two draft preambles, four full drafts and three long years, Tunisia's guiding document was eventually finalised in January of 2014.

What is remarkable about Tunisia's 2014 constitution, especially in comparison to other nations across the Arab world, is just how liberal and progressive it is. For example, in a region teeming with oppressive theocracies, Article 2 of Tunisia's constitution carefully compromises the role of religion in the political sphere; deliberately leaving the word 'Sharia' out, while implicitly recognising the Islamic heritage of the Tunisian people.

On the whole, this document is widely thought to be the bedrock of Tunisia's continued status as a paragon of freedom and equal rights in the region.

Specifically, it is Article 21 that has the greatest implications in terms of creating a truly fairer nation for all. This article states that 'All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination'; and thus makes Tunisia's constitution pivotal in the broader fight for gender equality across the Arab world.

In saying this, more than four years on from the constitution's inception, progress is slow in the struggle for equal rights in Tunisia. While a ruling in 2017 did allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, a law unfathomable in many dictatorial Arab theocracies, the fight for basic equality between the sexes is still ongoing.

 

"Although often referred to as the 'most liberated women of the Arab world', there is undeniably still a long road ahead for Tunisia's women if they want to achieve true gender equality in accordance with their own constitution."

 

This is because, although the intent of Article 21 is clear, it cannot be used to overturn current laws by itself. Indeed, the government still needs to alter existing legislation in the Tunisian parliament for any change to take effect; and this can only occur one law at a time.

Furthermore, on matters where the implications of the 2014 constitution directly oppose the decrees of Sharia Law, there is proving to be a struggle in implementing the specific legislation. For example, the 2017 decision to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men faced intense community backlash from hardline Islamic segments of society, and some Islamist representatives in the parliament itself.

With the marriage laws changed however, the next battleground opening up in the fight for gender equality in Tunisia is to do with the matter of inheritance. Currently, as no revision to the existing law has been made, inheritance continues to be governed by the Code du Statut Personnel (CSP) of 1956; just as it was prior to the 2011 uprising. The CSP, in accordance with strict Islamic teaching, dictates that a woman is to receive only half the share of inheritance as a man.

Understandably, this is not a satisfactory situation for Tunisia's women, and on Saturday 10 March this year hundreds took to the streets of the capital Tunis calling on the government to make the necessary amendment to inheritance law. The protestors demanded to be treated as equal to men on this matter, just as they are across the Mediterranean Sea in Europe. Some local men joined this specific protest, as pressure now grows on President Beji Caid Essebsi to ensure that the spirit of the constitution is manifested as law.

While the topic of inheritance law is usually seen as taboo in the region, Tunisia's women appear intent on ensuring that they have equal rights to their male counterparts. Although often referred to as the 'most liberated women of the Arab world', there is undeniably still a long road ahead for Tunisia's women if they want to achieve true gender equality in accordance with their own constitution.

 

 

Oliver FriendshipOliver Friendship is a British-Australian freelance writer and commentator based in Queensland.

Main image: Tunisian demonstrators shout during a protest seeking equality between men and women in Tunis, Tunisia, 10 March 2018.

Topic tags: Oliver Friendship, Tunisia, gender equality, Arab Spring

 

 

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All power to our Tunisian sisters and the far-seeing men who support them on the road to equality. May the God of Sara, of Rachel and Leah, of Miriam, Judith, Deborah, Ruth and Naomi, of Mary of Magdala, Joanna - and of Mary, Holy Mother of God walk with them. And may Tunisia be blessed as it reaches for social justice. Amen, and Amen.
Pirrial Clift | 18 June 2018


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