For Tunisian Women, A Catch-22: Is Inequality The Price Of Progress?

ANALYSIS

 @JaceyFortin on August 14 2012 1:49 PM
Tunisia elections
Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement outside Ennahda's headquarters in Tunis Reuters

Tunisia has seen its fair share of demonstrations since a popular revolution overthrew its dictatorial government in February of last year. One more protest hit the streets of the capital city of Tunis this week -- and this one was for the ladies.

The point of contention was a line in a newly released draft of the constitution, which will serve as the country's authoritative document as it cobbles together a permanent government. The draft contains a bit of unfortunate wording: Tunisian women, it says, are "complementary to men."

This is quite a departure from the country's previous constitution, which was implemented in 1956. That document stated clearly that women and men were equal; it also outlawed polygamy and confirmed the legality of divorce, according to the BBC.

Women are determined not to let their rights slip away. Thousands gathered in Tunis on Monday, carrying signs to voice their discontent.

"Women are strong," said one banner. "Rise up, women, for your rights to be enshrined in the constitution!" said another, according to Reuters.

Tunisia has a legacy of social liberalism, but the Arab Spring revolution that took place there last year threatens to change all that. A dictator has been overthrown, and that was a significant step forward for the country.

Now, many fear that the new Islamist ruling party of the newly elected government is about to take two steps back.

A Balancing Act

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and that makes this North African state a trailblazer in the Middle East. Its progress will set a precedent for other countries in various stages of revolution.

It all began in December of 2010, when a produce vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi protested against the government by setting himself aflame in a poor Tunisian village.

His fatal act sparked a movement. All over the country, protesters rallied against the oppressive secular administration of then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The so-called Jasmine Revolution was a success, and Ben Ali was overthrown after 28 days of demonstrations.

The Tunisian public then elected a national assembly of 217 representatives, which was inaugurated in November of 2011 and is charged with drafting a new permanent constitution. Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, became the most influential bloc with a plurality of seats. This has been a cause for concern to secularists -- and especially to women whose rights may be in danger.

Some Ennahda officials have sought to allay fears by asserting that the new Tunisian constitution would not be based on Islamic Sharia law. After all, the party must work with its two secular coalition partners: the Congress for the Republic Party, or CRP, and the more leftist Ettakatol bloc.

But a great many secular Tunisians do not trust Ennahda to be a reliable steward of social justice. Though some party members have promised not to impose strict religious laws, others have made some rather inflammatory statements.

One female Ennahda member, Souad Abdul Rahim, caused a controversy shortly after last year's elections. She criticized single mothers and warned against giving these women "legitimacy," arguing that the government "should work on reforming them instead."

"Women are to be given freedom within limits and without violating divine rules," she said, according to Al Arabiya.

But Ennahda leader and current Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali made sure to refute her statement shortly thereafter.

Tunisia's interim president is Moncef Marzouki, of the secular CRP. Although he is less powerful than Jebali, he has pledged to uphold the country's liberal social policies.

"I feared that we might have some problems with the constitution because the very conservative part of the society, they wanted that Sharia should be the main source of legislation and fortunately we reached a kind of consensus between the most important political parties in Tunisia that we are not going to [do that]," he said in a May interview with Al Jazeera.

"Because everybody is interested in having and protecting human rights, women's rights, there is a very large consensus about the constitution."

Marzouki had reason to be optimistic. Compared to other Middle Eastern countries, Tunisia has some unique advantages as it pieces together a new national identity. Its citizens are well-educated and socially liberal. They have a strong sense of civic duty and demographically cohesive population.

That's why so many women find the draft constitution's "complementary" clause so surprising.

Speaking Up

The women's rights issue comes in the midst of myriad other problems.

It's been a hot summer in Tunisia. Blistering winds swept in from the Sahara Desert this year, bringing temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit to the Mediterranean shores of Tunis. Severe heat waves threatened the country's water supply and resulted in widespread electricity shortages.

The economic climate was just as harsh.

As widespread unrest interrupted growth in 2011, Tunisia's GDP contracted by 2 percent. Tourism, which once made up 7 percent of national revenue according to the Associated Press, took a nosedive. In the first quarter of 2012, unemployment was up around 18 percent. The interim government has recently begun investing in infrastructure projects and stronger benefits programs with hopes of revitalizing the economy, though this threatens to raise the national deficit to unsustainable levels.

Achieving fiscal health will be the true litmus test of success for Ennahda and its coalition partners, especially since economic woes were instrumental in fanning the flames of the Jasmine Revolution. To this day, the economy is Tunisia's overarching problem; it affects all Tunisians regardless of religion, gender or political affiliation.  

In that context, those who are concerned about social issues such as women's rights must fight to make their voices heard.

But the women who protested on Monday are determined not to let their rights fall by the wayside. They know that a constitutional clause could obstruct social progress indefinitely -- the economy, on the other hand, might be a shorter-term problem is all goes well. For them, laying a foundation for gender equality is a no-brainer first step.

Protester Fouzia Belgaid, 52, told Reuters that the women's rights issue should have been settled long ago.

"Normally, more important issues ought to be tackled like unemployment, regional development," she said.

"Ennahda seems bent on making steps backwards, but we are here to say that Tunisian women will not accept that. I fear for the future of my daughters who may grow up in a totally different Tunisia."

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