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The Unfinished Story of Women’s Rights in Tunisia

Very few people predicted a revolution in Tunisia in 2010. Even less expected that the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in protest against rising unemployment and price increases would spark calls for regime change. And perhaps no one expected to hear the equal amount of female voices calling “bread, water, and no Ben Ali” during the protests.

These mothers of the Jasmine Revolution (sometimes called the Dignity Revolution) had no guarantee of success, but found, instead, a reason to face tear gas, bullets, and marginalization in future stories for a chance to throw off the yoke of an aged dictator. While Libya, Syria, and Egypt have experienced mixed results since the Arab Spring, Tunisia, its epicenter, has largely experienced success. Rights for women in Tunisia were already expanding in the early 1950s with legislation like the family code enacted in 1956. Early in its independence, it was clear that the country tried to place emphasis on the family as the basic unit of social life in lieu of the state and women saw a substantial increase in autonomy especially within family units. Furthermore, the 1956 Code of Personal Status was passed and deals with crucial issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony, child custody and adoption”

This was a unique victory for women in North Africa and the Middle East. These steps were indeed promising, but women saw the most pronounced expansion of rights following the Tunisian Revolution because of the role they played in the protests. However, while these rights are expanding, significant challenges and legal loopholes remain that make it difficult to measure the early efforts in the 1950s and the revolution as an undisputed success.  

Women saw the Tunisian Revolution as a chance for expansion of legal and cultural rights.
Women saw the Tunisian Revolution as a chance for expansion of legal and cultural rights (Fethi Belaid/AFP).

After their activity in the revolution, women’s rights continued to expanded with specific written guarantees in the 2014 constitution. The rights eventually enshrined in this constitution faced a difficult journey through its time in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) of Tunisia, which was responsible for creating the new constitution after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dramatic dissolution of the government and subsequent exile. For example, future articles aimed at expanding women’s rights in Tunisia were criticized by a conservative bloc in the NCA and especially faced obstacles like the unpredictable Ennahda party, an Islamic party that won 89 of the 217 seats in the NCA in 2011

Despite the concern that Ennahda and the conservative right-wingers would repress women’s rights, a new constitution was overwhelmingly passed in 2014 to replace the constitution of 1959 that served President Ben Ali. Some of the notable differences between the two were the inclusion of rights for women that were previously left to interpretation. For example, Title I, Article 21, notes that “all citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination”. The previous constitution had almost the exact same sentence without the specific gender nouns. The specific language is an important upgrade to the protection of women’s rights and their place in society. Title I, Article 46 was also added and commits the state to develop avenues for women to realize their full rights and protections for women against violence. 

Beyond the constitution, there have been various legal successes that have placed an emphasis on women’s rights since the revolution. For example, in 2011, the parliament passed a gender parity bill that required political parties to alternate males and female candidates on political party ballots. This bill came into play during the 2014 parliamentary elections, where 48 women were elected to the total 217 seats. Additionally, in 2015, there was a law passed that allowed mothers to travel with their children without permission from the father. This seemed like a minor victory, but it was clear that this legislative actions like these were attempting to uproot the long-held stigma of women’s inferiority.

Organizations such as Aswat Nissa's academy in Tunisia sprang up after the Arab Spring. Aswat Nissa in particular helps prepare women for careers in politics.
Organizations such as Aswat Nissa’s academy in Tunisia sprang up after the Arab Spring. Aswat Nissa in particular helps prepare women for careers in politics. (Danielle Villasana/PRI).

All of these steps in the political realm are very promising and has essentially catapulted Tunisia to the international stage as a champion of women’s rights. However, these laws have yet to completely influence the societal norms of Tunisia, where the situation within homes, between couples, and a woman’s life in general is not as similarly great. In 2014, Tunisia ranked 123rd on the Global Gender Gap Index, which is one of the highest for an Arab country and for countries in North Africa. Women’s rights and access to opportunities may have increased, but their positions in the job market and participation in society have largely stagnated.

A study in 2015 concluded that the rates of education between girls and boys are nearly identical, 99% and 98.9% respectively. Women now outmatch men in terms of levels of higher educationWhile these are positive signs, they do not seem to be translating to larger societal benefits.

One example is the low activity rate among women after they graduate from secondary school or higher education. In 1966, for example, women’s activity rate was 5.5% of the whole female population. But 2012, that number had jumped to 25.7%, but was still far below the men’s average of 70.3%. Women are also mostly confined to three areas of labor, to include services, manufacturing, and agriculture. 

The job market still continues to be influenced by gender stereotypes, and these seem to limit options while on paper it seems that women are much more socially mobile than they have ever been before and certainly are compared to their neighboring countries. According to a State Department report from 2016, women in the private sector still earn 1/4 less than men for the same work. 

Similarly, women who found success in advocating for greater autonomy in the home now have experienced a backlash. The Social Institutions and Gender Index of 2014, for example, found that discrimination against women within the family is still high. Their physical integrity protections, by contrast, were still very low despite their progress. 

Another large problem is that women are subject to an inadequate or apathetic legal system even though they face many types of abuse and violations of their personal integrity rights. For example, domestic violence was criminalized with an addition to the penal code in 1993, but marital rape has not been specified as a crime. The Social Institutions and Gender Index of 2014, for example, a national survey in 2012 performed by the National Board for Family and Population (ONFP), concluded that on average, one in two women in Tunisia would become victims of violence sometime in their life. This survey was conducted before the passage of the 2014 constitution, but it encompasses the magnitude of the issues facing women in Tunisia. In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women reported that nearly 70% of Tunisian women are victims of abuse

While neither survey was able to reach the entire population, they serve as a reference point. Many women are also confined by the stereotype that prevents them from speaking out. Despite these statistics, the police force seems to either be unable or unwilling to follow up on cases of domestic abuse and often brush it aside. Also, there is a social boundary that prohibits women from finding resources to educate themselves on rape, discrimination, and other things. 

Rape is another issue that has yet to be sorted out in Tunisia, and here is where the largest stigma plays into account. While other countries like Switzerland have generated a societal norm against sexual violence, Tunisia joins the ranks of countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania that have not changed society’s understanding of these things. For example, Tunisia still has so-called “marry your rapist” laws where men accused of rape can avoid punishment by seeking the consent to marry their victims. Also, in many cases, if a woman is raped, she is the one that is charged with the crime of indecency

Both Amal Khaleef and Amal Amrawy were victims of domestic abuse in Tunisia. They have created an online forum that encourages women to leave abusive relationships. (BBC News).
Both Amal Khaleef and Amal Amrawy were victims of domestic abuse in Tunisia. They have created an online forum that encourages women to leave abusive relationships. (BBC News).

This reality reflects a need to improve, but also an understanding that the situation within Tunisia is not all bleak. Rather, it presents a challenge to the various political actors and non-state actors that are operating in Tunisia to address these problems and find a viable solution. For one, uprooting cultural norms that lead to female exclusion, domestic violence, and sexual violence will take time. But it can start with education. To date, Tunisia does not have have a national education campaign that addresses women’s rights and women’s opportunities in society. The proliferation of human rights NGOs as well as this education campaign can uphold the promise of Tunisia’s legacy in North Africa. For example, President Beji Caid Essebsi in August suggested heightening the awareness of the discrimination against women in his country and a comprehensive review of the inheritance law. 

While inconsistencies between policies and results are clear within Tunisian politics, it is nevertheless hopeful that prominent leaders in North African society are bringing awareness to the issue. Tunisia’s story as a defender of women’s rights has started strong, but it is not finished yet.