By Johanna Higgs
Rabat – ‘We are different in Tunisia from other parts of the Arabic world,’ said Malek Kadria Tunisian engineer living in Tunis. ‘We are more open minded.’
Indeed, Tunisia has long been considered a pioneer of women’s rights in the Arab world and throughout Africa. Tunisia has one of the highest rates of women in government, and women’s rights are significantly more advanced than they are in many of the surrounding Muslim-majority countries. In the streets of Tunis, the nation’s capital, women can move freely through the streets, many with their hair uncovered, and men and women are allowed to mix freely.
Many of the rights afforded to Tunisian women can be largely attributed to Tunisia’s very progressive laws. Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, adopted in 1957, gave women an unprecedented place in the Muslim world when they abolished polygamy, created a legal procedure for divorce and allowed marriage only with the consent of both parties.
Tunisia’s constitution has also taken very progressive steps towards protecting women’s rights. Article 46 of the Constitution, for example, says: ‘The State undertakes to protect the acquired rights of women, and works to strengthen and develop them. The State guarantees equality of opportunity between women and men. The State works to achieve parity between women and men in elected assemblies. The State shall take the necessary measures to eliminate violence against women.’
On July 26, 2017, the Tunisian government again took a number of steps to improve women’s rights by enacting a new law abolishing violence against women. It is the first piece of legislation to ever recognize domestic abuse as a crime.
The new law defines violence against women as any physical, emotional, sexual or economic aggression against women that is based on gender. This includes threats of aggression and deprivation of rights and freedoms, both in the public and private sphere.
This new law also criminalizes sexual harassment in public spaces and entitles citizens to notify the police if they witness violence against women. It also mandates that both the police and judges to be trained on how to handle violence against women. It also has provisions against economic discrimination, and fines employers who intentionally discriminate against women.
Additionally, legislators have eliminated from the penal code a previous provision that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he marries his victim.
However, despite these progressive steps towards equality, Tunisian women still face a number of significant challenges. Discrimination and sexual harassment are still two serious problems facing Tunisian women today.
A study published by the Center for Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women, found that 70 to 90 percent of women had been victims of sexual harassment, particularly on public transport, between 2011 to 2015.
For Taissyr Sellimi, a young woman living in Tunis, she feels that sexual harassment is a serious problem in Tunisa. ‘Men say very bad words, there’s unwanted touching, perverts follow you with their cars and sometimes they masturbate in public in front of you,’ she explained. ‘They always blame women, they say that she is dressed in a revealing way, she’s playful, she answered back to the man or she shouldn’t defend herself. But even women in veils and long clothes are victims of sexual harassment,’ she said.
For Hammami Sourour a 21-year-old student from Siliana she feels that much of discrimination towards women in Tunisia came about after the revolution, when the Islamist parties began to gain power. ‘Tunisian people didn’t speak about religion before, but now with democracy they speak freely and they are using religion to oppress women.’
After the 2011 revolution, many were overjoyed when the 22-year dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown and the country began to move towards democracy. However, asthe Islamist party Ennahda was gaining power, many women began to fear that they would lose their rights. This fear was exacerbated when Ennahda made a statement declaring that women were just complementary to men, not their equals.
Although Ennahda has failed to gain significant political ground, and the legacy of women’s rights remain relatively intact, women still face a number of challenges. For example, a certain law in Tunisia says that even if women are granted custody of their children, the father will still remain the child’s legal guardian. Article 58 of the personal code gives judges the discretion to grant custody to either the mother or the father based on the best interests of the child, but prohibits a mother from having her children live with her if she remarries. No such restriction applies to fathers.
In accordance with Islamic law, Tunisian women are also denied half the inheritance that their brothers are entitled to. However, in a speech on National Women’s Day this year, Tunisia’s current President Beji Caid Essebsi gave a speech in which he directly challenged Islamic law and called for a change to inheritance laws so that brothers and sisters can inherit equally.
Kadri is very happy about the prospect of the new law allowing her to be able to inherit the same as her brother. “It’s not fair that men can inherit more than women,’ she said. “It makes you feel like you are inferior,” she said.
While she remains hopeful that the law will pass, she is concerned that the Islamic parties might try and stop it.
“The Islamists strongly oppose women having the same rights as men,” she explains. “The problem is that they say this is the religion and you can’t touch it,” she added. “People are victims of ideas.”
However, many women are optimistic that the new laws will help increase women’s rights and will challenge some of the very serious problems women continue to face, such as sexual harassment and discrimination.
‘Women in Tunisia have very high levels of education and there are more women with degrees than men,’ said Boujneh. “I feel women’s rights are moving forward in Tunisia and I feel very optimistic about it.”
However, Hammami Sourour, feels that in order for the situation of women to improve, there needs to be a shift in societal norms. “We need another revolution,” she says. “A revolution of the mind. The mentality needs to change. I want more importance given to women and to what women can do in their society, women are not just sexual objects,” she added.
Asma Sahli, a 35 year old woman in Tunis, agrees that there is still much more room for women to progress in Tunisia, particularly in areas of freedom, equality and positions of power. “I want a woman to be President,” she says.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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