Small victory for Tunisian women’s fight for equality

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As Tunisians marked the third anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution this month, the country was in the headlines all over the world once again, but this time due to a constitutional “revolution”.

On 14 January 2011, Tunisian President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali had to resign and leave the country as a result of weeks of protests sparked by a Tunisian street vendor that had set himself on fire. The event led the way for a series of uprisings which were to be called the “Arab Spring”. Although the so called “spring” in most Arabic countries didn’t always usher in a bright and festive summer, Tunisia saw a real change after the Jasmine Revolution, which Tunisians call the “Dignity Revolution”.

Almost three years after the uprising, and after a real standoff between the Islamist Ennahda movement and the opposition, the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia approved an article in the constitution that establishes equality between men and women and forbids discrimination.

"All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties. They are equal before the law without discrimination," reads article 20.

The amendments in the constitution say that the state shall “guarantee, support and develop women’s rights;   create equal opportunities for men and women and take the necessary measure to eliminate violence against women”.

The amendments, although opposed by some politicians, were celebrated with the national anthem sang by MPs. International media hailed the change as a victory for women’s rights fighters. French minister of women’s rights and spokesperson for the government, Najat Belkacem, wrote on Twitter: “Female and male citizens have the same rights, the same obligations… They are equal. Congratulations to all those who fought!”

However the changes didn’t satisfy everyone. Constitutionalist Hafidha Chakir, for example, accused Article 20 of ensuring equal treatment in court, but not true equality by law.

International human rights organizations also expressed their suspicions, saying that its wording is not strong or detailed enough. Human Rights Watch said in a statement that "Article 20 should specify that discrimination, direct and indirect, is prohibited on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, and that discriminatory laws or state policies are unconstitutional. The current draft limits the protection of rights to citizens and does not specify the prohibited grounds of discrimination".

Although the article may not guarantee absolute equality under the law, it does offer some progress compared to the article that was originally proposed by Ennahda in 2012. The Islamist party had suggested an article about the “complementary roles” of men and women in the family. The article was quickly withdrawn after it caused an outcry.

Tunisia, since it gained its independence from France in the 1950s, has had some of the most liberal laws in the Arab world regarding the women’s rights. Tunisia changed its family laws in the 50s, prohibiting polygamy and requiring that both girls and boys attend school from age six. The country had its first female judge in 1968. Rare for the Arab world, women hold more than 20% of seats in both chambers of parliament.

Tunisia ranked sixth out of 22 Arab states about women’s rights, in a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year. However, in the general ranking Tunisia came on the 102th place out of the 128 countries all over the world.

However Tunisian women are still underrepresented in political and social life. So the new article is still a step forward as the previous constitutions didn’t mention the principle of gender equality.

The only controversial subject in the new constitution, however, is not just this article. Rights groups also condemned the draft document for retaining the death penalty. Another source of disturbance is that the new constitution depicts Islam as the country's official religion, seen as a compromise to the Islamist, Ennahda.

All summed up, as human rights activists argue, Tunisia continues its democratic transition and still has a long way to go. Tunisian women may have the reason to celebrate their gaining but their fight for total equality and freedom may not be over.


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