Debate continues over women’s rights in the new Tunisian constitution

As I noted in my post of August 3, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly created controversy when the commission on rights and liberties approved an article in the constitution that states: women’s rights should be protected under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country.

Women’s rights groups reacted strongly to the language, which has been seen by many in the country as an attempt to undermine women’s rights . As Aljazeera noted: “When Tunisia’s National Constitutional Assembly published the new draft constitution, a storm broke out over its words about women. Thousands of Tunisians were not impressed. “Oh woman, rebel – guarantee your rights in the constitution,” chanted supporters of gender equality as they marched on August 13 from the 14 January Square to the Conference Palace in the capital of Tunis…Estimates placed the number of protesters between 5,000 and 30,000. “Equality all the way – no complementarity in the constitution,” they shouted. Sister marches were held across Tunisia, in celebration of National Women’s Day [which celebrates the signing into law of the personal status code].”

How Ennahda sees it
Ennahda responded to these protests by reaffirming that it sees men and women as equal and considered the debate over the subject politicized by its opponents. Many in the party saw the law as nothing more than a misunderstanding over words.

The National explains: “Complementarity is at the heart of how Ennahda sees the role of women: party members believe that women have an equal, but different, role to play in the society. This is not an uncommon view among religious groups, especially from the Abrahamic faiths, who believe God created mankind in pairs and assigned different roles to each gender. That makes this proposed insertion of women’s “complementary” role something of a political misfire. Ennahda is picking an unnecessary fight. The party tried to row back a bit from the wording, arguing that “complementarity should be construed in a positive way”, according to Farida Abidi, an assembly member. She pointed out that there is a clear article in the proposed constitution: “All citizens have equal rights and duties before the law notwithstanding any kind of discrimination whatsoever.” But this is slightly disingenuous. What critics of complementarity are arguing for is the freedom to choose roles in society. Equal treatment before the law is not the same as equal participation in society.”

Monica Marks argues that Tunisians, the media, and activists have misinterpreted what she considers to be the correct Arabic translation used in the draft law, preferring to translate complementarity as fulfillment of each other. It should be noted, however, many in the Ennahda movement have embraced the language of complementarity, including party leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Regardless of the true intentions of the language, and the continued support for the article by Ennahda’s leadership, Marks says that the language is unlikely to pass. She writes in the FP “It is unlikely that Article 28 will pass muster with the revisionary committee scheduled to edit and harmonize this draft constitution over the coming months. Sihem Badi, Tunisia’s Minister of Women and Families, has already spoken out against the law, and a prominent female representative of Ennahda, Ms. Souad Abderrahim, has also suggested it is in need of revision. Though Ennahda controls a majority of seats on the rights and liberties committee, it will have a difficult time obtaining the necessary 109 out of 217 total votes needed within the constituent assembly to pass the article. Ennahda holds 41 percent of seats in the current constituent assembly — enough for a plurality, but not enough to bulldoze an absolute majority of parliamentarians into voting for the law.”

More controversially, and questionably (given that the constitution will be the high law and the basis for all civil law, including the PSC), Marks argues the law will have no effect on women in Tunisia. “Even if the article does pass as it is currently formulated, it is unlikely to seriously undermine women’s current legal standing in Tunisia. The law does not contradict or negate Tunisia’s Personal Status Code — a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1956 that continues to set Tunisia apart as the most progressive Arab country regarding women’s rights. The Personal Status Code prohibited polygamy and gave women the right to divorce.

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s party leader, rejects Marks and embraces the language of complementarity in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique:

The article on the Rights of the Child adopted by the commission rights and freedoms of the Constituent Assembly gives full powers to the family education and care. There he not a disengagement of the state?

Nothing replaces the family. The role of government is to ensure that the structure is preserved. There is no question of sacrificing children to improve economic productivity. By children, we take responsibility, we must assume until the end. The State must also assume its responsibilities by providing education and care for children. Must intervene. For example, you cannot ask a woman who has six children to go to work, it must be given the means to raise them. We ask a lot of women.

For women, another article considers the complement of man. No there not a decline in women’s gains?

This is a good project. Who can deny that the man and woman complete each other? The woman alone can do nothing, man either. The man and woman are independent but complementary as the two halves of a bean. There is no incompatibility between gender equality and complementarity. Everyone needs his half to flourish. But women are free and responsible, and they are equal to men. The prayer of a woman is not worth less than a man, they fast in the same way. They are equal under God and the law, the law of God and of men.

Tunisian militant Emna Mnif also counters Marks on the law’s potential impact, arguing that the article in question is a direct attack on the personal status code. Stigmatization of women and the personal status code, which Tunisia earned in the wake of independence in 1956, is nothing other putting into doubt the process of emancipation and modernization of Tunisian society which has been a societal model that has been the exception in the Maghreb Tunisian and Arab-Muslim world…It is an infringement of rights of not only Tunisian women, but also those of the family and, more broadly, a society that values the individual, regardless of gender or condition, (an individual elevated to the level of citizen, sovereign and responsible, placed at the center of the foundation of the democratic state.”

Mnif’s argument about the family and the individual is also a major concern of human rights activists concerning this language. Giving familial rights, as Ghannouchi notes in his interview with Jeune Afrique, emphasizes a family structure as the center of the society, subverting the rights of individuals.

Beji Caid Essebsi condemned the draft law and called those who would call into question women’s rights similar to animals.

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5 thoughts on “Debate continues over women’s rights in the new Tunisian constitution

  1. Hi, Eric-

    Hope you’re doing well. This is an important conversation, and I ‘m glad to see more people engaged in the discussion.

    I’d just like to address a couple points you’ve made in your post. First, the initial paragraph of this piece recycles a serious misquotation of the draft constitution. You relied on the same faulty language in your August 3 post, basing the translation off a Tunisia Live article published on August 2. That particular Tunisia Live piece bungled a number of basic facts concerning Article 28 of the draft. The author of that piece appears to have relied solely on “French translations of the Arabic [draft] that have circulated on the internet.” He mistakenly refers to Article 28 as Article 27 and pulls clauses from the supposedly “translated” text that simply do not exist in the Arabic at all. His article, like yours, fails to provide a hyperlink to the full Arabic draft. Tunisia Live since circulated a couple of pieces that redress these errors.

    I have copied and pasted the entirety of Article 28 in Arabic below:

    الفصل 28:
    «تضمن الدولة حماية حقوق المرأة ودعم مكاسبها باعتبارها شريكا حقيقيا مع الرجل في بناء الوطن ويتكامل دورهما داخل الأسرة
    ـ تضمن الدولة تكافؤ الفرص بين المرأة والرجل في تحمل مختلف المسؤوليات
    ـ تضمن الدولة القضاء على كل أشكال العنف ضد المرأة

    Nearly all French and English news sources have purveyed “translations” of the texts that barely merit the term—many allege that entire phrases, like “associates of men” and “complements of men” are found in the Arabic draft. Not only are these phrases mistranslations—they simply do not exist anywhere in the Arabic text. In my Foreign Policy piece, I endeavoured to translate the text as faithfully as possible from the original Arabic.

    I’m not accusing feminist activists of deliberately mistranslating the draft article. What I am saying, though, is that very few people have bothered to read the draft constitution in Arabic. I interviewed a couple dozen women at the National Women’s Day rally in Tunis on August 13. Most had relied on hearsay, and no one was able to quote the exact wording of the draft text. Feminist activists I spoke with, including Ahlem Belhaj and Amel Grami, seemed flustered when I mentioned that the precise wording of the text refers to men’s and women’s roles “completing/fulfilling one another in the family” rather than calling women the “associates” or “complements of men.” They said that complementarity was absolutely the meaning behind this article, and suggested that was sufficient reason to translate the passage with a loose hand…

    I’m not questioning that complementarity provides the philosophical bedrock, or the subtext, behind Ennahda’s support for the relational, family-oriented language found in this article. What I am stressing, however, is the importance of accuracy when translating texts from the Arabic. To put quotations around a piece of legal text that simply does not exist, then to call that “translation” a direct quote is both disingenuous and highly inaccurate. You are not alone in recycling these misquotations—highly regarded news outlets like Reuters and well-respected analysts such as Isobel Coleman the same, and the UN released a communique last week in French and English that also claimed Article 28 calls women the “complements of men.”

    I think these rumours started when a great number of women’s rights activists and French-speaking journalists read the Facebook page of Selma Mabrouk (Ettakatol MP on the rights and liberties committee). Mabrouk accused Ennahda of calling women men’s associates and complements in the draft. Many onlookers seemed to reflexively believe that this language actually existed in the draft, probably because Mabrouk’s assertion fit seamlessly into a narrative many already believe—a narrative that pits regressive, bearded Ennahda Islamists against well-meaning, modern feminists.

    The other point I wanted to emphasize was that my FP piece never rejected the notion that many, if not most, Nahdawis embrace the notion of complementarity. Indeed, I spent considerable time explaining that Ennahda views society in relational, umma-oriented terms.

    The passages you quoted from Ghannouchi’s Jeune Afrique interview actually support my analysis. Ghannouchi speaks of the two sexes completing one another like the two different halves of a bean—this is absolutely bog standard Nahda language, and it does reflect a complementary view that applies to men as well as women—an interconnected view of society that is much more about communal wellbeing than individual rights. I elaborate this in some detail throughout my FP piece.

    It’s important to make a distinction between Ennahda’s philosophical views and what is actually written into the legal language here in Article 28. I would suggest that most writers concerned with constitutional issues in Tunisia give due diligence to the actual wording in Arabic before launching into pointed critiques of the articles at play.

    One final point I’d like to mention is that my FP piece did not at any point assert that the current formulation of this article has “no effect” on women’s rights, as you suggested in this post. In fact, I stated the following:

    The relational wording of Article 28 leaves wide scope for interpretation on the part of future legislators and local judges. It is a stickily phrased formulation that, while unlikely to roll back the clock on existing women’s rights, may make it more difficult for Tunisian women to redress unequal inheritance laws and other pieces of discriminatory legislation.”

    I don’t see how the wording of Article 28 contradicts or negates the existing PSC. I’d be very interested in and open to a discussion about that, though, if you have any ideas.

  2. Another important point is that the August 2 Tunisia Live article, and your August 3 piece, were written before the official draft constitution was even released. The draft was released on August 8. Publications that critiqued Article 28 before August 8 based their knowledge of the article almost entirely on MP Selma Mabrouk’s Facebook page.

    I think it’s important to reevaluate these critiques in lights of the actual text of the draft constitution, released on August 8.

  3. I respect your viewpoint that accuracy of translation is important. Indeed, I will change and note the (flawed) translation used in my original post. Without being an Arabic scholar, however, I am at the whim of those who have taken the time and energy to accurately translate the original Arabic. I note that Marsad, an Arabic website, has translated the article in question “as the veritable partner of man in the construction of the country, and in her complementary role with man at the heart of the family.” Regardless, I find the way that you have emphasized the supposed mistranslations to be somewhat paternalistic and more importantly, missing the point.

    On the first point, I have also talked with dozens of Tunisians and Arabic speakers on the subject. You seem to be focusing this debate on French-speaking elites, who you imply have a limited grasp of the Arabic language. While I agree that Tunisian elites oftentimes conduct high-level debates in French (and certainly write in French), it certainly has not been my experience when talking about this issue that Tunisians are focused on a deceptive translation of the text. I would note that while you state that much of the debate took place prior to correct translation being published, my experience has been the opposite. Human rights activists remain critically concerned over this language and have published (in Arabic) petitions that draw attention to the danger of including this language in the constitution.

    This leads me to my second point, which is that you have set-up the straw man of mistranslation to show that opposition to the article is based on a misunderstanding of the language. When in reality, in my view, the article’s purpose is agreed upon by all parties. For Ennahda, as you accurately point out, this language is very much part of their discourse, which emphasizes the family and the dual (and separate) role of women and men within the family structure.

    This is exactly how the secular opposition views this article as well. In fact, in my discussions with civil rights activists in Tunisia, it is precisely because of Ennahda’s widely-known views of the family that they are so concerned about inserting this bill into the constitution (you acknowledge this as well in your article).

    However, you go on to imply that those who oppose the language are both imbued with Western ideas of the individual, and that these people are simply alarmists because the article does nothing to infringe upon the personal status code. This is problematic on several levels.

    Firstly, once again I find it paternalistic to consider individual rights to somehow be uniquely western values. While I accept that these values are often those advanced by western nations, you undermine all Tunisian human rights activists by implying that they are somehow advancing foreign values in Tunisia (whether they are minority, gay, women’s, are religious rights).

    Secondly, I fundamentally disagree with your interpretation of PSC. The PSC is, first and foremost, a guarantor of individual rights. Prior to the PSC, the rights of women were protected within the family sphere (such as the right of men to repudiate their wives, polygamy, etc). The PSC was a critical piece of human rights legislation in the Arab world precisely because it affirmed women as individual actors who had equal protection under the law (which was also a non-religious arbiter of disputes). Critics of the current draft article, in my view, are rightly worried that constitutionalizing language that once again deals with family rights would undermine the principle of the PSC, and thus call into question the PSC as a whole.

    Your emphasis on the existing unequal portions of the PSC (inheritence laws) does not do justice to what has become a principle of Tunisian jurisprudence, the independence of women in society, regardless of their personal status (as married or single women). In this respect, the wording of the draft (in whatever translation one chooses) is problematic.

    And it is on this fundamental point that I have to disagree with your analysis, any constitution that would call into question the individual role of women in society, would undermine women’s rights in Tunisia. It would provide the constitutional basis, as exists in other Arab countries, for the Tunisian legal system to assess rights on a familial level, which would in the Tunisian context, favor man.

    While its commendable that you look at what’s behind the legislation, you have dismissed the arguments of Tunisian human rights activists, seeing them instead as having misunderstood their own language and embraced Western values that “real” Tunisians don’t accept. I think this is unfair and presents a view of Tunisian liberalism in a way that is both classist and dismissive of the kind of intellectual tradition in Tunisia that has made this country one of the most supportive of women’s rights in the region.

  4. Juste quelques remarques en passant (et désolé de m’exprimer en français)

    -l’égalité homme/femme est consacrée dans un autre article
    -Le terme “complémentaire” ou “associée” dans le texte concerne aussi bien la femme que l’homme
    -Au delà de cette histoire de traduction, je vois, dans cette affaire, la volonté de Nahdha de se coller à la doctrine de l’un de ses pères fondateurs, Sayed Qotb, qui préconise le retour à une “bonne société musulmane” par l’action sur le noyau qui est le couple. Ennahdha n’a pas de problème particulier avec la femme, elle a un problème avec la conception occidentale de la société qui part de l’individu et conduit, selon elle, à l’individualisme.
    La vision d’Ennahdha ignore l’individu et lui préfère le couple qui se chargera de construire une “bonne famille musulmane” et d’engendrer de “bon enfants musulmans”.

    L’insertion du terme “associée” ou “complémentaire” n’a, selon moi, de but que de barrer la route à des concepts “importés” tel que le concubinage, l’avortement, les enfants hors mariage et leur filiation…etc.

    • This seems like some shady commentary you’re leaving in “passing.” And apology accepted for writing in French.

      I’m not at all familiar with the teachings of Sayed Qotb, but I see a major flaw in the way you’ve presented his influence in Ennahdha’s policies on this matter. A “good muslim family” can only be created by a “good muslim man” and a “good muslim woman” forging a lasting couple. Unless Ennahdha wants to encourage arranged marriage as the sole vehicle for arriving at a state of becoming a “good muslim family,” it will have to rely on strong individuals on both sides of traditional marriage to create “strong” couples of any moral or religious persuasion. Furthermore, Sayed Qotb’s teaching as you’ve presented completely disenfranchises any religious or moral minorities.

      Finally, please indicate where the “equality issue” is addressed in another clause. It would provide more depth to the debate if you would actually cite it rather than just mention that “the issue is already covered.” The core of this debate is on how the issue is addressed, not whether or not it is.

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