Perhaps we can blame it on the summertime; which is usual in its heat, but lately with an unseasonable mugginess. But the latest news from Tunisia’s constituent assembly has caused outrage for many here. At issue is constitutional article 27, passed yesterday in the committee on rights and freedoms, one of the six committees drafting the new constitution. As Tunisia Live states:
The article….states that 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,” …It was approved by a vote of 12 to 8 by the Commission of Rights and Liberties, with 9 of those voting for the clause coming from Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.
After the committee passed the law, Tunisian lawmaker Selma Mabrouk went to Facebook to protest what she saw as a backward step for women’s rights, in this the country with some of the most liberal rights for women in the Arab world. Mag 14 writes:
Ms. Mabrouk has posted a text simply titled “Bad day at the commission rights and freedoms.” She stresses that “the problem is that this meeting served as a pretext to members of Ennahdha to return to the principle of equality between men and women, that principle was unanimously endorsed in the article 22.” Article 22 in states that “citizens have equal rights and freedoms before the law without discrimination of any kind.”
Mabrouk is arguing that even though another article in the constitution (#22) has endorsed the principle of equality, article 27 is a backdoor way to go back on what had been a campaign promise of Tunisia’s dominant party, Ennahda.
Tunisia analyst and blogger Thierry Bressillon looks at the text proposed by Mabrouk, which was not passed: ”The state guarantees the rights of women and her achievements in every field. It is forbidden to enact laws that may impair (her rights or achievements) in any manner whatsoever. The state must fight against all forms of discrimination or physical or psychological violence against women.” comparing it to the text that was passed by the majority: “The state protects the rights of women and its achievements under the principle of complementarity with the man within the family and as a partner to man in the development of the country. The State guarantees equal opportunities for women in all responsibilities. The State guarantees the fight against violence against women.”
He adds: “The notion of complementarity raises strong emotions. It challenges the principle of equality which was until now the official doctrine in Tunisia and internalized by many Tunisians.”
Tunisian-American activist Wafa Ben Hassine confirms this sentiment in an article in Nawaat: “Of all aspects of the constitution that Tunisians were worried about, women’s rights was the last on many people’s minds – the gains that women have acquired in Tunisia are admittedly unmatched in the Arab world, and Tunisians are proud of that.”
Bresillon goes on to argue that the article conforms to many Islamist notions of feminism, which value the role of women, but reject the notion of equality as a Western import. I can’t speak to the Islamist notions of equality, but this is certainly the perception of Ennahda that many of Tunisia’s opposition members hold. This especially after the fact that Ennahda lawmakers this week also proposed a blasphemy law that would criminalize any blasphemous speech or actions, including the recent art exhibit which caused riots in Tunisia in June by Salafists. directed against the three main monotheistic religions. The new law was also widely criticized by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch:
While the blasphemy law is likely to have more widespread support in Tunisian society, which remains religious and conservative, it is unclear if the law on women’s rights will have the same support. Support for women’s rights has deep roots in Tunisia, not just because of the famous personal status code, put into place by Habib Bourguiba, but also from a deep intellectual tradition from Tunisian intellectuals such as Tahar Hadad, both of whom remain national heroes.
Recent polling by the Pew Forum has shown that many women in Tunisia are concerned over whether the ruling party would protect women’s rights, with over 36% of young women worried that their rights would be reduced. I’ll close with quote from Wafa Ben Hassine, who writes:
Putting aside the crude, incondite language the clause uses – an awful injustice is done to a whole society when the constitution of a country deems it apt to define a woman and her rights as complementary to man’s existence. The real debate should not be centered on women’s rights. Instead, it should focus on human, citizen rights. Relegating the woman’s role to complementary to that of a man’s could have serious effects on generations to come. The clause insinuates that women cannot stand alone as complete – that they are dependent on men.
[Finally, a note to readers, I'll be on summer holidays for the next couple weeks, more from Tunisia upon my return]