Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Women’s rights in the new Tunisian Constitution

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Or Avi-Guy

A new constitution has been adopted in Tunisia, and many in the media were quick to rejoice that women's rights were enshrined in the document, as headlines announced. But is that enthusiasm perhaps exaggerated and premature?

Tunisia, the first swallow of the "Arab Spring" uprisings, is often seen as the most successful case of a democratic transition of power amidst the political turmoil that has been plaguing the region in recent years. Unlike revolutions in neighbouring Egypt and Libya, and the complete chaos in Syria, the "Jasmine revolution" in Tunisia has been relatively smooth, short and less violent.

Nine months after the fall of former President Ben Ali, elections took place. Not long after the Islamist Ennahda party won a plurality of parliamentary seats, political paralysis and stalemate set in, as a fierce political battle between Ennahda and the secular/democratic parties in the opposition took centre stage.

Finally, last month, three years after the Ben Ali regime was overthrown, a new constitution was finally adopted. Also last month, the Ennahda government was forced to step down in favour of an interim technocratic cabinet led by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomma, until new elections take place later this year.

Overall, the new Tunisian constitution has been seen by most analysts as a step forward toward a liberal democratic future for Tunisia - especially in comparison to the state of the other countries which experienced the upheavals of the "Arab Spring."

Noted Israeli Middle East expert Bruce Maddy-Weinstein recently contrasted Tunisia's constitution with the situation in Egypt - which also just approved a new constitution, but one broadly seen as simply entrenching military rule there.

In January, Egypt and Tunisia marked the third anniversary of their respective revolutions against long-serving autocratic rulers by adopting new constitutions and scheduling presidential and parliamentary elections for later in the year.
More than 92 percent of the deputies to Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly voted in favor of the text, while 98.1 percent of 20 million Egyptian voters approved their new constitution in a referendum.
However, any similarity between the political trajectories of the two countries is purely coincidental. The adoption of the new constitution in Tunisia marked a major, even historic, step forward towards the vision of a democratic political system, underpinned by the agreement of opposing social forces on rules of the political game in which there would be no victor and no vanquished.
By contrast, the Egyptian vote, the third such referendum in three years
of political turmoil, was the latest move in the military's concerted ef-
forts to crush the Muslim Brotherhood...

Women's rights and the role of Islam in the constitution were among the most contested issues in political debates. The final result, at first glance, might seem reassuring: among several articles and mentions of equality between genders and sexes the most notable is Article 20 of the constitution, which guarantees gender equality without discrimination, as it clearly states that:

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

However, some women's rights groups have expressed reservations about the article, arguing that its language on gender equality is too vague and weak, and could prove insufficient to end gender-based discrimination. "We wanted to add details that would ban discrimination based on sex or skin colour," said Ahlem Belhadj, former president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats.

Belhadj did explain that the article was a welcome victory - even if not the major step forward that had been hoped for. "... It is very good news that (gender) equality has been adopted. It was our demand and it's a victory," she added. This sense of victory is due to Ennahda's attempts in 2012 to introduce gender "complementarity" rather than equality when drafting the constitution.

Lobna Jeribi, a member of the Ettakattol party, one of the secular parties who submitted the proposal for Article 45 which obliges the state to protect women against violence and ensure equal representation of men and women in elected institutions, also sees the elements of the constitution related to gender as a victory. She admits that there is a lack of equality and participation when it comes to women in Tunisia:

"we ourselves, in my party, were struggling to find women to participate in the political process. There is a culture and mentality of masculinity here. If we don't begin - the process will not start by itself."

Her proposal was met with strong opposition, especially from the Ennahda party. Yet she found an ally in Ennahda's Meherzia Labidi, Vice-President of the assembly and the most senior female politician. She campaigned in favour of Article 45, and as a result of this internal debate, for the first time, party discipline was not imposed during the vote.

International human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also expressed concern about the apparent ambiguity of Article 20, arguing that it should specify the prohibited grounds of discrimination clearly. In a joint statement they suggested 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."

The reality is that the language on gender equality and women's rights adopted in the constitution should not really be seen as a positive step forward, or a sign of moderation on the part of Ennahda and the other Islamist parties. Rather, it appears to represent a moderate success by secular and liberal parties in simply maintaining and safeguarding, at least for now, the relatively progressive laws on women's rights put in place by Ben Ali's regime in the 1950s and 1960s. Secular democrats justifiably feared that Ennahda was taking measures to curb and even reverse the progressive policy towards women's rights and on this occasion, managed to pressure the Islamists into a compromise.

In practice, the reality of Tunisian women is still rife with challenges and the road to meaningful equality is still very long. This is particularly evident in employment opportunities.

The revolution in Tunisia, partly fuelled by the high levels of youth unemployment, brought little improvement in job prospects over the past three years. While the official unemployment rate in Tunisia is around 16%, unemployment rates for those under 30 is almost double that, while in rural areas the situation is even worse.

Women especially find it very difficult to compete with their male counterparts in the job market. Overall, only 27% of women participate in the workforce, while the equivalent figure for men is about 70%. This is despite the fact that in general women are highly educated, making up 60% of university students in Tunisia, and often receiving better grades.

Some observers, like Radhia Jerbi, President of the National Union of Tunisian Women, explain these sad statistics in the context of a conservative traditional perception of women's role in society as wives and mothers, especially when it comes to professions which require long hours and travel. These are not seen as compatible with women's family life and duties. Accordingly, men are often in practice given priority when applying for jobs over equally, or even better, qualified women. In competition over work, women are expected to move aside and not take position at ‘the expense' of men, often spending years in search of employment in their professional field.

Women's unemployment is seen by economists and analysts, such as Prof. Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, as an obstacle to the economic development of the country. The lack of participation of women in the workplace is a waste of human capital and resources.

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Engy Abdelkader, a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy, observed that:

"Tunisian women continue to be underrepresented in political and public life, including key decision-making posts like judgeships. Presently, women comprise just 27 percent of the entire judiciary."

Abdelkader uses the example of women in the judiciary in the article, but this can be easily be applied to all professional positions in Tunisia.

While Abdelkader acknowledges that there are no formal barriers in Tunisia to women's entry into the judiciary, she argues that the low representation of women there can be attributed to an array of social internal challenges and misperceptions. To better deal with these challenges she suggests not only legal mechanisms, such as quotas, but also advocacy to tackle prejudices about women in the workforce:

"Gender rights advocates should continue to empower women and girls with the confidence and tools to succeed in a judicial career. Indeed, some women and girls may first have to grapple with their own understanding of proper female roles vis-à-vis the political, social and economic sphere...Ultimately, both women and men must understand the value of successful professional women."

Much like the economic benefits of women's participation in the workplace, Abdelkader points out the socio-political benefits of such a change, most importantly the "positive correlative relationship between female empowerment and peaceful, prosperous societies."

The new constitution appears to have achieved little more than preserving pre-revolution rights of women in Tunisia, and fending off, for now, the challenges to these rights posed by Islamist parties. Given the internal controversies over women's rights and the realities of gender inequality, the constitutional articles appear far from being enough to guarantee women's rights and equal opportunities in practice, as well as their financial independence. Without real and sustainable progress in these areas, the future of Tunisian women, and of the country's transition, may not be half so rosey as some headlines have suggested.