“A row over a proposed constitutional description of women as complementary to men in family life has sharpened divisions in Tunisia between Islamists and a secular opposition that fought for years to make the North African nation a relative bastion of gender equality,” Borzou Daragahi reports:
The description falls short of recognizing women and men as equal, say activists, who fear a push by the country’s new Islamist leaders to introduce constitutional changes that could reverse decades of progress in what has traditionally been seen as one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries…. Article 28 assigns women “a complementary role inside the family,” which activists describe as gratuitous, humiliating and a threat to women’s rights.
Several thousand Tunisian women rallied this week (above) in one of the largest mobilizations since the Islamist Ennahda party came to power to demonstrate against the coalition government’s proposed constitutional provision.
Ennahda is widely viewed as one of the region’s more moderate Islamist parties, but critics have questioned the depth and sincerity of its commitment to democratic values, and Tunisian rights activists believe Article 28 confirms suspicions of a hidden illiberal agenda.
Their “project of a society that discriminates against women is now out in the open,” says Saïda Garrach, a leader of the Democratic Women’s Association (ATFD).
The protest is the latest spat in a series of conflicts between religious and secular forces over the role of Islam in a new constitution being drafted by the Islamist-dominated assembly.
“It is demeaning and unfair to all women in Tunisia,” said Bouchra Belhaj, a lawyer and human rights activist in the capital, Tunis. “They have placed women into a certain category, the category of the wife who is just ‘complementary’ to her husband and nothing more.”
Ennahda proposed the draft Article 28 which stipulates that “The state protects women’s rights and gains based on the principle that they complement the man in the family and are associates to men.”
“In many ways, the protests and vehement debates over issues like free speech and the role of women in Tunisia aren’t surprising, writes Isobel Coleman, director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Tunisia is a fledgling democracy with a long history of friction over the role of religion in society.”
Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi dismissed the concerns as a calculated political ploy to undermine his party’s standing, insisting that complementarity was entirely consistent with equality within an Islamic frame of reference.
“Complementation is an authentic concept, meaning that there would be no man without woman and no woman without man,” he said. “This is an additional meaning to the meaning of equality.”
Rights groups believe Ennahda’s dogmatic stance augurs ill for civil liberties in the fledgling democracy.
“I sat in on a meeting with the Ennahda people, and they absolutely refuse to change the wording,” said Bouchra Belhaj, a Tunis-based lawyer and human rights activist. “Why? Because they want to dominate the Tunisian people. They want to rob them of the freedom they have been fighting for for so long, and we can’t let that happen.”
Ennahda deputies have also proposed a bill in parliament that threatens to severely curtail freedom of expression by penalizing those who offend “subjects held sacred in the three Abrahamic religions, including God and the Prophet Mohammed, the earlier prophets, the holy books, mosques, churches and synagogues.”
Critics say the measure is a concession to militant Salafist groups which have mounted a series of violent protests over recent months.
In June, one person was killed and at least 100 injured following demonstrations against an art exhibit that Salafists considered insulting to Islam. Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk refused to condemn the attack on the grounds that it amounted to “artistic provocation” disrespectful of Islamic values of Islam, while Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and spiritual guide, described the exhibits as “attacks on national sacred symbols.”
Radical Islamists torched the home of a TV station executive following a broadcast of Persepolis, an acclaimed coming-of-age movie portraying the life of a young woman in Iran’s Islamic Republic. But it was the station chief who was prosecuted and fined over $1,500 for “threatening public morals.”
In an essay published by Nawaat this week, Farhat Othman argued that Islamist fundamentalists are conducting “a rearguard battle …. to impose by whatever means purely sexist and biased” laws unrelated to Islam’s founding principles, the New York Times Lede blog notes.
Women and secular activists view the dispute over Article 28 as a line in the sand in their efforts to resist the incremental Islamization of Tunisian society.
“Major retreats usually begin with one step,” said Ahlam Belhadj, who chairs the Democratic Women’s Association. “If we stay silent today, we will open the door to everything else and end up surprised by even more serious decisions,” she said.
The dispute is adding to a growing sense of malaise and discontent with the coalition government and it may also delay enactment of the new constitution.
“Everyone’s fed up with the interim government and people are waiting for elections,” said Rachida Ennaifer, a constitutional academic in Tunis, adding that completion by October was unrealistic. “I think the constitution will not be voted or ratified until the end of next year,” she said.
The delay is not necessarily a bad thing, argued Zaid Al Ali, who works on Arab constitutions at the intergovernmental organization, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Several issues have proved particularly contentious, such as the role of women in society and religion in politics. Other issues, such as legislation to limit Tunisia’s legendary corruption, need to be thrashed out, he said.
“I think the more time they have, and the more they get it right, that’s fine with me,” he said, pointing out that South Africa and Kenya took several years to write constitutions that are generally considered to function well.
Analysts have cited the status of women in Tunisia as one of the most promising signs of prospects for a democratic transition.
“Tunisia exhibits a number of unique attributes within the region: a relatively small territory, a sizeable and well educated middle class, and a long history of encouraging women’s socio-economic freedoms,” said a June 2012 Congressional Research Service analysis:
The legal and socioeconomic status of women in Tunisia are among its particularities. Polygamy is banned, and women enjoy equal citizenship rights and the right to initiate divorce. (That said, inheritance laws and practices are generally disadvantageous to women.) Women serve in the military and in many professions, and constitute more than 50% of university students; the first woman governor was appointed in 2004. Many credit the country’s relatively liberal Personal Status Code, promulgated under founding President Bourguiba, with these advances.
But an analysis by the National Endowment for Democracy anticipated some of the current tensions, noting that while Ennahda’s party leadership “has declared its commitment to a civil state and respect for women’s rights, there are signs that its base is more militant.”
“There is a consensus that new political arrangements must accommodate al-Nahda and any other emerging Islamist groups, but there is no agreement on the role of Islam in public life,” it noted, while suggesting that “establishing clear constitutional ‘red lines’ would allow inclusive politics while protecting women’s rights and other civil liberties in a largely secular state.”
The current furor reflects wider tensions emerging in transitional Arab states, say analysts.
“In the reconstituted Arab states of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, balancing conservative religious beliefs and social mores with minority rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech is already proving to be a tough challenge,” writes CFR analyst Coleman.
“Ennahda faces a complicated and high-stakes balancing act, and its proposed blasphemy bill might be a calculated effort to defuse this increasingly tense issue,” she says. “But if it hopes to hold the center, it must take an unambiguous stance against the violent tactics increasingly being used by religious extremists to silence their secular opposition.”
As for the other Arab Spring democracies, Libya has also confronted the freedom of expression issue head on. This year, a new law criminalized speech that praised Gaddafi or “harm[ed] the February 17 revolution,” among other offenses, but ultimately, the Supreme Court nullified it as unconstitutional. But in Egypt, the future of free press under the new government remains worryingly uncertain. Libya and Egypt also face pressing questions about the role of women in society. Indeed, as constitution writing goes forward in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the discussion about free expression and women’s legal rights is far from over.