By Houda Mzioudet/The Media Line
[Tunis] — In 1956, Tunisia gained its independence from France, installing President Habib Bourguiba as Tunisia’s new leader. Bourguiba established the Code of Personal Status, a series of unprecedented laws in the Arab world aimed at establishing gender equality, access to higher education, job opportunities, and the right to file for divorce. These laws enabled women and some organizations to contribute to the reduction of gender discrimination and abuse.
In the elections following the revolution, Tunisian women further improved their situation when they became twenty-five percent of the assembly that drafted Tunisia’s first constitution, a victory regardless of not having reached the goal of 50/50 parity. The obstacles Tunisian women have confronted in order to safeguard Personal Status Code rights reached its height when the moderate Islamist party, Ennahdha, offered a controversial bill for complementary roles between men and women within the family structure in the drafting the constitution. This caused outrage among many Tunisians.
Success for women’s rights groups in Tunisia materialized when the government lifted its reservations on the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) agreement. In November and December of 2014, Tunisian women participated overwhelmingly in the legislative and presidential elections, after which, the recently elected president, Béji Caid-Essebsi, credited his success to the one million women who voted for him.
Besma Khalfaoui, a lawyer, activist and wife of the murdered leftist political leader Chokri Belaid, was invited by Caid-Essebsi to the presidential palace, where tribute was paid to the martyrs and victims of the revolution, including her late husband. Khalfaoui praised the non-stop efforts of the Tunisian women throughout the uprising, citing their tremendous sacrifice. After the murder of her husband, Khalfaoui became a revolutionary icon for women’s equality and a strong critic of Tunisian Islamists.
The nation, however, has fared poorly internationally in gender parity, ranking 123rd out of the 142 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2014. Tunisia’s women face a number of challenges, such as impoverishment, domestic violence and police brutality.
Unfortunately, according to Ahlem Belhaj, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), women still remain vulnerable as the laws that criminalize these acts have not been implemented. For Belhaj, the battle for female equality is yet to be conquered. She expressed her discontent with the discrepancy between the law and local practices, saying that, “What we have been fighting for since the revolution, regarding the principle of parity…to end discrimination against women has not been implemented at all.”
According to another member of AFTD, Neila Zoghlami, the presence of women in Tunisian media remains limited, as well as their role in the current government, where they hold no representation in key ministries. Instead, they are placed in charge of women and family affairs, social affairs and tourism.
Lina Ben Mhenni, a 2011 Noble Peace Prize nominee who was also actively involved in a campaign to free Tunisian filmmaker Inès Ben Othman, said, “Regression and retrenchment are imminent threats to our rights, as we have seen in other Arab countries…There is a still a lot of work to do and we still cannot talk about full impartiality between men and women in Tunisia. We are not immune to these threats, even with lucrative democratic elections.” However, she is confident that Tunisian women will defend their rights like they have done in the past.
Regardless of efforts and reforms, the ATFD still remains skeptical as to the full application of the UN agreement for full equality for all Tunisian women. The status of women in Tunisia is still not perfect – despite the inclusion of eight women in the Tunisian cabinet. And even though they seem to be on the right path, their efforts are not over. Hopefully, their efforts will be fruitful and will pave the road for equality throughout different Arab countries by showing that gender equality is not a farfetched idea.