July 12, 2007
Tunisia & Women's Rights: Real Developments?
I turn this issue over to a better-informed readership. A Globalist article argues that Tunisia provides a real regional model for a legislative and public policy system that would protect the rights and hopes of women in home and professional life, and do so consistent with religious sentiment and scholarship. "What really sets Tunisia apart from other Arab countries and most majority-Muslim states," Andrea Barron writes, "are its policies on marriage, divorce, child support, abortion, honor crimes and domestic violence. After all, what does it matter if a woman can attend university, own her own business and run for political office if she cannot choose her own husband and be free from violence perpetrated by her own family members?" So, are the benefits in Tunisian women's legal rights genuinely real; if so, have they been a cause or the effect of social changes? And where does the, ahem, not quite freedom-loving/democratic nature of the Ben Ali government fit in to all this, if at all?
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Tunisia's legal code is definitely the most advanced when it comes to women in the Arab World. A couple of major issues are still pending today, but on many points, it's even been ahead of most European countries.
Legal practice also goes that way - arguably sometimes, it reversed roles, with men having little to no right regarding custody of their kids or ending up broke as a result of unreasonable pensions, etc.
Social norms aren't in sync with the legal system though. Meaning, those things apply in courts, but you have to take your case there in the first place. I'd say Tunisians are fairly liberal by Arab standards and quite conservative by European ones, more or less comparable to Muslim Lebanese, or rural Andalusian Spaniards. Gender mixity is comparable to the one you’d see in Europe - no public display of sexuality though.
Speaking of sexuality, the sexual revolution which is only barely reaching the youngest has yet to be seen. Example of contradictions: aside from the most conservative, women have a sexual life outside marriage, but a hymenoplasty is also very common right before marriage.
The weight of traditions can be extremely heavy in the lower classes - this is actually true in all Arab countries I'm aware of, social liberalism is proportional to wealth and education. Unequal treatment of boys and girls is not uncommon in more conservative families.
Professionally and in education, women definitely are de facto and de jure equal. Quite a few sectors are occupied in majority by women – medicine, lawyers and education come to mind.
The article is absolutely right when saying that this situation is due to a modernist interpretation of Islam, not secularization, pushed by Bourguiba. The current regime hasn’t changed anything, but its orientation is clearly more towards forced secularization (a la Ataturk), which if anything, reduces freedom of choice for the most conservative, and is driven by its crushing of any dissent – the strongest of which used to come from the Turkish-style “Islamists” before they were vaporized – rather by concern for women rights.
Ignore the cheering tone of the article, there aren’t many things for Tunisians to take pride in compared to other Arabs beyond those decades old accomplishments in women rights, which by now are already lagging by civilized standards on some points.
"run for political office" - surely that must be an allusion at Leïla Trabelsi, Ms Ben Ali?
Otherwise, while I'll agree that Tunisian family law is in advance of the rest of the Arab lot (with Morocco a close second after the 2003 reforms of the Moudawana), I wonder how it is possible to separate the issue of women's rights from the larger human rights issue in Tunisia, probably the most totalitarian Arab regime after Saudi Arabia and Syria. I wonder how liberated the two Tunisian human rights activists, Sihem Bensedrine and Radhia Nasraoui, feel in fact - see http://www.sanfinna.com/ARCHIVES/Archives316/tribunedelafemme.htm ...
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at July 14, 2007 01:55 PM
Tunisia, probably the most totalitarian Arab regime after Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Now you're being very unfair to Libya.
On women's rights, two things:
(1) Whatever happened to the women's rights issue in Iraq? That famously semi-progressive family code that existed under Saddam, is it all gone or just in constitutional limbo somehow? (Let's leave aside for a minute that Iraq isn't the most law-abiding of Arab countries.)
(2) Syria also prides itself on being nice to women, every now and then. Should it really?
Posted by: alle at July 14, 2007 02:54 PM
alle: sorry about Libya...
As for Iraq and Syria, I suppose that their relative progressive feminism was truer in the 70's and 80's than now, due to the islamisation of society. Even Saddam Hussein marked a shift towards traditionalisme after the 1991 war.
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at July 14, 2007 03:08 PM