In Tunisia’s March Toward Women’s Rights, Finish Line Is in Sight

Tunisians gather to celebrate Women's Day on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. August 13, 2017 (Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In a recent article, I presented the highlights of the historic draft legislation unanimously passed on July 26 by the Tunisian National Assembly criminalizing all forms of violence against women. I also related the views of some observers who felt that while the legislation was an undeniable advance in the consolidation and protection of women’s rights, it left in the books a number of laws, decrees, and practices that discriminate against women and contravene the spirit and the letter of the 2014 Tunisian constitution. Among these is the inheritance law, literally ordained by the Koran, which stipulates that female heirs are entitled to only half of the share of property of their male family members, and the 1973 Ministry of Justice decree banning Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, unless the latter convert to Islam.

These observers went on to recommend that the president of the republic should not sign the bill into law and send it back to parliament for a second reading in the hope that these egregious legal dinosaurs be put to rest. I argued that, notwithstanding the validity of their argument, the president should promulgate the new legislation as is, lest the country ends up sacrificing the good on the altar of the perfect with no assurance that the outcome would be better. I also suggested that he should, as a minimum, take a principled public stand against these laws on the occasion of National Women’s Day (August 13), commemorating this year the 61st anniversary of the promulgation of yet another landmark law (the Code of Personal Status) adopted in 1956 shortly after independence and which granted women unprecedented rights.

Clearly the president was not waiting for my suggestions to take action. On August 12 he signed the July 26 bill into law. On August 13 he created with the stroke of a pen a new Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality attached to his office. The commission, composed of five men and four women from academia and civil society, is chaired by a woman —a respected rights activist and parliamentarian. It was tasked with preparing a report with recommendations for improving individual liberties and equality, in conformity with the 2014 constitution and international human rights standards. No date was set when such a report should be ready.

Also, in marking National Women’s Day, the president gave a speech during which he made some rather bold pronouncements on the sensitive issue of equal inheritance, without directly challenging its religious moorings, and called for repeal of the 1973 decree forbidding Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslims.

Highlights of the Speech

The president hailed the historic significance of the new law he had signed the previous day, which, in his words, makes Tunisia the 19th country in the world to have adopted such a comprehensive set of measures for the protection of women from all forms of violence. He acknowledged that this law would not have been possible without the dedicated male and female politicians and scholars that had crafted the Personal Status Code, including Habib Bourguiba, the first president of the republic, and the relentless advocacy over the past six decades of stalwart women activists. Then he shared with some pride a series of statistics that he viewed as a reflection of the remarkable progress Tunisian women, who currently constitute 50.2% of the population, achieved over the past 60 years. He noted that 60% of these women have university degrees, over 60% of medical doctors are women, as are 75% of dentists and pharmacists, 35% of engineers, nearly 42% of  judges, 43% of public defenders, nearly 50% of university teachers, and 37% of parliamentarians; women also contribute up to 45% of household income.

To this, the president added that “it should not come as a surprise that we should think about equality. We cannot compare the woman of today to the woman of 1965. Today the woman is equal to the man.” He then reminded his audience, which was mainly an assembly of accomplished professional women from all walks of life, that under the constitution the state of Tunisia is a civil state based on citizenship and its people are Muslim. Therefore, in our attempt to reform these laws, he stated that “we need to proceed gradually…in a manner that does not shock the Tunisian people.” Further, he urged for recognition that “we are moving towards equality between men and women in all spheres and the crux of the matter remains the issue of inheritance.”

“I trust,” he added, that “the intelligence of Tunisians and the law professionals to find the formula that does not shock the sentiments of a certain number of our men and women citizens and at the same time does not do injustice to women. Equality between man and woman is not incompatible with Islam.”

The president then focused his attention on the 1973 decree, which he said deprives a woman of the right to freely choose her husband. Turning to the minister of justice, who was in attendance with other ministers, he urged that he review this “archaic” decree, pointing out that “the Tunisian constitution should facilitate the process.”

Reactions and Analysis

The question of equality of inheritance between men and women has been a thorny and sensitive issue for decades and the reactions to the president’s speech ranged from support to indignation. Last year when a parliamentarian (with the support of 27 others) proposed a draft law aiming at establishing equity in inheritance, the mufti of the republic—the highest religious authority in a Muslim country—swiftly opposed it, arguing that the matter of inheritance is regulated by specific language from the Koran.

It is ironic that a year later and a day after the president’s speech, the same mufti issued a statement praising the “exceptional character of the president’s speech.” Within this statement he emphasized that the reform proposals, which aim to promote women’s rights and gender equality, have their basis in Islam, remain consistent with international standards and norms ratified by Tunisia, and would strengthen the principle of equality between men and women.

The statement of the mufti generated indignation both internally and regionally. The secretary-general of the Tunisian union of imams called for the resignation of the mufti, alleging that the latter’s unsolicited support of the president’s speech was to tantamount to electioneering.

On his Facebook page, the deputy head of Al-Azhar’s office in Cairo said that the “call for equality in inheritance [by the Tunisian president] adversely affects women and is against Islamic sharia,” adding that “the question has been settled in the Koran and all scholars have agreed on it,” which prompted a long string of rejoinders, mostly from Tunisians wondering on who has given the good deputy the authority to meddle in Tunisian affairs.

Back in Tunisia, most secular political parties have praised the president’s speech and the thrust of his reform agenda. The Islamic party Ennahda, a major partner in the current government of national unity, had ambiguous if not contradictory reactions. One wing of the party welcomed it, praising all efforts to strengthen women’s rights, including the right to marry a husband of her choice. The other wing, however, expressed opposition to the speech on religious grounds.

On social media, ordinary citizens are equally divided, and some of these divisions are virulent. The debate that the president’s speech reignited will likely continue unabated for months to come and become increasingly politicized as the December municipal elections draw near and political parties start jockeying for female votes.

And, speaking of elections, women and men in the audience did not miss the president’s off-the-cuff remark, when he stated that no one should exclude the possibility that the next holder of the highest office in the land would be a woman. This was meant as an indirect rebuke of some male party leaders, including the head of Ennahda, for making waves and premature noises about their ambitions to run for the 2019 presidential elections.

The president, who was elected in 2014 on the strength of the female vote, will likely stir the pot at a time of his choosing, after the Commission on Individual Freedoms completes its work and make its reform proposals public. Women activists and other civil society leaders, as well the minister for women, the family, and children (whom the president decorated at the end of the August 13 ceremony), will help ensure that no one, going forward, will dare force the rogue inheritance issue back into the taboo bag without paying a political price at the polls. A luta continua! And Tunisia will not be the only battleground.