Lina Ben Mhenni
Last updated: 29 October, 2013

“Those who dreamt of full equality say that they feel less free now than under the regime of Ben Ali”

Tunisians had many hopes to improve their country and to fulfill the goals of the revolution, the most important being freedom and dignity. But the rise of an Islamist party to power does not seem to facilitate the job, writes Lina Ben Mhenni.

Tunisia has been the cradle of the so-called “Arab spring.” The immolation by the fire of Mohamed Bouazizi, on 17 December 2010 – an act of despair as to the lack of opportunities, inequality of chances, corruption, injustice and poverty – sparked anger in the country and led to the spread of demonstrations all around Tunisia. The main demands have been: freedom, democracy and social justice.

In less than one month, those demonstrations led to the toppling of the dictator, arousing Tunisians’ hopes of building a democratic country where every person can enjoy full citizenship and where all people are treated fairly and equally. Women, in particular, have been longing for more rights and full, and concrete, equality with men. Indeed, Tunisian women have always been crucial and active actors in the establishment of the country, from the pre-historic era with Dido who established Carthage to the present times with the participation of women in working and political life and in the different demonstrations and actions that led to the overthrowing of the dictatorial rule that stifled Tunisians for 23 years.

Since the departure of Ben Ali countless voices have been praising the role of women in freeing their country from a hard and blind dictatorship. After a few months of revolutionary euphoria, during which Tunisians worked together to fulfill a democratic transition, the race to power started. A progressive law guaranteeing parity and requiring all political parties to make women at least half of their candidates had been passed. The first free elections after the “Arab Spring” were conducted on 23 October 2011. An Islamist party Ennahdha was declared the winner of the elections.

The fear, that Tunisia would ultimately become an Islamist state that implements Sharia found its way to the hearts of several Tunisians. They feared for their country to succumb to hardline Islamist pressure. Women, in particular feared for their already acquired rights. But Ennahhda’s leaders started to deliver tranquilizing discourses promising the respect of secularism and the maintaining of women’s rights in Tunisia. Rached Ghannouchi, for example, claimed that Tunisians have nothing to fear: “Ennahdha believes in the absolute equality between the sexes. No one will outdo Ennahdha in that regard.”

“The feminist organizations that used to fight for total equality now seem to fight to try to preserve the rights that were already granted”

This year, for example, during an event marking International women day he praised the role of women in the Arab spring and described the allegations that Ennahdha wants to restrict women’s freedoms as groundless. On 13 August 2013 – as every 13 August – Tunisians celebrated the National Women’s day. A demonstration organized by several of the civil society organizations and the opposition parties was attended by hundred of thousands of persons. What is surprising, however, was the call of “Ennahdha” women – who do not give any credit to Bourguiba – to organize a counterdemonstration to commemorate this day. But it seemed one of the dozens counterdemonstrations characterized by failure and low attendance organized by the ruling party each time they feel that their governance is threatened.

At first sight, a person would easily believe the Islamists’ discourses and claims. But a deep look and observation of the present situation in Tunisia would show that the fears of many Tunisians of loosing secularism and women’s rights are grounded.

It is true that the “Ennahdha” party supported the parity law and had a greater number of female candidates to run for elections than other political parties. It is true that out of the 49 female members in the country’s national constituent assembly 42 are members of “Ennahdha” but it seems that their voices are subsumed by the louder collective voice of the party. Moreover, we do not have to forget that they are religious conservatives anyway. In fact, no one can deny that “Ennahdha” female representatives are promoting a dual language and a double discourse.

Statements by Suad Abderrahim, a female representative of “Ennahdha” famous for being the only one not to wear the hijab, about a law that protects single mothers stirred controversy as to the future of women’s rights in Tunisia. Suad Abderrahim declared that implementing a law that protects single mothers constitutes an encouragement to such a practice: “such a law gives those women a legitimacy that encourages other women to do the same thing,” she said in a radio interview. “Women are to be given freedom within limits and without violating divine rules,” she added.

Let us also recall what Farida Laabidi, another female representative to the same party and the head of the Committee of Rights and Freedoms of the National Constituent Assembly, declared in August 2012: “We cannot speak of equality between men and women in absolute terms. Otherwise we will risk disturbing the family balance and distorting the social model in which we live. If the man and woman are equal, then the woman should be bound to pay the alimony of children, just like the man.”

These declarations were highly connected to the discussion of an article of the draft of the constitution commonly known as “Article 28”. The representatives badly surprised Tunisians with article 28 of the draft of the constitution which states the following: “The state guarantees the protection of women’s rights and gains on the basis of the principle of complementarity with men within the family and as partner to the man in the development and the homeland.” This article created a big controversy and drove the anger of many Tunisians who took to the streets to claim its amendment; the expression complementarity between men and women being too vague and allowing different interpretations especially that the expression used in international Human Rights treaties is “equality between men and women”.

Among the performances that had been controversial was also that of Nejiba Berioul in January 2013, when she called for the criminalization of abortion in the new constitution.  

Nevertheless such declarations and statements do not seem strange coming from the so called moderate Islamist party. Shortly after the announcement of the success of his party in the elections, Rached Ghannouchi declared that they might amend some of the articles of the Code of Personal Status, the series of progressive laws guaranteeing women’s rights and he pointed the article about the abolishment of polygamy and another article about adoption. This declaration has been a shock to Tunisians, Tunisia being the first Arab country to abolish polygamy in 1956.

ALSO READ: Why don’t men cover their faces?

Moreover, the debates supposed to be about the building of a democracy turned into debates about identity, religion and the implementation of Sharia, containing attacks mainly targeting women’s rights and freedoms. Then the most extremist preachers coming mainly from the Gulf have been invited to Tunisia to give talks calling to “Jihad” in a country where more than 95% of the inhabitants are already Muslims. They started to empoison the life of Tunisians with discourses about female genital mutilation, the marriage of minors, the veiling of girls whose age is less than 3 years old, the establishment of non-mixed schools, the religious obligation of wearing burqa and so on…

But what is dangerous is the noticed orchestration of a creeping islamization of Tunisia, women being the main target through indirect pressure. We have started to hear testimonies about morality campaigns mainly targeting women and involving their way of clothing and freedom of movement, led by those who self-appointed themselves as the defenders of Islam and Arab identity. On social networks, several women reported such behavior and actions performed by policemen. News about Tunisian young girls being taken to Syria for “JIHAD Annikah” or “Sex Jihad“ flourished in Tunisian media for months to be later confirmed officially under the complete silence of the government led by “Ennahdha “ party and the Minister of Women affairs. Progressively, the rates of the crimes of violence against women went up: rapes, verbal and physical harassment. The absence of a serious punishment encouraged such behaviors. Worse, many of the criminals arrested in such crimes had been released in presidential amnesties and did the same again. The feminist organizations that used to fight for total equality now seem to fight to try to preserve the rights that were granted under the CPS and that are threatened by the activity of the National Constituents Assembly, despite all the pre-election promises that said never to cross this red line, namely the Code of Personal Status.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the “Arab Spring.” Tunisians had many hopes to improve their country and to fulfill the goals of the revolution the most important of which being: freedom and dignity. Nevertheless, the rise of an Islamist party to power does not seem to facilitate the job. When it comes to women the situation is not better, those who dreamt of full equality say that they feel less free now than under the regime of Ben Ali. The tranquilizing discourse of “Ennahdha” leaders is apparently not sufficient to fool Tunisians, many of them understood that it is nothing but a double discourse.