Are women’s rights in Tunisia under threat?

Protests in the coastal city of Monastir on Monday, August 13.
 
Considered one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world when it comes to women’s rights, Tunisia feted its National Women’s Day on Monday, August 13. This year’s celebrations, however, were marred by a proposed constitutional article, which would define a woman as “complementary” to a man rather than his equal.
 
Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party proposed the controversial article as lawmakers tackle the daunting task of drafting a new constitution. “Article 27”, as it’s known, has already been voted by the National Constituent Assembly’s (ANC) Rights and Freedoms committee, but must be approved by all members of the ANC before it can be adopted.
 
The text outlines that, “The state guarantees to protect women’s rights, as they stand, under the principle of man’s complement within the family and man’s partner in developing the country”.
 
The article’s use of the word “complement” has riled many women’ rights activists, who have spoken out against it. Selma Mabrouk, who serves as an MP for the Ettakatol party, an Ennahda ally, has highlighted that because the term is so vague, it could be interpreted to the detriment of the group it refers to. She also argues that it inherently contradicts article 22 of the constitution, which declares men and women as equals.
 
Tunisia emerged as pioneer of women’s rights in the Arab world, after then-president Habib Bourguiba introduced a code of personal status - a series of progressive laws - on August 13, 1956. Among other things, the Bourguiba’s code abolished polygamy, gave women the right to divorce and instituted civil marriage.
 
In protest against article 27, demonstrations were held in the capital Tunis as well as a number of other cities in the country.
 
"Neither man, nor woman. All citizens".
 
"Don't trust a person's sex... Trust competency!!"

“Instead of moving forward, we’ve been forced to defend a right that dates back to 1956”

Raja Ben Ammar is an artist and also serves as the director of Mad’Art, a cultural space in a suburb north of Tunis.
 
The bill is an example of Ennahda’s duplicity. The party gives off the impression that it supports women’s rights and wants to protect them by devoting an entire article in the constitution to the subject. However, upon reading the actual text, one discovers how the party actually sees women – not as man’s equal, but as a ‘complement’ to man, a person whose activities should be limited to the realm of domestic life.
 
Ennahda’s approach to drafting a new constitution is a dangerous one. The party began by showing the public that it would vote in favour of protecting civil rights that have already been in place. These measures have since been contradicted or called into questions by proposed amendments. Ennahda is using the seventh article of the constitution to force us, little by little, backwards. We’ve been reduced to fighting for a law that dates back to1956! But we’ll fight to the end. What’s happening right now is bigger than politics. It’s something that concerns everyone in our society.

“It’s impossible for me to believe that Ennahda would actually compromise a Tunisian woman’s fundamental rights”

Manel T. is studying for a PhD in computer science in Tunis.
 
I think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill over this article. Personally, I don’t see what’s discriminatory about using the words “partner” or even “complementary”. As far as I know, a man cannot fall pregnant or nurse a child, which is why men and women complement each other. There’s no question of women having to stay at home or give up their studies or work. What’s more, there are women within the Ennahda party who work.
 
Even if we concede that the text’s language is vague and could potentially be interpreted in a negative way, Tunisian women still have other legal means to protect themselves. For example, a woman can still fall back on the equal right to property when she gets married. It’s impossible for me to believe that Ennahda would actually compromise a Tunisian woman’s fundamental rights.
 
“Where were these women when Ben Ali was still in power, and veiled women were kept from getting an education or working?”
 
I don’t agree with some of the women who are going out to protest today because they hold a double standard. Now they’re standing up against the proposed article for ‘oppressing’ women, but where were they when Ben Ali was still in power, and veiled women were kept from getting an education or working? I don’t think these women are representative of the majority of Tunisian women.

“Why do we need a part of the Constitution that specifically addresses women’s rights?”

Oussama Messaoud is a business manager in Tunis.
 
The debate has been biased since the beginning because the law’s text was poorly translated. The controversy kicked off on Twitter over the French version of the text, which referred to a woman as a man’s ‘complement’. It took a while before the original Arabic text was found, which defines a woman as a man’s ‘partner’, and that each one complements the other. There are very few people who actually know what the article’s text says.
 
I would have personally preferred if the debated had centred more on the article’s existence rather than its content. If we’re operating on the principle that men and women are equal, then why do we need an article in the constitution that specifically addresses a woman’s rights? Instead of having a dialogue on that, we’ve decided to focus on a question of interpretation. Would article 27 need to exist if we defined the word ‘partner’ correctly?

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