TUNIS — Tunisia has possessed the rare reputation of being progressive in gender equality in the Middle East-North African region. Yet with the rise of an Islamist political party in Tunisia after its relatively placid revolution in 2011, the question is, how have women fared in the post-Arab spring landscape?
In Tunis, the cosmopolitan capital, the streets along the Mediterranean Sea are lined with lovely French colonial buildings. Young people sit drinking in bars, as women dressed in traditional veils mingle with others wearing sleeveless short dresses and their hair uncovered. While some women here consider themselves Muslim, they also feel that they are far from “extremist” — their word — and enjoy socializing together with male and female friends.
Much has changed since the 2011 revolution, as many women attest. After a poor fruit seller set himself on fire in December 2010 protesting living conditions, followed by large demonstrations over unemployment, inflation, corruption and lack of political freedom, the longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted.
The Tunisian economy was certainly part of the thread that pulled the revolution along: misallocation of resources and high unemployment had led to discontent among Tunisians, a World Bank report confirmed.
In researching the general status of Tunisian women in the post-Arab spring, two local women, Myriam Bel Hadi Aissa and Hadhemi Mohamed, both professionals, helped me interview women from all parts of Tunisian society on how the revolution has affected them. (The interviews were done before recent jihadist attacks in Tunisia occurred.)
They said that since the revolt, violence against women has increased, or at least became more visible. Economic stress and political instability has made people more violent, they said. Women who had for years enjoyed relative freedoms were now being confined to traditional roles by the Islamists, as coalesced in the ruling Ennahda Party, which was replaced in December 2014 by a secular party led by Beji Caid Essebsi. Some women said they were feeling pressured to wear the veil.
For many Tunisian women, who had in the past achieved their rights without much strife, the two years under the Islamist regime had opened their eyes to what they could have lost in personal freedoms.
After independence from France in 1956, the first government of Tunisia introduced major changes in family law to support women’s rights under the Code of Personal Status — a move to push the country away from tribalism and toward loyalty to the new nation-state. The abolition of polygamy, the seeming demise of male privilege to end a marriage at will, the ability for a woman to file for divorce and to have custodial rights over her children were all part of the new code. The hijab, or head scarf, was banned in state offices and universities.
Promotion of women’s rights continued to be central under Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali’s long rule, who embraced those rights as part of the country’s steps toward modernity. Yet those rights often proved elusive when tested and were privileged more by elites than other citizens.
Since the 2011 revolution, under the Islamist regime ushered in right after Ben Ali’s departure, women’s rights were more deeply tested if not threatened, Mohamed said. People were discussing ways, for example, to return to polygamy legally.
Yet in Tunisia’s new constitution, Article 46 says that “the state commits to protect women’s established rights and works to strengthen and develop those rights” and declares there must be “equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all domains.”
The constitution also gives women the right to be president, and a constitutional requirement to work toward gender equality has made Tunisia a rare bird in the Middle East and North Africa, says a 2014 Human Rights Watch report. Doors have been opening to women’s political participation, but women have also been fighting to hang on to their rights, Mohamed said, and not necessarily trying to gain more. They are also trying to cope with the rise in violence against them.
A Euro-Mediterranean Rights Network, which supports partnerships among nonprofit groups in the European-Mediterranean region, reported in a 2014 study that there had been an unprecedented rise of violence against women in Tunisia, including sexual violence.
The National Office of Family and Population in Tunisia confirmed such instances in a 2012 study, which found that about 50 percent of Tunisian women suffered some form of violence. The study showed that from a sample of 3,000 women, 31 percent had been victims of physical violence, 28 percent suffered sexual violence and 7 percent were subjected to economic violence, when one intimate partner has control over the other’s access to financial resources, reinforcing dependency.
Two female medical students, Gabes Syrine Missaoui and Rawdha B. Othman, both said in interviews that they have experienced an increase in sexual harassment since the revolution and noted harassment from police and even young boys. Monica Marks, a Ph.D. student at Oxford University who is researching the Ennahda party, has argued that threats to women’s rights were more likely stemming from embedded social norms and weak institutions than from Islamic ideology.
As Othman said: “We want our respect back. Women need to feel entitled to their rights and have their place in society.”
Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.