Tunisian women hold tight to rights after revolution
For Tunis resident Amel, her country's January revolution brought
her personal freedom after two decades living in a repressive
police state. (845 Words) - By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
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Tunisian women gesture as they shout slogans during a protest in
Tunis Photo: REUTERS/Louafi Larbi
But as a woman, she is fearful Tunisia's yet uncertain future could
bring something else - an Islamist resurgence and what that could
mean to her rights.
"As women we are scared to lose our rights, such as being forced to
wear the hijab and losing our jobs," the office secretary said,
declining to give her full name.
"Women won't have their freedom anymore. Women have suffered too
much to lose these liberties. Nothing is clear yet about the
situation of women."
Since independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has boasted some of
the most advanced women's rights in the Arab world.
First post-independence leader Habib Bourguiba gave Tunisian women
the right to vote, abolished polygamy, forbade marriage under the
age of 17 and allowed woman equal rights to divorce.
But Tunisian women are now carefully watching to see whether the
uprising that ousted authoritarian President Zine al-Abidine Ben
Ali on January 14 will also unravel women's rights bolstered by his
secular regime in a predominantly Muslim country.
Tunisia's interim authorities initially struggled to restore
stability in the North African country but in March laid out a plan
for a transition to democracy.
"There are fears and questions, because we are at a phase where we
are reforming the foundations of society," Maya Jribi, head of
Tunisia's Progressive Democratic Party, said.
"There are voices that have dual messages, so we can hear pro
gressive things from one person, and then from another person in
the same party we hear reactionary words.
She said that Tunisian women and women who supported democracy also
needed to mobilise to protect the gains Tunisia had made.
Bourguiba considered Islam a threat to the state and called the
Muslim head cover, or hijab, an "odious rag." Under Ben Ali, veiled
women were long denied access to education and jobs.
Ben Ali was toppled by protests after 23 years in power and fled to
Saudi Arabia. Seeking to assert their authority and gain legitimacy
in the eyes of protesters who forced him to flee, the caretaker
authorities are attacking the vestiges of his rule.
The interior ministry said this month women would now be allowed to
wear the Islamic headscarf in photographs on identity cards.
However some commentators have used the new freedom of expression
on television to advocate conservative values.
One said allowing polygamy would help right a demographic imbalance
while another called for women to stay at home to solve Tunisia's
unemployment problem, newspaper La Presse said soon after the
Hundreds of women rallied in the capital in January to voice their
fears of an Islamist resurgence and call for more equality between
men and women.
Tunisia's revolution allowed for movements such as the moderate
Islamist Ennahda (Arab for "Renaissance") back on the political
stage after a two-decade ban.
Ben Ali suppressed Ennahda after it officially won over 15 percent
of an 1989 vote, exiling and jailing its members.
Its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned from exile in January,
said Ennahda believed in individual freedoms, women's rights and
their equality with men. Analysts say Ennahda today might get up to
35-40 percent, close to what it may have actually won in the
fraud-ridden 1989 vote.
"We want women to be well-represented politically, to participate
effectively in decision-making, and to be represented in a way that
reflects her presence in society," Ennahda member Chambi Riadh told
"A woman is responsible for her family, she works and she is
involved in many cultural and arts activities. Now is the time to
translate this on the political stage, specifically in
decision-making, and for women to take on the responsibilities that
reflect her contribution to Tunisian society."
Authorities preparing Tunisia's July 24 election to choose a
national assembly which will rewrite the constitution ruled this
month that men and women must feature in equal number in the poll,
a move hailed as historic in the Arab world.
Women activists hope democracy in Tunisia will safeguard as well as
promote women's rights.
"I am optimistic because we are on the path to democracy. We are
going to learn democracy slowly because we did