Tunisia is often portrayed as the poster-child of the Arab Spring as the revolution was peaceful and a relatively open democracy has been formed by the Tunisian people. As with many countries in North Africa, a key problem that has dogged their societies has been how women have been treated by regressively-minded citizens and conservative figures of authority. However a democracy can only truly function if all members in that society are free to express themselves without fear of repercussions. This requires a raft of civil liberties that are inalienable and defended by the judiciary and so long as women are subject to coercion and prejudice, Tunisia will not represent the views of all its citizens. Thankfully action has been taken.
Tunisia has approved legislation that will protect women from “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggression”. More specifically, the legislation would amend the Tunisian penal code to include definitions of domestic violence and abuse that are recommended by the UN Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women. Furthermore, the law would provide specialised judicial services for victims of domestic violence and will make funds available for anti-abuse preventative measures. Upon the passage of the law Naziha Laabidi, the country’s Women’s Minister, said “it’s a very moving moment and we are proud in Tunisia to have been able to gather around a historic project”.
Unsurprisingly groups from around the world have supported this move. Amna Guellali, the Tunisia Office Director for Human Rights Watch said: “with this law, [Tunisia] is keeping its position as a pioneer and a champion of women’s rights in the area”. Soufia Galand, the Tunisia Gender Justice Officer for Oxfam also welcomed the scope of this legislation: “through this law, the State shifted the blame from the woman survivor of violence to the perpetrator, and ended the shameful right for a rapist to marry the woman he has raped”. Monia Ben Jemia, the President of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women is quoted in the New York Times as saying that the law is important because “it also takes care of the preventive side of violence against women in general, not only the reform of the criminal side”.
But why is legislation like this important? According to figures from the National Family Office, as quoted by Human Rights Watch, 47% of Tunisian women have experienced domestic violence. That statistic is staggering in and of itself, however this merely scratches the surface. There is a seriously low number of female legislators in the Tunisian parliament and in 2009 only 38% of women were employed in comparison with 51% of men. This difference creates a situation whereby men have more economic clout in society and can financially coerce women to act in a certain way.
Another concern that Tunisian feminists have is the electoral success of the Ennahda Movement. The Ennahda Movement is right-wing political party whose social policies are shaped by their interpretation of Sunni Islam and as a result the gains made in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution may be reversed. Legislation like this makes the success of these conservative groups less damaging as women’s rights becomes normalised in Tunisian society and therefore the prospect of a conservative government repealing those rights is less appealing to the electorate.
Women’s rights in North Africa and the Middle East are a well known struggle in Western countries but some people have sufficiently externalised the struggles of these women that they think that the West will be perpetually more advanced. Although in many parts of the developing world it is safe to say that views towards women are incredibly repressive, this does not mean that people should be ignorant of advances when they occur. There is a long way to go before women achieve full equality in Tunisia but this legislation is a big step forward and hopefully this will galvanise people in Western countries to popularise this issue and inspire activists in the region.