Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring and has so far been the only affected country not to crush those demanding change, reverted back to authoritarian government, or become a failed state. The values of human rights, equality before the law and democratic elections were the promise of the Arab Spring and whilst human rights and democratic elections have been enshrined in the country’s new constitution, equal treatment for different groups of people has been harder to come by. However this appears to be changing for the better.
Two weeks ago President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to increase gender equality by removing some of the archaic practices that have long been a part of Tunisian life. Specifically he called for women to receive equal treatment in regards to inheritance and actually provided a theological justification for his actions: “inheritance is a matter for mankind that God left to the diligence of the people according to their era”. In doing so, Essebsi sought to rectify a glaring contradiction between social norms and the Tunisian consitution, specifically Article 46 which mandates the state to act to achieve equality between the sexes.
The President also said that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice should review a 1973 ministerial decree which prohibited women from marrying non-Muslims. In comments reported by Iman Zayat in the The Arab Weekly, Essebsi said that the constitution “cannot be violated” by decrees and/or legislation. Zayet points out that Article 6 “guarantees freedom of conscience and belief” and that a decree prohibiting women from marrying non-Muslims violates the non-believer’s freedom of conscience and the woman’s right to marry who she wishes.
This development in Tunisia is the second discussion of women’s rights in the last few months. In late July, MPs passed law that cracked down domestic violence and closed a loophole which allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their victims. The announcement from President Essebsi marks a definitive shift away from the regressive attitudes of the past and would radically alter Tunisian society.
In regards to inheritance, equal treatment by the authorities would be a huge step forward as it would change the country’s economic power dynamics. Women who received more inheritance money would have more disposable income and therefore more financial independence. This independence can free women up in a variety of different ways. For instance, these women may use these funds to pay for childcare so that they can go out to work, or alternatively these funds could be used to allow their partner to take paternity leave thus changing perceptions about gender roles.
In the case of marrying non-Muslims, this idea will produce a ripple effect that will break down sectarianism and improve inter-faith relations. Although this initial step by Essebsi is only concerning marriage to non-Muslims, the intellectual curiosity that it shall unleash will allow people to freely question other social norms regarding marriage and family life. Consequently, the right of women to go into higher education or acquire jobs will also be the subject of debate, especially in the more conservative south of the country. Progress can be a slow process but these slight changes can feeds a hunger for equality that for many people will never go away.
However I would argue that the religious justification of Essebsi is one of the most important aspects of this announcement. If the President appealed to ideas about human rights or egalitarianism without referencing Islam, it would be easy for conservative Muslims to dismiss these reforms. Indeed the rejection of these concepts would be led by the Ennhada Movement, a socially conservative party that is currently the junior partner in the governing coalition. But by placing a justification for women’s rights in religious language, Essebsi is challenging Ennhada’s claims about the Islamic faith and forcing them to come out against women’s equality.
Although Tunisia isn’t the most conservative Muslim-majority country in the MENA region, it is important to stress that Islam is still very much part of the country’s civic furniture. Whilst the constitution provides for religious freedom, it also stipulates that Islam is the official religion of the country. Couching women’s equality in explicitly religious terms allows for people across Tunisian society to engage with the discussion constructively without being accused of entertaining heretical ideas. These accusations will still be made by ultra-conservative clerics and their followers, but planting that seed in people’s heads will reinforce the idea of there being multiple interpretations of Islamic doctrine.
The essence these reforms is that they be a catalyst for other conversations about everything from the nature of work to religious pluralism. Rectifying these two unconstitutional situations not only demonstrates how President Essebsi is more progressive on women’s issues than previous governments, but his language illustrates how his government is committed to the ideals of the Arab Spring. The priority of the Tunisian government must now be to ensure that Tunisians in other marginalised groups, such as racial minorities, non-religious people and LGBT people, are also treated equally before the law. But if nothing else this step forward sends a signal to the rest of North Africa and the Middle East about the importance of women’s equality.