Tunisia’s slow but steady march towards gender equality

This July, Souad Abderrahim made international headlines when she was elected the mayor of Tunis, becoming the first woman to run the Tunisian capital in modern history. Even though the 53-year-old pharmaceutical manager was elected as an independent candidate under the traditionally conservative Ennahda party, she sees her achievement as a victory for the whole of society.

“Changing the masculine mentality of the people is our biggest challenge,” Abderrahim tells Equal Times. “The negative reactions to my election are a proof of this. This is why I consider myself – a woman, elected mayor – as a symbol for all Tunisian women”.

The significance of her election, in a region where women have the lowest levels of political representation in the world, cannot be overstated. And even in Tunisia, which is one most advanced societies in the MENA region when it comes to women’s rights, there are still many challenges in the political domain: “It is true that 47 per cent of those who were elected [in the municipal elections] are women, but as for female mayors, they are only 19.5 per cent. This is the result of the dominant mentality and of the lack of trust by the elites in the capacity of women”.

Progress towards gender equality in Tunisia has been constant since the country gained its independence from France in 1956. Initially the result of top-down measures introduced by the political leadership to create a modern state with a strong economy, an independent women’s movement began to emerge in the 1980s, even if it was limited by the authoritarian nature of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime (1987-2011). This began to change after the 2010-2011 revolution, according to Khadija Cherif, a member of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats (ATFD), an independent organisation focusing on women’s rights, and a former Minister for Women, Family and Children.

“Since then we have been in a moment of construction, where women have been playing a determinant role. First, we were in the streets against Ben Ali. Second, we debated, together with other movements, on the constitutional process. The streets have played a fundamental role in the writing of the constitution by opposing reactionary forces,” she tells Equal Times. This ability to mobilise was very effective when Islamist groups in the national assembly wanted to introduce an article on gender complementarity in the draft constitution back in 2012. “We called for, and organised, a demonstration, and we won this battle in favour of the equality between men and women,” she says, referring to the fact that Article 21 of the Tunisian constitution now guarantees gender equality “without discrimination”.

Another important step in the fight against gender discrimination took place in 2014 when Tunisia became the first country in the MENA region to remove a number of key reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The only remaining reservation relates to the potential conflict of the convention with the first chapter of the Constitution, which states that “Tunisia is a free, independent, sovereign state; its religion is Islam”. However, a compromise was reached on the role of Islam in society when it was decided that any potential conflicts between articles of the constitution and the convention will be resolved by the judiciary, who can refer to either national law or the international convention.

Three years later, in summer 2017, civil society lobbied in support of another landmark law to combat violence against women and girls. It was passed with 146 votes out of 217 and zero abstentions. It introduced several important changes – recognising violence as not only physical but also psychological, sexual, political and economic, as well as amending Article 227 of the penal code which previously allowed a person who had committed a sexual offense against a minor to avoid prosecution if he married his victim.

The battle for equal inheritance

“After all these battles, the worst injustice that women have to fight today is the discrimination in the division of the heritage,” says Cherif. At present, the current system is based a particular interpretation of the Quran, which sees the man as the head of family, and as a result, he is entitled to inherit twice the amount a woman can receive. In August 2017, President Beji Caid Essebsi announced the creation of a special commission tasked with formulating proposals to promote individual freedoms and gender equality. This June, the commission published a report suggesting, amongst other things, inheritance equality for women.

In August, Essebsi introduced a bill (that still needs to be voted on in parliament) that would create gender equal inheritance rights, although due to strong opposition from conservatives and months of demonstrations, families may now be offered the right to choose the former system.

Although some demonstrators have been using religion to justify their opposition to any changes to Tunisia’s inheritance laws, Cherif says it would be inaccurate to use the secularist-Islamist dichotomy to frame this debate: “The opposition to inheritance equality is related to economic power and men’s domination over women. That’s why we find the same conservatism of the Islamist Ennahda party in a part of Nidaa Tounes [a major secularist party created by Essebsi in 2012]. But also in the progressive forces, the Popular Front, there is not a common position on the issue of inheritance.”

Even if it has been harshly criticised for its conservative outlook, Ennahda has not yet adopted a clear, unified position on the prospect of inheritance reforms. Meherzia Maïza Labidi, a deputy in the national assembly and the first female vice-president of the Tunisian legislative body (from 2011 to 2014), tells Equal Times that while she supports the president’s initiative, she is in favour of having two inheritance systems. “I would make equality optional with the current system as the default choice.” She claims that the current legislation is “already harmonious since women don’t have the financial responsibility within the family. If we imposed equality in inheritance, then we should enforce equality in all financial obligations. And this cannot be done immediately. This is why we need dialogue and a little bit of patience.”

As Labidi recalls, dialogue was an important factor during the constitutional phase: “There was a transversal will amongst the parties to insert in the Constitution an article on the necessity to reach parity of men and women in the elected organs. There were discussions amongst politicians and with civil society. We worked together and, notwithstanding the crisis, we managed to write a unified text which is Article 46.” According to this clause, the state commits to defend and strengthen women’s rights, while guaranteeing equal opportunities for men and women, and committing to reach gender parity in all elected assemblies.

Tunisian women in politics

The focus on women’s participation in formal politics is not new in Tunisia. Ben Ali introduced a voluntary gender quota in the elections, which rose from 20 per cent in 1989 to 30 per cent in 2009. This led to an increase in the number of women elected in the parliament, which went from 4 per cent in 1989 to 23 per cent in 2004. Women’s participation increased further in 2011, thanks to pressure from civil society, which led to the introduction of the legal requirement of gender parity in electoral lists. That’s why the percentage of female deputies further increased in the Constituent Assembly to 26 per cent and in the 2014 legislative elections it arrived at 31 per cent. At present, following the municipal elections in May 2018, 47.5 per cent of all councilors are women. However, women are still excluded from most executive and leadership roles.

There is also the issue of class. “The feminist movement is still very elitist,” says Labidi. “We have to leave our living rooms, touch the land, get our hands dirty and support the female workers”.

The participation of Tunisian women in the labour market is understandably a huge priority for Naima Hammami, the first ever woman elected to the executive board of Tunisia’s historical trade union, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). “Laws concerning women are generally good in relation to gender equality. But, in practice, there is resistance to their application.” She cites the pay gap between men and women in Tunisia as evidence of this. According to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, women are paid, on average, between 20 and 30 per cent less than men. This figure reaches 40 per cent in the private sector and a staggering 50 per cent in agriculture.

“The same discrimination is true for the relation of the employers with female or male employees in the sense that women suffer more from exploitation and worse working conditions, especially in agriculture. Another big problem is harassment in the private sector but also in the administration. Finally, the majority of women have to take care also of their houses and children: they are overloaded”.

Hammami election as one of 13 members of the national executive bureau of UGTT last year represents a big step forward towards gender equality in an organisation that has always been guided by men. “The UGTT reflects the mentality of Tunisian society, which is why female unionists have encountered so many difficulties in their engagement with the organisation. They were especially excluded from the leadership positions. Fortunately, we are now working to make some progress. My election at the national executive bureau last year was a first time in the history of the UGTT. Moreover, the same 2017 congress adopted a resolution according to which the executive bureaus - at a national, regional and sectoral level - must have at least two women.” Hammami regrets that this progress has come quite late in the day compared to the rest of the society, but she remains hopeful that the trade union movement will quickly make up for lost time.