Tunisian Lawmakers Discuss Gender Equality, Religion

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Tunisian lawmakers debated a pre-draft version of the country’s new constitution, clashing over the role of religion, women’s and minorities’ rights after last year’s popular revolution. One cited a lack of "soul" in the document's preamble. Monia Ben Hamadi reports.

One full year after the election of the Constituent Assembly, officials were summoned to discuss the preamble and the fundamental principles of the Tunisian Constitution. The committee in charge of drafting it is one of the few that has completed its work.

Several elected officials believe that this decision was only taken so as to enable the president of the Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, to give Tunisians the impression that the debates within the committees had been completed, and that, as promised, the plenary debate would start on Oct. 23.

But this is not the case. The fact is that the joint committee is still struggling with the prerogatives of executive power and that the meetings of the committees are canceled because of the plenary meetings.

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, just a week into a debate that would not have taken place before the complete drafting of the constitution — to be submitted to the plenary — all of the elected officials had the opportunity to intervene and give their recommendations and proposals, all the while criticizing a controversial preamble.

Preamble spirit

While many elected officials praised the outstanding work of the committee in charge of drafting the preamble and the fundamental principles of the constitution, others preferred to focus on its limitations.

In an impassioned statement marked by sincerity, Mabrouka Mbarek, a member of the committee, pointed out the lack of soul in the preamble.

"Where is the soul of the revolution? Why don't we feel the revolt of a population that rose up for freedom in this preamble? Why doesn't it contain the soul of those who have sacrificed for this freedom?"

The Congress for the Republic (CPR) MP Mbarek asked this angrily, taking advantage of her speaking time to question the reasons for such a debate.

Mbarek affirmed that without the participation of Tunisians, the proposals of the civil society and the participation of citizens, the constitution could not be written for the people as a whole.

"What is the point of talking about participatory democracy in the constitution if we do not seek to engage citizens? We might as well remove it if it is not actually applied," she added.

Universality of human rights

Whereas the terms that characterized human rights as universal were tampered with in the joint committee and rejected by the committee of the preamble, the statements of the elected officials of all tendencies suggested that this decision could be reviewed.

For his part, Fadhel Moussa pointed to a slump in the draft in comparison to the 1959 Constitution.

Maya Jribi, however, argued that human rights are universal and cannot be applied otherwise, stressing that in case of misinterpretation, the "universal" aspect of the human rights does not oppose any other principle and should therefore be included.

Several Ennahda elected officials also went in this direction, adding that Islam itself denotes the universality of all of the human rights.

Religious state against civil state

One of the things that sparked the greatest controversy was the civil aspect of the state. Despite the fact that the "civil" nature of the state is indeed included in the draft preamble and that it is a point that cannot be changed, as stipulated by the "Revision of the constitution" draft section, many elected officials from the opposition focused on the fact that this reference was not sufficiently highlighted and that religion dominates the spirit of the preamble.

Thus, it was proposed that the civil character of the state be included in Article 1 of the fundamental principles. This was opposed by Sahbi Atig and other elected Islamists, who said that this article garners a broad consensus among citizens and that there was no way it could be changed.

In response to Sahbi Atig, Selma Baccar questioned this refusal, noting that if everyone agreed on the civil side of the state and the impossibility of revising this clause, there was no reason not to include it in the first article of the constitution.

Faced with these statements, some Ennahda members went so far as to threaten to put once again the Shariah on the negotiations table, while others requested that Article 1 be superior to other articles. The exception that proves the rule was Zied Laâdhari, who was the only elected Ennahda official to propose an amendment to an article "sanctified" by the vast majority of Islamists.

Meanwhile, CPR MP Souhir Dardouri focused on the dangers of including vague principles such as "objectives of Islam," which could be interpreted and lead to the introduction of Shariah.

On the other hand, the neutrality of mosques has itself been questioned by Ennahda members, who voiced concerns about the limits that this could set for the discourse of the Imams and their inability to preach for Friday prayers.

Under the current preamble, partisan discourse is banned while political speeches are not. Debaters have been divided, but the matter will certainly be decided later on.

Recognizing equality between men and women and the controversy over the concept of family

Following the controversy that was caused by the equality between men and women, this article (claiming women were "complementary" to men) was deleted from the draft constitution. A general consensus has been reached on the principle of equality between men and women, in rights and duties. It has been also agreed that women and men are equal before the law and enjoy equal opportunities.

”Just as a one-off,” several Ennahda MP’s supported the feminist discourse. Meanwhile, Yamina Zoghlam, chairperson of the Committee of the Revolution’s Wounded and Martyrs in the National Assembly, did not only insist on gender equality but also on the principle of parity, which she said must be constitutionalized.

However, the concept of the family was strongly rejected by the Islamist MPs. They were outraged that the article stating that the family as the natural nucleus of society, in which the role of a couple is complementary and can only be formed under marriage, was abolished. They also demanded that the state guarantee the means for citizens to be able to marry.

Other elected officials insist on the need to define the concept of marriage and roles within the family, alluding to the “threat” of gay marriage.

'All Tunisians are Muslims' or the rejection of minorities

Since the preamble and the fundamental principles of the draft constitution provide for the clear superiority of Islam, and the Arab-Muslim identity, it is not surprising that the project does not at any time make reference to minorities.

In this context, Atig reiterated with conviction that “all Tunisians are Muslims.”

Mbarek, in turn, suggested that Atig was “in denial.”

This rejection of some Tunisians, no matter how much of a minority they are, spawned furor among opposition MPs. However, this did not sway the Islamist MPs, who stressed incessantly on the Islamic character of the Tunisian people and their commitment to Islam and their Arab-Muslim identity.

While they vehemently defend the Palestinian cause or the criminalization of normalization with Israel, these Islamist MPs are not doing much for their fellow citizens. They have even gone as far as to deny their existence.

The draft preamble was presented by the committee that handled the debates that took place during the past few days, resulting in advances in favor of a constitution enshrining freedom, equality, justice and democracy. The preamble, however, provides also for the exclusion of a segment of the Tunisian people, and therefore creating third-class citizens, whose rights are not guaranteed.

Found in: tunisian elections, islamist rise in tunisia, islamist, ennahda party, ennahda, constitution
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