Will Tunisian Women Become 'Complementary' to Men by Law?

Article Summary
In Tunisia, women’s rights have long been a central part of social policy. But Islamist female MPs are helping to dismantle some of these protections. Synda Tajine writes about a proposed law that states women are “complementary” to men, meaning their rights stem from those of men. Among feminists, there are growing calls for protest. 

Today [Aug. 13, 2012], Tunisia is celebrating the National Day of Women and Family. However, while this special day coincided with the 56th anniversary celebration of the decree of the Personal Status Code, the status of Tunisian women is at the heart of great controversy and jeopardized by equivocal and controversial draft laws. Ironically, the rights that were promoted by this decree and so dearly defended by Tunisian women are currently threatened, in part, by women themselves.

Tunisian women are far from claiming the parity principle within the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). Today, the presence of women in the chamber undermines the "benefits" of women's freedom, that is: equality between genders. Some of the 59 female MPs of the 217 NCA members voted for a law that is against women. This law deprives women of their right to be equal to men.

On Aug. 1, 2012, thanks to the votes of [male] and [female] Islamist MPs, the "rights and freedoms" committee has adopted an equivocal text stating: "The State shall preserve women's rights and achievements under the principle of complementarity with men within the family and as partners of men in the development of the homeland."

Thus, the principle of equality between men and women has given way to the principle of “complementarity." Although Article 22 of the new constitution stipulates that "all citizens are equal in their rights and freedoms, and before the law, without any discrimination of any kind," it seems that misogyny is not seen as a form of discrimination.

Hence, women no longer exist in the absence of men. They can no longer aspire to more than "complementarity" with men, thus limiting their status to that "of wife" and "mother." Their rights have become linked with those of men.

This equivocal and ambiguous draft law would completely change the legal framework of relations between men and women, challenging the laws based on the principle of gender equality that were enshrined by the Personal Status Code.

According to this proposed law, women are no longer full citizens. The law suggests that the concept of women would only be defined in relation to men rather than full citizens.

What’s more, the draft law, although it has yet to be voted in plenary, has sparked an outcry across many Tunisian associations that were alarmed by it. These associations believe that that once a commission adopts such law, “this would result in a dangerous regression of the Tunisian society and achievements of women to an exclusive patriarchal system.”

Amnesty International Tunisian section President Sondres Garbouj denounces the draft law, saying: “It represents a complete turnaround compared to the promises made during the election campaigns, where all political movements affirmed their commitment to women’s rights and expressed their willingness to develop them.”

The hegemony of the Islamist party within the NCA must be pointed out. The Islamist party, which many saw as a serious threat to women’s advances as it rose to power, sparked speculation amongst the most “crazy” and fierce women’s rights activists. As it has risen to power, it has appeared to be quite open to women’s rights and promised that no change in the Personal Status Code was feasible or negotiable.

Yet, at the earliest opportunity, Ennahda backtracked on its promises, calling into question the principle of equality.

According to Meherzia Laabia, “Complementarity does not mean inequality … Complementarity suggests exchange and partnership.”

This is flawed legislation that leaves the door open to wide interpretation. Indeed, nothing in this "complementarity" notion says or suggests that both partners have equal rights. Nothing suggests that men themselves are defined as "complementary" to women, inferring that they are defined independently of women and that women merely supplement men in tasks that they cannot or do not want to accomplish.

Ennahda defends itself and puts this ambiguity in the text of the law under the sign of a linguistic battle, playing the card of amazement against a case that "has been exaggerated." This text, which does not call into question gender equality, has been "overemphasized," Ennahda MPs say.

The question now is whether there is real equality or equity, justified by a biological difference that gives different rights to each, depending on their role in society. "There is no absolute equality between men and women," says Farida Labidi.

Islamist female MPs, with whom feminists expected to forge alliances, seem to have spelled the end of women’s freedom years, forging their own chains and threatening to plunge Tunisia once again into a patriarchal and misogynistic society.

In today's Tunisia, which is surrounded by a legal, ideological and even civic murkiness, and where everything is questioned and should be clearly defined, women rights must be specified. Otherwise, women will be deprived of their most basic freedoms. Such controversies are deemed unnecessary in a civilized country that recognizes the "human and civil" rights of every citizen regardless of their gender and away from any kind of discrimination.

The civil society is moving and circulating on the web a petition that is addressed to the NCA, marking the commitment of the civil society to women's rights, including the principle of equality, while stressing that "women are citizens just like men, and they should not be defined based on men.”

As far as feminists are concerned, the struggle is crystallizing and there are growing calls for protest. In fact, they are organizing marches and demonstrations to defend their equality and demand the final withdrawal of the controversial article in question. This struggle will take place this time between Tunisian women themselves; the adherents of a situation that confines them to subhumans on the one hand and those who fiercely defend their freedoms on the other. Will Tunisian women succeed in remaining "humans like others"?

Found in: islamist, freedom of expression in tunisia, ennahda

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