Tunisia's Ennahda Reconsiders Gender Equality

Article Summary
Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party is considering reworking laws in a way that would undermine gender equality.

Every Aug. 13, Tunisia celebrates a holiday of its own, introduced by former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba: National Women’s Day. This year, however, the holiday has taken on a different tone and special symbolism, as the opposition has set this date to be a turning point in the history of the Tunisian revolution.

It is only normal for modern and emancipated women to celebrate Aug. 13. However, the surprising thing is for the women of the Islamist Ennahda party — which does not give any credit to Bourguiba and even tries to erase him from the country’s collective memory — to organize a counterdemonstration to commemorate this day. The pertinent question is: Is this day being politicized to counteract the opposition? Or is it the old habit of Ennahda to organize a counterdemonstration every time the opposition starts one?

It is worth noting that this day marks the 57th anniversary of the country’s Code of Personal Status (CPS), which was promulgated on Aug. 13, 1956, and entered into force on Jan. 1, 1957, by the “ultimate fighter” Bourguiba. The CPS remains one of the most famous and most daring achievements of the former head of state.

The CPS provided for a series of progressive laws aimed at achieving equality between men and women at many levels. This code has earned Bourguiba the epithet of the “Liberator of Women,” since it defends and promotes their rights against social injustice.

Our national CPS grants women a unique place in society and in the Arab and Muslim world. It is the only law that has abolished polygamy since 1956, unlike all other Arab and Muslim countries, which have not so far had the courage to do so.

According to the decree of Aug. 13, 1956, promulgating the CPS, and more precisely in accordance with Article 18, “Polygamy is prohibited. Whoever engages in the bonds of marriage, has undertaken another before the dissolution of the former, shall be subject to imprisonment for one year and a fine of 240,000 francs [about $100 in 1956] or one of the two penalties, even if the new marriage was not contracted in accordance with the law.”

The same article also states: “Anyone who contracted marriage outside the forms required by [the] law … regulating marital status, and concludes a new union while continuing living with his first spouse, shall be liable to the same penalties.

“Moreover, the [same applies to a] spouse who knowingly enters into marriage with a person falling under the provisions of the preceding two paragraphs.”

Furthermore, unlike medieval family customs of the time, which gave the right to parents and families to marry their daughters off — sometimes against their will — the CPS stipulates that a marriage be concluded by mutual consent of both spouses.

The CPS has confirmed and highlighted the role of women, who are neither “secondary nor complementary” citizens.

In compliance with Article 23, “Each of the two spouses must treat their partner with kindness, live in good rapport and avoid all prejudice. They shall cooperate to manage the affairs of the family, provide good education for the children and manage their affairs, including their education, travel and financial transactions. The husband, as head of the household, must provide for the needs of his wife and children to the extent of his means and in accordance with their status in the framework of the components of alimony.”

Moreover, according to Article 24, “The husband has no administrative power over the private property of his wife.”

In matters of divorce also, the CPS provides for a legal procedure that ensures protection for a divorced woman, in addition to financial coverage and housing.

According to Article 31, “For women, material damage is compensated for under the form of a monthly payment that expires upon termination of the viduity period [widowhood], and this payment shall depend on the standard of living the spouse was accustomed to during the marriage, including housing.”

Although we thought these rights that were granted under the CPS were indisputable, they were threatened by the activity of National Constituent Assembly (NCA), despite all the pre-election promises that “vowed never to cross this red line, namely the CPS.”

Let us recall, for example, that in August 2012, Farida Laabidi, an Ennahda member and head of the Committee of Rights and Freedoms of the NCA, said, “We cannot speak of equality between man and woman in absolute terms. Otherwise, we will risk upsetting the family balance and distorting the social model in which we live. If the man and woman are equal, then the woman must also be bound to pay the alimony of children, just like the man.”

Another brilliant performance was that of MP Nejiba Berioul in January 2013, during the debate on the chapter of “rights and freedoms,” when she called for including the criminalization of abortion in the new constitution.

These female Ennahda MPs did not hesitate to put their benefits into question. Furthermore, they did not hesitate to call for the celebration of the CPS day in August. Indeed, Ennahda’s Women and Family Bureau has called on its partisans to take part in a protest on Habib Bourguiba Avenue under the slogan: “Tunisian women, supporting the transition to democracy and national unity.”

Thus, no one can deny that Ennahda women are promoting a dual language and engaging in political maneuvering, by threatening the CPS on the one hand and honoring it on the other.

In any event, Ennahda clearly intends to exploit National Women's Day in favor of “legitimacy” and therefore against the increasing threat of movements and sit-ins calling for the dissolution of the NCA and for the overthrow of the troika, in which Ennahda is the primary element.

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