Small constitutional victory for Tunisian women

While the newly ratified Tunisian constitution ensures “equality” between men and women, the wording is vague and open for interpretation.

al-monitor Young women calling for a halt to violence against women chant slogans and hold pictures of assassinated secular politician Chokri Belaid as they demonstrate against the government, along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, March 9, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

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women's rights, women's issues, women, tunisian politics, tunisian court, constitution

Jan 19, 2014

Two of the most welcomed articles in the future Tunisian constitution enshrine equality between men and women as well as gender parity in elected assemblies. Articles 20 and 45, consensually adopted, seem to have scored a small victory for women rights in the constitution. After a real standoff between the opposition and the Islamist Ennahda movement, the so-called “democrat” camp has seemingly won the round this time. This, however, did not prevent this camp from pointing to the existence of some gaps.

The international press happily welcomed this “great triumph of the democratic clan.” French minister of women’s rights and spokesperson for the government, Najat Belkacem, wrote on her Twitter account following the adoption of Article 20: “Female and male citizens have the same rights, the same obligations. … They are equal. Congratulations to all those who fought!”

Article 20, adopted on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in the chapter of Rights and Freedoms, stipulates the following: “All citizens, male and female alike, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without discrimination. The state guarantees to citizens individual and collective rights. It provides them with the conditions to lead a dignified life.”

Overall, 159 voted in favor of this article, three abstained and seven voted against it, which makes it safe to say that it has garnered consensus. However, many voices were raised in the opposition camp to denounce certain shortcomings. Critics accuse Article 20 of ensuring equal treatment in court, but not true equality by law, as explained by the constitutionalist Hafidha Chakir in the Huffington Post Maghreb.

It should be noted that Article 20 did not expressly state the grounds of discrimination prohibited under international models, contrary to what had been desired by civil society activists.

During the vote on Article 20, an amendment was proposed by MP Salma Mabrouk, who suggested replacing the term “male and female citizens” with “the people,” which would also grant foreigners equality before the law and wouldn’t limit this right for Tunisian citizens. Mabrouk, however, ended up withdrawing her amendment amid protests made by MPs from the democratic bloc, and the article was adopted in its original form.

Contrary to what a first reading might suggest, this article does not guarantee real absolute equality under the law. It does, however, offer some progress with respect to the article on gender that was originally proposed by Ennahda during the summer of 2012. Members of the Islamist party had suggested an article about the “complementarity” of the roles of men and women within the family. Upon its adoption in committee, this article caused an outcry and was therefore quickly removed.

Today, this article also represents a major step forward in relation to the constitution of 1959, which did not mention the principle of equality.

Gender parity in elected assemblies is another provision in this new constitution. It was adopted on Jan. 9. Article 45 states: “The state shall ensure the protection of women and support their gains. The state shall ensure equal opportunities for men and women in carrying different responsibilities. The state shall ensure the elimination of all forms of violence against women.”

Out of 188 voters present at the meeting, 116 voted in favor of this article. Thus, it is safe to consider this article as one of the victories of the opposition over the Islamist clan. In fact, discussed in a consensual committee, this article has been the subject of numerous negotiations, and it generated heated debates within parliament. Some Islamist party MPs, such as Monia Brahim, found the original wording of “complementarity” to be discriminatory against women and believed that it contradicted the principle of equality.

However, this article does not state, in accordance with international standards of human rights, the principle of equality in all its dimensions and in all the areas of life (civil, cultural, economic, political and social).

This is all fine, but the articles are vague and remain subject to interpretation. All will depend on the interpretation we want these articles to bear. In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch, Al Bawsala, the Carter Center and Amnesty International called on “the new Tunisian constitution to comply with international human rights standards and the obligations of the country under international law.” They noted, “Among the most urgent changes are a clear affirmation that the human rights conventions ratified by Tunisia are mandatory and take precedence over national laws, as well as the inclusion of a non-discriminatory provision stating the principle of equality between men and women in all its dimensions.” So far, there is more to be done, and the battle is far from being over …

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