Despite Tunisia's progress, gender equality remains distant hope
Since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia has undergone a relatively smooth political transition to democracy and has seen significant progress in terms of women's rights.
Widely recognised for being at the vanguard of women-friendly reforms in the Arab world, the North African country owes much of its ground-breaking gender equality to the legacy of former president Habib Bourguiba. The Code of Personal Status (CPS) of 1956, considered one of the most progressive in the region, prohibited polygamy and granted women the right to divorce and abortion rights.
The code also gave women the right to vote and to earn equal wages to men.
Post-revolution, the new constitution drafted in 2014 not only mandated gender equality but also an active commitment by the state to ensuring it. Article 46 guarantees the "equality of opportunities between men and women to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all fields" and fair representation in all elected bodies.
"Today we have a stronger presence of women in the political scene," said Monia Ben Jemia, a high-profile Tunisian feminist and law professor. "One big step forward has been the establishment of the legal requirement of equal representation of gender parity established across candidate lists, or 'horizontal parity', as well as down the candidate lists, or 'vertical parity'."
As a result of a 2016 electoral law that includes the principles of parity and alternation between men and women on candidate lists for all elections, women now make up 47.5 percent of Tunisia's local council positions following the municipal elections in May 2018.
The radical move to guarantee women's close-to 50 percent representation in Tunisia's politics marked an historic jump for Arab women.
While gender parity has been achieved regarding the municipal lists, Ben Jemia noted that women currently hold around 35 percent of seats in the country's parliament - which is nonetheless the highest female representation in parliament in any Arab country.
She added that women were still excluded from most executive and leadership roles, observing a low representation in the government as well as in the national bureau of the Tunisian labour union UGTT (which counts only one woman among the members of its executive board).
"Freedom of expression has been a revolutionary gain for the Tunisian people, including for women," said Khaoula Khedimy Boussama, president and CEO of Enactus, an organisation supporting entrepreneurial action and youth engagement. "Apart from that, nothing has been concretely done in the last eight years concerning legislation and public policies on women's rights and gender equality."
Ben Jemia, who is also a former president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), said that, despite the huge gains on paper, women clearly lag behind when it comes to economic and social rights.
"Women are the ones who most suffer from a socio-economic point of view. We have favourable laws for women but we're in urgent need of public policies," the activist said. "There's no equality in this regard, poverty is practically feminising."
She noted unemployment remains much higher among women than men, adding that female higher education graduates are "twice more jobless" than male graduates.
Women in Tunisia are employed in "the most informal jobs", left uncovered by social security, she added.
Although legislation concerning women in Tunisia is generally good in relation to gender equality, there is resistance to its implementation. The pay gap is noticeable with women paid on average 20 to 30 percent less than men - a statistic which rises to 40 percent in the private sector and as much as 50 percent in agriculture - according to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics.
Despite high rates of women's participation in professional and manufacturing industrial sectors, 24 percent and 43 percent respectively, based on ILO data, the overall participation of Tunisian women in the labour market is very low, with many dropping out of the labour force when they marry or have children.
As for young women, many who wish to enter the job market either for financial need or to pursue a professional career find that a lack of demand obstructs their entry into the workforce.
The position of women also remains problematic in Tunisia's rural areas, where female unemployment and youth illiteracy rates are higher than their urban counterparts, while women have little to no access to reproductive and maternal healthcare as well as to safe abortion.
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At a human rights protection level, Tunisia has passed progressive legislation countering violence against women.
Long-standing ATFD activist Emna Ben Milad said an important, comprehensive law fighting violence against women, ratified in 2017, finally went into effect in February of last year. Before then, the government withdrew reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) after the revolution.
In 2013, a national action plan to eliminate violence against women (NAPEVW) was adopted.
That said, Tunisian women have continued to fight several forms of violence and harassment as the government appears slow at reacting to issues related to gender-based violence, as NGOs have observed.
Ben Jemia raised a "lack of awareness" as a major issue since a lot of women don't know their rights and what measures are set in place to protect them. She also criticised police officers and judiciary staff who are "insufficiently trained in the area of violence against women".
While Tunisia lifted all objections to the CEDAW, it still has to revise domestic laws to conform to the principle of equality for all citizens mandated by the new constitution. "All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination," Article 21 of the Tunisian charter states.
Inheritance distribution has been a particularly contentious issue as it continues to follow Islamic law. Under Tunisia's CPS (or family law), in common with other Muslim-majority nations, women only inherit half of the share male heirs receive.
"Gender equality in inheritance is a must in Tunisia and all Arab-Muslim countries where the disadvantaged status of women is not questioned," Ben Milad said. "At ATFD, we have campaigned for this feminist demand for the last 20 years."
The biggest challenge for Tunisia, she says, consists in stepping forward on women's rights while coping with resistant mentalities within the Arab world.
"We are surrounded by countries ruled by dictatorships, where civil societies are deprived of their rights, people have no freedom of expression, and women are held back by a strictly male-dominated culture," she said.
In large parts of Tunisia, particularly outside the cities, female heirs do not even take up a small part of the inheritance they are entitled to, especially with regard to land and homes.
A bill pushed by the Tunisian president, currently being discussed in parliament, proposes that inheritance between men and women be made equal by default - unless the person making the will states otherwise.
Long known for pioneering women's rights in the MENA region, Tunisia has given proof of its gender equality performance including access to the majority of state institutions and elected structures, positive representation of women in educational institutions, and the high number of women occupying high-ranking positions in the public and private sectors.
But notwithstanding the many advances, there is an acknowledged need for serious policies fighting continued gender discrimination.
Such a gender imbalance can be attributed to a lack of awareness of women's rights and the regression within Tunisia's education sector. High numbers of girls continue to leave school before the age of 16.
"Education, education and education. It's the battle of all battles," Boussama argued. "The day we will succeed in combating and ending school dropout among girls, especially in rural areas, we will have accomplished what's most important for Tunisian women."
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec