From Bourguiba to Saied: The instrumentalisation of women's rights in Tunisia

A woman, wearing a flag of Tunisia, demonstrates against Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) in a new wave of anger about the presence of RCD stalwarts in the transitional government, on January 20, 2011, in Tunis.
4 min read
23 March, 2022
In-depth: The Tunisian state has a long history of using women’s rights for its own political gain.

It is rare in the Arab world to see women in key political positions. Out of twenty-two countries in MENA, only one has a female prime minister: Tunisia.

When geologist Najla Bouden was appointed in September last year Tunisia's president Kais Saied hailed it as “an honour for Tunisia and a homage to Tunisian women”. Eight of the 24 ministers in her government are women.

It came just two months after the president froze parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he would rule by decree.

On 7 March, state media showed Tunisia's leader standing beside members of the newly appointed judicial council, of which 10 out of 21 members were women. The announcement came a month after Saied’s abolishment of the former independent watchdog.

"The social contract between state and citizen did not extend to women"

The president has followed this pattern for months now; dissolving democratically elected bodies and appointing new ones under his control but with a higher gender parity rate.

But is Kais Saied really interested in greater gender equality in politics? It's unlikely.

Saied has never claimed to be a feminist and the former university professor is widely known for his conservative views regarding women’s rights. 

Endorsed by the Islamist political party Ennahda in the second round of the 2019 election, Saied said that “the debate about equality in inheritance is wrong".

Experts argue that Saied’s new focus on gender equality is a distraction from his power grab - a strategy inherited from his predecessors.

“When a weak democracy is descending into an authoritarian regime, the instrumentalisation of women’s rights is a way for leaders to extinguish the anger of the West,” Emna Semmari, a Tunisian gender analyst, told The New Arab.

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From Bourguiba to Saied

The first post-independence Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba gave women the right to vote, abolished polygamy, forbade marriage under the age of 17, and allowed women equal rights to divorce.

Far from being a democrat Bourguiba nonetheless became a favoured leader of the West as he toured the streets of Tunis unveiling hijabi women as part of his women's liberation parade.

His ban on 'radical' clothing was eventually lifted in 2011.

With Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali assuming power in 1987 a policy emerged in which the rights of women seemed to be protected but without guaranteeing wider human rights. 

Under the Ben Ali regime, Tunisian women married to foreigners gained the right to pass on their citizenship to their children, with further reforms of family and work codes for women’s rights.

The instrumentalisation of women's rights in Tunisia
Women enjoy the same right as men to join the electoral race in the country but social and economic challenges often hinder the road to leadership positions. [Getty]

Hiding behind the status of a women's rights defender, Ben Ali continued to silence his opponents, jail journalists, and target human rights activists until 2011 when the Tunisian people ousted him after 23 years in power.

In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, Tunisian women found themselves torn between joy and fear. They were happy to see the end of a two-decade-long police state but fearful for their rights amid the rise to power of an Islamist party. 

Tunisian women’s concerns were further fuelled during the process of drafting the post-revolution constitution when Ennahda spokesperson Samir Dilou said polygamy was a fundamental principle that Ennahda was determined to include.

The party ended up approving Article 21 of the 2014 Tunisian constitution which stipulated that male and female citizens are equal in rights and duties but without approving equality in inheritance.

Human Rights Watch said it was a betrayal of Tunisian women.

"Experts argue that Saied's new focus on gender equality is a distraction from his power grab - a strategy inherited from his predecessors"

The road to equality

“Women's representation [in politics] is vital, but we do not need little known women displayed as decorative vases in electoral lists and key positions to impress the world,” Emna Semmari told The New Arab.

In 2011, Tunisia passed the gender parity law that requires party lists for national elections to contain an equal number of men and women. To respect the parity law, parties tend to put not-politically engaged women from their families in the electorate lists, according to Semmari.

Women enjoy the same right as men to join the electoral race in the country but social and economic challenges often hinder the road to leadership positions.

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“Many Tunisian women believe that women cannot be good politicians, as many men prohibit their wives and sisters from joining political activities, saying politics requires going out late and they cannot accept that," Semmari told The New Arab.

Financial dependence on men and the lack of education about women’s political rights, particularly in rural areas, exacerbate the issue.

Despite these struggles Emna argues that if women believe in each other progress will be possible, both in Tunisia and the Arab world. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. 

"When a weak democracy is descending into an authoritarian regime, the instrumentalisation of women's rights is a way for leaders to extinguish the anger of the West"

No country in the world has achieved gender equality, with around 80% of key political positions worldwide controlled by men.

The obsession over women's bodies, rights, and freedoms has never been limited to the Muslim world. It’s global.

“The social contract between state and citizen did not extend to women. Women have been excluded and pictured as an 'other' who is not by any sense equal to a man," Moroccan gender expert Karima Nadir told The New Arab.

"We need a new political and social system, instead of trying to fix one that has been built by men to serve men.”

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma