Still a long way to equality for Tunisian women

Still a long way to equality for Tunisian women
7 min read
14 Jan, 2015
Tunisia's revolution has secured increased freedom. But - whether on issues of violence, political representation or equal pay and opportunity - there is a lot of work to do on gender issues.
For every four men, only one woman is employed, often in the informal sector (Getty)

As Tunisians celebrate the anniversary of a revolution that called for “Jobs, Freedom, Dignity” — for everyone — I feel proud. We now have far more freedoms than we used to.

As a Tunisian woman, however, I remain sceptical of what this revolution has achieved.

So often I have been told – by Tunisians and non-Tunisians alike – that "women in Tunisia fully enjoy their rights ... compared to the rest of the Arab World".

     Over 47 percent of Tunisian women aged 18-64 have undergone violence at least once in their lives.

But is that true? And should the comparison to women's rights in the rest of the region be our only reference?

Four years after the revolution and mere weeks after the conclusion of our marathon electoral process, officials in Tunisia have a clear set of challenges on this issue.

Government reforms

First, there needs to be reform of the legal framework to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. Back in 1956, Tunisia promulgated its Code of Personal Status (CPS) considered back then, within and beyond the Arab region, progressive and supportive of women’s rights. The CPS banned repudiation – by which a man could disown his marriage with no recourse to the courts – and polygamy, secured women’s right to seek divorce before a court and instituted the civil marriage institution necessitating the explicit consent of both spouses.

See our full coverage of the anniversary of the ouster of Ben Ali.

This advancement in women’s rights has not always been translated into supportive measures in the rest of the legal framework, however. And despite consecutive reforms, the CPS and the overall legislation still contain provisions that are either highly discriminatory against women or that institutionalise various forms of violence against women.

In fact, Tunisian law is still recognizes the man as the “head of the household”, depriving women from having equal power over their lives or over decisions affecting their children; it doesn’t give the women the equal possibility of choosing her spouse, as he should be of Muslim confession; it grants the rapist of a minor the option to marry her against her dropping charges; it doesn’t explicitly acknowledge marital rape and does not secure equal access of women to inheritance, further deepening the trend of female impoverishment.

These provisions are to be urgently abolished. The newly adopted constitution enshrines equality between women and men. The state has committed to protect women from all forms violence.

Socially acceptable violence

Over 47 percent of Tunisian women aged 18-64 have undergone violence at least once in their lives. With such striking rates of physical, sexual and psychological violence, fighting violence against women and girls constitutes one of the major shortcomings of previous regimes.

In fact, despite the wide-spread plague of violence in an environment where it is a socially acceptable practice by both women and men, the country has no clear trajectory of secured care and support services for female survivors of violence. There is one non-operational, non-advertised hotline, only one state-owned shelter in the capital, often unprepared/untrained/unwelcoming police services and frontline health services that often stigmatize women victims of violence. Seventy-two percent of nurses consider women responsible for the violence they suffer.

Despite the scattered efforts of civil society organizations, these are obviously insufficient to fight a generalized phenomenon that highly affects the basic human right to enjoy a life free from all forms of violence. Today more than ever, the state needs to take responsibility and ensure a full-fledged intervention protecting women from all forms of violence and ensuring quality accessible, affordable and available services to face violence when it occurs beyond solely the legal framework that penalizes domestic violence.

Currently, the Secretary of State for Women Affairs, along with several civil society organizations, is leading a complex process of harmonizing the Tunisian legal framework with the new constitution and with international instruments ratified by Tunisia for the protection of women’s rights. Not only does this law need to pass, but it needs to be up to international standards and to the aspirations of Tunisian women. It must unconditionally eliminate all and any form of discrimination and violence against women and girls. Once approved, both the state and civil society will need to work together to ensure the enforcement of the law and to create mechanisms to monitor its implementation on the ground for years to come.

For every four men, only one woman

Creating decent job opportunities and reducing the marginalization and inequalities between the regions of Tunisia was one of the major grievances that sparked the 2010 uprising that ousted former president Ben Ali. With an unemployment rate of 15.2 percent in 2014, reaching 40 percent in some regions, creating jobs is an absolute national priority for both women and men.

However, beyond the regional discrepancies, gender distortions are also highly visible in this area. The latest Gender Gap Report ranks Tunisia 130 out of 142 countries in terms of ensuring equal opportunities for female economic empowerment and reveals that for every four men accessing economic opportunities, only one woman is. Unemployment rates of women were, in late 2012, nearly double those of men (24.2 percent and 13.9 percent respectively).

The work of rural women in the informal sector, specifically as farming daily workers, is neither acknowledged nor meets the minimum requirement of a “decent job”. There is unequal pay for women and men and such jobs often take place in unsafe, sometimes lethal, conditions in a country where agriculture constitutes one of the major economic sectors.

Women in Tunisia, even the young and educated, often only have access to unskilled and precarious work opportunities and still bear the burden of unpaid domestic work to which they dedicate over 5 hours per day in average against 24 minutes for men.

Politics remain the realm of men

Women in Tunisia have always been at the frontline of the continuous fight for freedom and democracy. The latest visible example to the international audience was their active participation in the revolution.

But they have also been almost systematically side-lined when it came to having access to meaningful decision-making positions. Politics remain the realm of men. Despite the emergence of less “elitist” new public and political influential women figures who are more connected to women’s priority demands, Tunisia still has a way to go in terms of female political empowerment and leadership especially at the local level.

Tunisians shouldn't be fearful of the ghosts of the past. Read more here

While female representation in Parliament tops 30 percent (sensibly high compared to the pre-revolution era), women so far remain almost absent from the leadership at the local levels. We have no women governors, no women mayors (or acting/transitional municipality councils), and only a handful women are heads of districts. In 2014, across the two governments that lead the country and their 96 ministers and secretaries of state, only four were women.

Across all political parties, from the most self-identified or perceived conservative to most progressive/liberal, women struggle to occupy an equal space with men. In fact, not a single political party or independent faction presented an equal number of men and women in their election lists as the election law only secured parity in the overall number of women and men present in each list through the gender alternation order (zipping system).

With this in mind, it is today crucial for the government, the parliament, the political parties and the main institutions (mainly unions), to drastically change their practices & policies and lead the way in order to enshrine full, meaningful representation of women, taking into consideration inalienable principles of inclusiveness and representativeness of the most marginalized and the most underprivileged amongst them, especially the rural and the impoverished.

While many of us will be in the streets today celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution that sparked a wave of uprisings across Middle East and North Africa and beyond, it is more important than ever to take a stand to salute and value the immense contribution of women to the fight against inequality, all inequality. But beyond the acknowledgement, it is time to take concrete and effective action aiming at enshrining equality amongst women and between women and men to allow the outstanding women of Tunisia to achieve their full potential.

Nessryne Jelalia is the Gender Justice Officer at Oxfam Tunisia.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.