December 2015 represented a doubly significant month for Tunisia: Dec. 17 marked the fifth anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian food vendor who set himself on fire in front of a local governor’s office to protest his treatment by local authorities. Bouazizi’s death ignited not only the Jasmine Revolution that toppled the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in 2011, but also the Arab uprisings that have come to be called the “Arab Spring.” Another important date was Dec. 10, when the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, composed of four Tunisian associations, received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in recognition of its successful efforts to create a national dialogue and avert what could have been a disastrous polarization of Islamists and secularists.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee recognized the Tunisian Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” It credited the Quartet with stepping in at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war and with establishing “a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief.”
Five years after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia stands alone as the only country in North Africa where the Arab Spring has led to significant reforms and a democratic transition — in contrast to the emergence of a fractured state in Libya or the consolidation of a military dictatorship in Egypt after a short-lived, popularly elected government with political ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Most notably, the Tunisian state successfully ratified a new constitution on January 26, 2014. The process of developing a new constitution took nearly two years. Early drafts of the constitution released in 2012 were hotly debated, especially in regard to the issue of gender equality. Activists and the public criticized early drafts in particular for including an article that stated that women are “complementary” to men. Protests, including street demonstrations, that contested a woman’s status as “complementary” were organized by women and led by women’s associations such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) and several others. The pressures mounted by these collective efforts ultimately led to the omission of the term “complementary” in the final draft of the constitution.
The release of the final version of the constitution in 2014 has garnered significant praise from the global community for promoting gender equality. Unlike any other constitution in the Arab world, the new Tunisian constitution grants the right to both men and women to serve as presidential candidates and seeks parity in elected assemblies among men and women. Tunisia currently has the greatest proportion of elected female representatives in the Arab world, with 68 women out of a total of 217 members serving in the parliament. Although most constitutions, including several in the Middle East and North Africa, nowadays include at least lip service to gender equity, the language of the Tunisian Constitution of 2014 goes further in that direction and is more explicit. Gender equity is enshrined in Article 46, titled “Women’s rights,” which explicitly affirms several protections for women:
“The state commits to protect women’s accrued rights and to work to strengthen and develop these rights. The state guarantees the equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility in all domains. The state works to attain parity between women and men in elected Assemblies. The state shall take all necessary measures in order to eradicate violence against women.”
In addition, Article 21 addresses women’s equality and emphasizes that all citizens regardless of gender have equal rights and duties:
“All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination. The state guarantees freedoms and individual and collective rights to all citizens, and provides all citizens the conditions for a dignified life.”
Reservations have been voiced, however, along with the celebration of the text. Although many aspects of the new constitution, especially Articles 21 and 46, promote gender equality, some activists and observers have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the language. For example, while the state guarantees women’s representation in elected bodies, it does not propose such guarantees at the level of the government.
Furthermore, although the latter part of Article 46 explicitly states “The state shall take all necessary measures in order to eradicate violence against women,” efforts to introduce legislation to accompany this constitutional provision have failed to materialize. In association with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the State Secretariat for Women, Children, and Families prepared a bill to eliminate violence against women that included a very broad and comprehensive definition of violence to encompass “not only physical violence, but also psychological, economic, and symbolic violence.” The bill, which would have led to revisions across several criminal codes, was ultimately frozen and has not been presented to the Council of Ministers for consideration. Despite the commitments to gender equality in the constitution, the failure to consider this comprehensive bill symbolizes some of the challenges facing women in Tunisia and the threat of domestic violence that as many as 1 in 5 women experience in the country. Violence against women, thus, remains an ongoing struggle, one that is central to Tunisian debates on gender equity. As recently as the summer of 2015, state violence against women surfaced in testimonials solicited by the Truth and Dignity Commission charged with facilitating the truth and reconciliation process in Tunisia after the abuses of the now-collapsed Ben Ali authoritarian regime.
These critiques, among others, continue to permeate discussions of the new Tunisian constitution. It is important to note, however, that even with its shortcomings, this foundational text represents a remarkable development in the history of the Arab world. The mode by which Tunisians created and ratified their constitution still distinguishes Tunisia from other countries in the region. Egypt ratified a new constitution in 2014, which was an adaptation of an older 1971 version. It was formed primarily by two committees and was not subjected to anything resembling the robust, two-year long public debates about the text of the Tunisian constitution. The text of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution is a major step in the direction of gender democratization, even though it is not all that women activists wanted. As significant as the text itself is the nature of the process that led to the adoption of the constitution and for which the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The public discussions and engagement around articles of the constitution in Tunisia were a new and important exercise in democracy and civil society. They gave women a chance to express their views and influence the final outcome.
Mounira Maya Charrad is a nonresident fellow in the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program and an associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research addresses women’s rights, law, citizenship, state formation and colonialism.
Amina Zarrugh is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her work focuses on gender, violence, social movements and religion, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. She will be an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Texas Christian University in fall 2016.
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