How Women’s Rights Are Being Suffocated in President Saied’s Tunisia | Opinion

I grew up confident about gender equality in Tunisian society. I only realized it was a fragile equilibrium as an adult, one that I would later live to see crashing in the span of months. I am a political analyst with a leading women’s rights organization in Tunisia created in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Becoming a vocal and proactive defender of gender equality was a natural progression for me.

I was raised in a broad-minded family, and I became a feminist without thinking about what it meant. My father, an engineer, and my mother, a schoolteacher, raised my brother and me as equals. I studied law and acquired legal knowledge about women’s rights. We took our freedom for granted.

Many are unaware that Tunisian women are currently standing on the edge of a cliff. As protests in Iran spotlight the threats to women’s freedoms, the international community should take note and support Tunisians fighting to protect the best model of gender equality in the region.

I came to the realization recently that two things can be true: Tunisia may have long stood out as the most progressive and feminist country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where patriarchal systems, like many other places, are endemic and domineering. And at the same time, it has, and in a short span of time, witnessed unprecedented perilous assaults on women’s rights.

In 2011, the Tunisian people ousted a dictator, a dream that became a reality invigorated the appetite for democracy across the MENA and witnessed a decade of advances and setbacks. In the end, fierce optimism among many was replaced by the grim reality of the prospect of losing close to everything.

President Kais Saied managed to concentrate all powers between his hands, sacking his government, ruling by decrees, eliminating safeguards, checks and balances, and weakening human rights and women’s rights at the same time.

The president has passed electoral reforms that will shape the entire political climate for at least the next five years, marking a step backwards with respect to women’s constitutional achievements in Tunisia. The obligation to respect gender parity in the appointments in the high offices was abrogated. The government has failed to ratify certain international texts that protect women from violence, such as the Istanbul Convention on domestic violence. And finally, certain discriminatory legal provisions have yet to see reforms: unequal inheritance, and the criminalization of female prostitution and of same-sex relationships.

Tunisian women demonstrate on March 6, 2021
Tunisian women demonstrate on March 6, 2021, in Tunis against violence against women.
FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

The new electoral law passed on Sept. 15, no longer ensures parity in the electoral lists: a decree that once ensured women participated in elections was rescinded. Women took 47 percent of the seats in the 2018 local elections. Now, political parties won’t have any obligations to select women. The amendments eliminate quotas for women all the while encouraging individual candidacies in a blow to the country’s party-based electoral system. This is in violation of the Tunisian constitution, which forces the state to promote parity in the elected assemblies.

It wasn’t always so grim.

The small North African nation had long been internationally lauded for its progressive gender reforms. After the country gained its independence from France in 1956, a code was promulgated protecting women to a certain extent and helped built the image that Tunisia is a radical feminist country. That year, then-President Habib Bourguiba passed the Code of Personal Status (CPS), that pushed sweeping reforms like outlawing polygamy (still today the only Arab-majority country to do so) and making divorce more equitable.

As the years went on, Tunisia continued to encourage institutional feminism, and in doing so, strengthened ties with the West that hailed these gender reforms while turning a blind eye to other human rights abuses in the country. Abortion, under all circumstances, was legalized in Tunisia in 1973, making it the only North African state to this day to have done so. In 2017, a bill was passed to eliminate violence against women.

These days, news headlines mostly focus on the economic difficulties, the long lines for gasoline, and political chaos, as the world observes passively the demolition of liberties Tunisians have so arduously fought for. At a time during which international attention is on global inflation, the Russia-Ukraine war, and instability, few are noting the blows on women’s rights in Tunisia, which could herald greater risks for women’s rights across the region.

Saied’s conservative views have been made clear since he was elected in 2019. Appointing in 2021 the first female prime minister (in the country and in the region), and several women in the government, was merely performative.

The international community must pay attention to the recommendations made by prominent actors of civil society to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It must elevate the voices of local organizations that have been sounding the alarm without getting enough support.

What is happening in Tunisia is a cautionary tale of how a system without solid safeguards can crumble just like a house of cards. It shows how quickly gains can be taken away if citizens don’t stand collectively against authoritarianism.

Sara Medini is political analyst at Tunisian NGO Aswat Nissa (Women’s Voices), which is successfully leading advocacy campaigns for gender inclusion in public policies and tackling gender-based violence as well as socio-economic challenges faced by rural women.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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