The battle over women's rights in Tunisia

The revolution to overthrow Tunisia's hated dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali may be over, but for the country's women, their battle is just beginning.

Mischa Benoit-Lavelle

THE newly written constitutional clause protecting women's rights in the Tunisian constitution has angered feminists and opposition politicians with wording that calls women the 'associate' of man.

The article - article 27 of the constitution - states that women's rights should be protected 'under the principle of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man's associate in the development of the country', according to versions of the text, translated from Arabic to French, which have circulated on the Internet and in Tunisian media.

It was approved by a vote of 12 to 8 by the Commission of Rights and Liberties, with nine of those voting for the clause coming from Tunisia's ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.

'A step backwards'

The article was quickly and publicly condemned by Salma Mabrouk, a member of the centre-left Ettakatol party who voted against the version of the clause passed by the committee. In a statement on her official Facebook page that quickly spread throughout the activist and feminist communities, she stated, 'The majority version completely annuls the concept of equality of the sexes.'

She went on to criticise the wording of the clause for contradicting other, previously approved clauses which also treat citizens' and families' rights.

Another committee member who voted against the clause, Hasna Mrsit of the centrist Wafa party, lamented the fact that the description seemed to marginalise the rights of single mothers, who would not seem to enjoy the 'complementarity at the heart of the family' mentioned in the text. In November, Ennahdha representative Souad Abderrahim stated that single mothers 'do not have a right to exist'.

'It's a step backwards,' said Mrsit.

The distressed reactions of these politicians were echoed by human and women's rights activists in Tunisia.

'I am distraught and worried,' said Salma Hajri of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a longstanding women's rights organisation. 'Women are not given rights as individuals, only in reference to men.'

While she said that her organisation had not yet taken a position on the issue, she was confident that feminists will do all they can to push against the article's ratification.

'We will bring all possible pressure. We are not ready to accept this,' said Hajri.

Amna Guellali, who is associated with Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, was concerned not just about the apparently secondary place given to women in the article, but also by its failure to specifically forbid discrimination and its lack of reference to legal standards, domestic or international.

'It's a very weak protection. It doesn't achieve the protections that our organisation would have wanted,' said Guellali, who added that she expected Human Rights Watch to issue a statement on the article in the coming days.

However, head of the Commission of Rights and Liberties Farida Laabidi, a member of Ennahdha, felt that the wording of the accepted version was misunderstood by its opponents. The 'complementarity' mentioned in the text, according to Laabidi, was meant to stress that the relation between man and woman was not one of 'competition'.

Concerning the seeming exclusion of single mothers from the clause, Laabidi stated that the commission had simply not considered this group in their formulation of the text.

'We shouldn't construe a situation which is perhaps quite rare as a phenomenon in this country,' said Laabidi, who went on to state that single mothers' rights were covered by the article and by other rights articles in the constitution.

The women's rights clause is scheduled to be brought to the floor of the National Constituent Assembly later in August for final approval. - Tunisia Live (

*Third World Resurgence No. 262, June 2012, p 51