TUNIS – Dorra Bouzid is elated as she faces the slogan-chanting crowd. “It’s the first time I’ve seen an audience at such a fever pitch,” says this emblematic journalist, who wrote the first feminist column in 1955. She feels validated in her opinion: “I’m from the generation that built independence, I’ve always believed in my country,” she says. “This time again, we won’t be pushed around.”
Several thousand people gathered last Monday night in Tunis and other cities after breaking the Ramadan fast, to defend women’s rights, answering the call of opposition parties, feminist associations and human rights activists. It was one of the largest mobilizations since the Islamist Ennahda party came to power. Their “project of a society that discriminates against women is now out in the open,” says Saïda Garrach, one of the leaders of the Democratic Women’s Association (ATFD).
“The last straw,” according to Mrs. Garrach, was the adoption at the beginning of August of a draft law put forth by Ennahda. Article 28 of the new draft constitution states that “The state protects women’s rights and gains based on the principle that they complement the man in the family and are associates to men in the development of country.” “We want gender equality, period,” opposition representative Maya Jribi told the audience.
The protest wasn’t planned on this day by coincidence: on Aug. 13, a bank holiday, Tunisia celebrates the 1956 promulgation of the Personal Status Code (CSP). It was a pioneer law at the time, unprecedented in the Arab world, which abolished polygamy and repudiation, even though it still maintained gender inequality through inheritance rights and the authority of the father over the whole family.
Many Tunisians, attached to the modernist impulse of Habib Bourguiba, father of the independence, say Article 28 opens a breach in the CSP and that it “threatens our model,” as explained by demonstrator Naïma Rekik. The crowd of protesters issued a warning: “Jebali the Ennahda Prime Minister, forget it, the Tunisian woman is too strong for you,” they chant.
Going back in time
Nothing is definitive yet. Each article of the draft constitution still has to be discussed and adopted in a plenary session by a two-thirds majority. Also, the future preamble, voted unanimously, enshrines “fairness and equality of rights and duties between all citizens.”
Faced with the controversy, Ennahda defended its vision of family relations but rejected the notion that they wanted to go back in time. “The question of equality was settled a long time ago in Tunisia, it is even mentioned in the Koran,” said the Prime Minister in a television address on Monday, saying that the issue was being exploited for political ends.
But women’s rights aren’t the only grounds for worry and disgruntlement: inflation, unemployment, insecurity, dirty streets and water shortages are affecting the country on unprecedented levels this summer, angering many Tunisians. On Monday, after repeated protests, Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the revolution – was on a general strike. To quell the rumbling discontent, the Islamists announced a cabinet reshuffle, which should take place after the end of the Ramadan.