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Tunisia, An Ambiguous Role Model For Women's Rights In The Arab World

Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed caused a stir by appointing Najla Bouden, the first female head of government in the Arab world. But as the president has assumed full powers a decade after the launch of the Arab Spring, it is a choice with a mixed message.

Photo of Najla Bouden in front of a Tunisia flag speaking at a microphone

Najla Bouden took office last October

Sophie Amsili

TUNIS — On Najla Bouden's recent visit to Paris to participate in a conference on Libya, every step was being watched closely. The new head of the Tunisian government appeared both at ease and discreet. Her public agility may explain why Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed chose Bouden for this position with limited political weight, two-and-a-half months after he took full powers of the North African nation, where the Arab Spring began a decade ago.

Behave like a woman and keep your mouth shut? Some fear that's the deal. Since she took office in October, Bouden has rarely spoken out. Still, the Tunisian president's decision to choose the first female head of government in the Arab world, along with several other women to hold key ministerial positions is not meant to go unnoticed.

Feminism as government policy

Since July 25, Tunisia has been in the news mainly for the seriousness of Saïed's actions; in order to overcome blockages in Parliament, he simply suspended it and dismissed his prime minister, before setting aside entire sections of the Constitution and announcing that he alone will legislate by decree.

Bouden's appointment thus seems to be a nice, low-risk communication operation to divert attention from the authoritarian drift underway. But is this the only reason? The historian Pierre Vermeren, a specialist in North Africa, notes that it is a way for the president "to make people forget that he broke the law." But he also sees another reason: "to show historical continuity with the feminism of the Tunisian state since independence and break with the period when the Islamists were in power."

State feminism is a founding element of its modern identity.

In the Arab world, state feminism is unique to Tunisia, and a founding element of its modern identity. In 1956, the former French protectorate had regained its independence only a few months earlier when its first president, Habib Bourguiba, launched this unprecedented and daring project: emancipating women.

On August 13, he announced the new Personal Status Code. Gone were polygamy and repudiation of wives. Marriage and divorce now required the mutual consent of both spouses. Further, the minimum age for marriage was raised, women had to contribute to household finances if they had property and their husbands no longer had "any power of administration over the woman's property." It was a fundamental legal text for the new republic, so much so that August 13 remains a public holiday during which each Tunisian president takes stock of the progress of gender equality.

A long history of women's rights

Bourguiba's breakthrough came after decades of a growing feminist movement in Tunisia. In 1930, a text by the trade unionist and writer Tahar Haddad was also a milestone, demonstrating that Islamic law did not prohibit the emancipation of women.

Bourguiba was influenced by French egalitarianism, which he discovered during his studies in Paris. His presidency "was not only a dictatorship but also an enlightened nationalist regime with a convinced policy of equality between men and women that claims as a model what [President] Mustafa Kemal had done in Turkey," says Vermeren, the historian.

Unlike Morocco, which returned to a traditional family code after independence from France, Tunisia chose to modernize. Some reforms made history, such as the legalization of abortion in 1973, two years before France. It was a first on the African continent and a first in a Muslim country.

Fast forward to 2011, when Tunisia set off a wave of political and social protests that would become the Arab Spring. But the revolution's contribution to the feminist cause was ultimately half-hearted.

Tunisians taking part in a protest supporting President Kais Saied

Khaled Nasraoui/dpa/ZUMA

A worsening condition for women

"It has allowed a liberation of speech and a greater mobilization of feminist movements. Those who participated in the revolutionary process have gained legitimacy among the population," says Yosra Frawes, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.

But Frawes adds that the condition of women has continued to deteriorate, blaming a lack of political will and the economic crisis that has affected the country over the past decade.

Ennahdha wanted to write that the woman is "complementary" to the man.

Since its creation in 2006, the Gender Inequality Index calculated by the United Nations has shown a decline in the condition of Tunisian women, particularly in terms of their participation in the economy. The unemployment rate is now over 24% for women, compared to less than 16% for men. The gap is widening for higher education graduates: 40.7% and 17.6% respectively.

Above all, the first democratic elections brought to power Ennahdha, an Islamic democratic political party that tried to challenge state feminism. But they didn't have much success. In 2014, the fight crystallized on the drafting of the Tunisian Constitution: Ennahdha wanted to write that the woman is "complementary" to the man. It was out of the question for feminists, who won the round with a historic advance: The preamble enshrines equality in rights and duties between all citizens.

About equitable inheritance

However, the secularists failed in another battle: equality of inheritance. Tunisia applies the Islamic law stipulating that a woman inherits half of her brothers' share. President Habib Bourguiba failed to carry out this unpopular reform. President Béji Caïd Essebsi hit a brick wall again in 2018. Since taking over, his successor Kaïs Saïed warned that he did not intend to reopen the issue.

Still, Saïed managed to bend his conservative reputation by appointing women to the highest positions. Beyond the president's motivations, the progress for the feminist cause is real, according to observers of the country.

"It's not just symbolic. It helps to turn women into political leaders," says Yosra Frawes.

Saïed has thus once again confirmed the particularity of Tunisia in its feminist policy in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, the price is regrettable in the face of the urgency to save another Tunisian specificity: the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a democracy.

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