Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 August 2012
Issue No. 1111
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Women power in Tunisia?

Tunisian women are becoming increasingly concerned at the possible consequences of Islamist rule, writes Lasaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

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Protesters wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration in Tunis. Thousands of Tunisians rallied on Monday to protest against what they see as a push by the Islamist-led government for constitutional changes that would degrade women's status in one of the Arab world's most liberal nations

Women's Day, held on 13 August, was marked by exceptional events in Tunisia this year, with hundreds of Tunisian women gathering for a night-time demonstration at 14 January Square on Al-Habib Bourguiba Street in the capital Tunis. The demonstration was a clear signal of defiance to the Islamist groups that Tunisian women feel are threatening their rights, despite reassurances that the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda Party will not seek to change the country's liberal personal status laws.

The fears had been stoked after the first draft of the country's proposed new constitution had referred to women's "complementarity" to men, which Tunisian women reject, saying that they want equality and not complementarity. The use of the word in the draft constitution triggered a series of protests, especially among the country's opposition and the nascent Tunisia Call Party led by former prime minister Al-Beji Caid Al-Sebsi.

In a statement, Al-Sebsi said that the personal status laws were a "red line" that could not be crossed, as any infringement of women's rights would undermine modern Tunisian society.

Some observers feel that the reactions to the word have been exaggerated, since it was used in a draft version of the new constitution that will be debated after the Tunisian parliament returns from recess in early September.

At the same time, article 22 of the constitution states that Tunisian citizens are equal in terms of rights, duties and freedoms. The protests against the use of the word "complementarity", some observers argue, have been exaggerated "by an opposition that has failed to make a contribution or present an alternative [to the ruling Al-Nahda Party] and has been left out of the transitional process at a time when the country needs to consolidate efforts."

Although the first draft of the new constitution is now finished, albeit after some delays, the rapporteur of the country's constituent assembly, Al-Habib Khedher, has said that it will be impossible to produce a final draft by the 23 October deadline, given the bickering among MPs on many crucial issues, such as the character of Tunisia's new political system and whether it will be parliamentary, presidential or a mix of the two.

Some political groups have used such delays as an excuse to call for a vote of no confidence in the Al-Nahda Party, saying that "it has not and will not meet the one-year deadline for writing a new constitution." Meanwhile, no real progress has been made in dealing with Tunisia's structural problems of unemployment and imbalanced regional development, stirring up a series of protests.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets across the country recently in such protests, notably in the town of Sidi Bouzeid, the cradle of last year's Tunisian revolution, triggering fierce battles between the protesters and the security forces, which used teargas and rubber bullets.

Several people have been arrested, and the opposition has denounced what it calls an "excessive use of force in dealing with the legitimate demands of the people". Once again, it has also called for the end to the restricted "troika" coalition government and the forming of a broader coalition government instead.

However, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Al-Jibali has not responded to such criticisms, and the leader of the Al-Nahda Party, Rached Al-Ghanouchi, commented that "the enemies of Islam are willing to destroy the country in order to ensure that Al-Nahda does not succeed. But their attempts will fail as long as the nation adheres to its religion and righteous path."

Al-Ghanouchi said that the Al-Nahda victory in last year's elections would "pave the way for the success of the Islamist project after the Revolution," perhaps a reference to Al-Nahda's desire to do away with the modernising reforms passed during the rule of former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, which are championed by the opposition as well as by Al-Sebsi, who has defended the reforms as fundamental pillars of modern Tunisian society.

The political dimensions of such conflicts have been illustrated in the fractures that have taken place in the ruling troika government and the unrest that took place in the constituent assembly during the last week before parliament's recess.

On this occasion, several MPs joined the Tunisia Call Party, making the Party a member of the assembly even though its candidates had not stood in the elections. This in itself will mean that the previous kind of heated politics will return in full force when the assembly reconvenes.

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