Analysis

Tunisia Leads Again: This Time, in Women’s Rights

The country that sparked the Arab Spring now takes a bold move for gender equality, led by its 90-year-old president

Tunisian women with national flags show support for their government in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis, May 26, 2017.
Tunisian women with national flags show support for their government in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis, May 26, 2017. Riadh Dridi/AP

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi dropped what the Arab press described as a bombshell at the beginning of the week on the Al-Azhar Institute in Cairo, which is seen as the leading institution in the Islamic world for the study of Islamic law.

Essebsi, age 90, a secular leader born to a family of the Tunisian landed elite, made an extraordinary speech on Sunday, during the country’s celebration of National Women’s Day, demanding to review laws and practices that discriminate against women. He called to reform the inheritance law and the law prohibiting women from marrying non-Muslim men.

The laws regarding women’s status in Islamic states, which are derived from religious Islamic (sharia) law, blatantly discriminate against women. A Tunisian law from 1973 forbids women to marry non-Muslim men and obliges men to convert to Islam before they are allowed to marry.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi delivers a speech in Tunis, May 10, 2017.
Hassene Dridi/AP

Despite this, women’s status in Tunisia is more advanced and they have more rights than their sisters in any other Muslim Mideast state. Unlike women in Saudi Arabia, in Tunisia women can work in any profession, have equal rights to men in most spheres, and hold almost half the jobs in law and medicine. The law forbids polygamy and allows a woman to divorce her spouse, just as a man can.

Essebsi could have made a routine speech praising the status of women in his country, but instead he took a big step forward, after obtaining the approval of the state’s ruling institution of religious law.

“Essebsi’s proposals oppose sharia,” Al-Azhar director Abbas Shuman said in rage. “The inheritance matter is perfectly clear and written in Koranic verses that are not in dispute.”

Al-Azhar is seen as the most important Sunni institution in the field of interpreting Islamic law, and its rulings guide Muslim sharia sages worldwide. But like in Judaism, Islam grants freedom of interpretation.

However, Shuman based his objection on practical arguments as well. “Marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men could harm domestic peace, which is the goal of marriage,” he said.

The controversy also reflects a struggle over Al-Azhar’s prestige and status in the Muslim world and in Egypt. The institution, which grants the Egyptian administration religious legitimacy, has come under fire from President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi for failing to take a stand against radical and terror organizations.

Sissi has blasted Al-Azhar for not waging an all-out campaign against extremist Islamic organizations and for evading the use of social networks to disseminate moderate ideas. Last April he set up the Higher Council to Combat Terror and Radicalism, which he heads with the interior minister and Egyptian intellectuals.

Granting the council supreme authority in areas from legislation to propaganda, Sissi effectively “retired” Al-Azhar, as one Egyptian journalist put it. The president wants to create a new religious discourse that would neutralize the extreme, reactionary Salafi ideas and educate the young generation on principles of moderation and tolerance.

At the same time, Sissi fully supports Salafi political movements, which he expects to support his struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

So Essebsi’s speech came at a good time for Sissi, who until now has refrained from making any changes in women’s status, apart from enacting legislation criminalizing sexual harassment. The previous law vaguely referred to such offenses as indecent assault, which was difficult to prove.

In this area, too, Tunisia is much more advanced. The law on violence against women enacted this year defines sexual and mental abuse as violence, in addition to physical assault. The law requires setting up teams to help battered women and operate shelters for them, while tasking the health services with detecting cases of violence and reporting them.

Sissi doesn’t mind the criticism against Al-Azhar on the social networks over the institute’s meddling in Tunisia’s internal affairs. As far as he’s concerned, every state can practice its own brand of Islam.

Even the Islamic party Ennahda, formed in 1981 in Tunisia as a non-violent movement, doesn’t flatly object to Essebsi’s proposed changes. The party set a precedent by waiving its victory in the elections after the Arab Spring in 2011, in which it gained more than 37 percent of the votes. Its leader Rached Ghannouchi didn’t take any official role in the government that his party set up, but following public criticism of that government’s conduct, he agreed to withdraw from the government after the constitution had been drafted.

Perhaps the Egyptian army’s ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, a year earlier had an effect on the movement. Ennahda said its withdrawal stemmed from the desire to preserve the nation’s unity despite the political price it had to pay.

In the next elections in 2014 the movement received some 28 percent of the votes, but didn’t contend for the presidency, and Essebsi became president. The extraordinary political partnership between Essebsi and Ghannouchi, despite their very different worldviews, yielded a stable government that has gained the public’s support.

Despite the Tunisian democracy’s progress toward gender equality, the discrimination will not disappear with the new legislation. Women are still discriminated against, especially in conservative, rural areas where social customs prevail. Women are paid less than men and women’s harassment at work is a matter of routine, while the courts and police still see women who complain as “rebellious.”

Still, the Tunisian woman’s status is way ahead of that of her Egyptian and certainly her Saudi Arabian counterpart. The latter is still fighting for basic rights like traveling abroad without a companion, the right to initiate divorce and the right to have her children, when born to a non-Saudi man, recognized.

In Tunisia, an awareness of gender equality has existed since the ‘50s, and women there are fighting to have the laws implemented.

Regrettably, the innovations Essebsi wishes to implement are not expected to cross the state’s borders and influence women’s status in other Muslim states.