TUNIS // Tunisian politicians have provoked outrage by debating draft laws that would impose prison sentences for vaguely defined acts of blasphemy and approving wording in the country's new constitution that says women are "complementary" to men.
The clash between the Islamist-dominated interim government and those who fear that rights and freedoms are being eroded is the latest struggle in the battle to redefine Tunisia's political and cultural landscape after the 23-year rule of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed last year.
"Bad day at the Commission of Rights and Freedoms," read a note posted last week on the Facebook page of Selma Mabrouk, a member of the centrist Ettakatol party and the parliamentary committee tasked with drafting a new constitution. The ruling, she said, "seems to break completely with the idea of equality of the sexes".
The panel approved an article to the new constitution under the principle that a woman is a "complement with the man in the family and an associate to the man in the development of the country", according to Ms Mabrouk's August 1 Facebook post.
The wording was passed by a 12-8 vote, with 9 of those in favour coming from Ennahda, the moderate Islamist political party. Its passage does not mean that the formulation has become law. The article must must be approved by another parliamentary committee and the entire new constitution put to a public referendum.
Though not the final word, the ruling drew widespread criticism.
Writing on the Nawaat website, which describes itself as an independent, collective blog, Wafa Ben Hassine, a Tunisian-American activist, said: "By defining women as 'complementary', we rob from the potential of Tunisian women - both within society and within themselves."
Ennahda prompted further concerns last week when it introduced a draft law that would criminalise offenses against "sacred values".
Human Rights Watch said the proposed anti-blasphemy legislation threatens freedom of expression, citing proposed prison terms and fines for insulting "the sanctity of religion".
The watchdog raised concern that "broadly defined" offences would restrict freedom of speech.
"If passed, this draft law would introduce a new form of censorship in a country that suffered from so much censorship under the ousted president," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director, in a statement issue on Friday.
The bill will be debated by the National Constituent Assembly, in what is likely to be a tense discussion.
In June, there were nationwide riots after some Muslims alerted religious leaders and their Facebook friends to the presence of artworks in a gallery in the upscale La Marsa suburb of Tunis that in their view seemed to question religion's role in society. The artwork included images of veiled women hanging from punching bags in a boxing ring.
The ensuing row saw government ministers condemning religious leaders for inciting violence but also calling for regulation to control the content of artwork. This infuriated artists, some of whom had received death threats for their role in the exhibition.
"I think the society is divided on the issue of the role of religion of Tunisia almost equally," said Radwan Masmoudi of Tunis's Centre for the study of Islam and Democracy. "About half of Tunisians consider Islam as a complete way of life, but there is another half of the Tunisian people who are more secular, who say religion is a personal matter that should not interfere with politics."
"This," he added, "is the historic compromise which must be made as we are writing a new constitution ... it's a very very difficult question and it's not surprising that it has come to the fore."
The headline of this article has been changed since publication. Tunisia's draft constitution has described women as 'complementary to men', and not Tunisia's draft blasphemy laws.