x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Two years on, Tunisia's women go back to the drawing board

Despite playing such an active part in the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisian women have faced hurdles since the fall of Ben Ali

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

In Tunisia, during the days leading up to the overthrow of the former president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, women played an active role and maintained a consistent public presence. From singing songs about freedom during sit-ins, to projecting the voice of the uprising online and beyond Tunis, women played anything but a passive role during the uprising.

And yet, Tunisian women found themselves back at the drawing board when the post-Ben Ali government, under the Ennahda-led coalition, adopted legal provisions in the new constitution that reduced them to "complements" of men.

At the same time, as the security apparatus maintained its power and structure, sexual violence against women continued.

Despite the inclusion of a few women in high positions of the democratically elected government, accountability for violent crimes committed against women remains unseen. There simply has not been appropriate justice in many cases.

In response, Tunisian women have not wavered, staging regular protests and launching nationwide campaigns demanding justice in all its forms.

The process of drafting the new constitution drew widespread media attention. The significance of this legal step towards establishing a new system of rule following the decades of Ben Ali's authoritarianism was paramount. Yet, when the constituent assembly released the initial draft constitution in the summer of 2012, the inclusion of Article 28 drew immense criticism and led to the mobilisation of thousands of women across the country against the clause.

What did Article 28 say? The clause defined women as "complements" of men, instead of equals.

This seemingly small change had wide repercussions. According to Lina Ben Mhenni, a prominent Tunisian blogger and activist: "Complementarity, as a term, is large and fluid - each individual can interpret it differently. What is the government seeking to achieve or prevent by using complementarity to define the relationship between men and women instead of equality?"

During the pivotal moments of the post-uprising democratic transition, the inclusion of Article 28 was a step back; a clause that explicitly imposes a problematic legal framework for defining the position of women in society sends worrying signals.

Instead of championing Tunisian women with the same legal language as their male counterparts, Article 28 illustrated the government's overall disregard for the women who were actively involved in demanding an end to the authoritarian politics of the previous regime.

However, just as they were active in the days leading up to the fall of Ben Ali's regime, Tunisian women actively and successfully mobilised against the inclusion of this article in what would become the new Tunisian constitution.

Following months of campaigning, including the establishment of the Women's Organisation created by the Tunisian Worker's Party, a new version of the draft constitution was released on December 14 last year, with no mention of women as "complements of men". Instead, Article 37 reads: "The state shall guarantee the provision of equal opportunities between men and women in the bearing of various responsibilities. The state shall guarantee the elimination of all forms of violence against women."

Yet just a few months before the December release of the revised draft constitution, Tunisians mobilised in support of a woman who was raped by policemen in September. The case drew further anger when it was announced that the woman was going to be charged with indecency, after claims she was found in an "immoral position" with her fiance. Again, endless campaigning placed the story under the scrutiny of both national and international media, eventually leading to the court dropping charges against her in November.

Beyond the complementary terms and the violence committed against women, there is little indication that the structures of economic, social, and political power in Tunisia have seen much change since the departure of Ben Ali. The opposition continues to rally supporters in huge numbers. Protests demanding economic reform, such as the violently repressed protests in Siliana, are recurring, and the government continues to maintain a tight grasp on freedom of expression. All of these are continuing hindrances to the democratic transition.

While the Tunisian government rectifies its legal missteps committed against women, it is imperative to remember that the factors women are mobilising against are not simply limited to the government.

Maya Mikdashi, an Assistant Professor at New York University, writes that "gender and sex are a product of [state] intervention and regulation of the body by the intersection of state, economic, historical and cultural practices". Put into a Tunisian context, this shows that the problems affecting women are not confined merely to the political or legal sphere. In fact, they are a combination of politics, economics and culture.

As Mikdashi points out, it is seductive to highlight one reason out of many. But this is to simplify the violence against women.

Economics plays a big part. While Tunisia recently marked the anniversary of the uprising that led to the overthrow of Ben Ali's regime, there is a growing disconnection between many Tunisians and the Ennahda-led coalition government.

When Moncef Marzouki, the interim president of Tunisia, addressed a crowd in Sidi Bouzid, marking the anniversary of Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation, crowds booed him off the stage. The Ennahda-led government has continued to turn the uprising into a mere spectacle, while there seem to be neither signs of democratic nor economic evolution.

In a symbolic display of how the government has turned the uprising into a spectacle, a recent showroom set up in the northern city of Gammarth puts up the spoils of Ben Ali's regime for auction. From luxury cars to high-end accessories, the goods available for purchase were far beyond the budget of the average Tunisian. Yet the gesture of displaying these goods symbolically represents the ways in which the government has used recollections of the past regime as a convenient tool for political leverage, while avoiding addressing legitimate issues of economic reform.

The government is currently negotiating a loan from the International Monetary Fund. This shows that the neo-liberal economic policies of the Ben Ali era - policies that impoverished a generation of Tunisians and provided the economic grievances of the uprising - are not going to be changed.

That gender-based violence continues to occur with the implicit blessing of the state despite "changes", indicates that simply electing a new government or drafting a new constitution is not the only force women must continue to face.

The economics of the Ben Ali era facilitated wide inequalities between social classes. These policies are directly tied to the mistreatment of women, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. These institutions and policies, despite recent political measures to "democratise", remain in place. Additionally, the patriarchal practices in the wider society transcend political reforms.

Well-rounded measures that reverse the effect of decades of authoritarianism - measures that step beyond political reforms - are necessary for democratic transitions in the region.

Tunisian women played a vital and active part in the revolution. Two years on, however, they still need to agitate for reforms that will let them move beyond mere complementarity.


Samia Errazzouki is a Moroccan-American writer based in Washington DC. Her research focuses on Morocco's political economy and reforms. She is also a co-editor of Jadaliyya's Maghreb page

On Twitter: @charquaouia