Is Tunisia the beacon of women’s rights it claims to be?

We look at what progress Tunisia has made for women’s equality before and after the “Jasmine revolution”.

14 January marks five years since Tunisians successfully ousted President Ben Ali. Alongside calls for freedom, dignity and better living conditions, Tunisia’s uprising came with hopes for stronger rights for Tunisia’s 5.5 million women. Tunisia has a reputation for being a leader on women’s rights in the Arab world. But does that reputation stand up to scrutiny?

Here’s our checklist of Tunisia’s progress so far.

Right to vote? – yes

Women won the right to vote in Tunisia in 1957, one year after it gained independence from France. Although France introduced the vote for women in 1944, it didn’t extend that right to Tunisia, which it had ruled since 1881.

Encouraging more women political candidates? – yes

Women have been able to run for government in Tunisia since 1959. However, it took more than 20 years for a woman to be elected: in 1983 Fethia Mzali became the first woman to hold political office in Tunisia as Minister of Family and Women. Tunisia has had voluntary gender quotas for party electoral lists since 1999.

Gender quotas became a legal requirement in 2011. In October 2014, women won 30% of parliamentary seats – more than in France, the UK, and the US Congress. 2014 also marked the first time a woman ran for president in Tunisia. 

Representation of women in professions traditionally dominated by men? – yes… and no

In 2010, 33% of judges and 42.5% of lawyers in Tunisia were women. By 2013, women accounted for 30% of all engineers, and in 2014, 42% of medical doctors. Although women’s literacy rates are higher than men’s, and many more women graduate from university, there are still far fewer women than men in the workforce. Women also hold only three out of 30 cabinet positions.

Access to abortion? – yes…and no

Tunisia introduced abortion on demand (the right to ask for and receive an abortion without delay) in the first three months of pregnancy in 1973 – two years before France. Abortion on demand in the first trimester had been legal for women with five or more children since 1965. Free contraception was introduced in 1973.

But, evidence suggests that unmarried women are often refused abortions under the false pretext that the father’s consent is required. Even married women have been dissuaded from terminating pregnancies, with staff in public clinics either claiming abortion is immoral or deliberately delaying the abortion until it is too late to perform it.

Marriage rights? – yes… and no

Women and men have equal rights when it comes to marriage, divorce and property ownership. Men can no longer divorce their wives without going to court. Thanks to the efforts of women’s rights groups in the country and changes to the law in 1993, wives are no longer required to “obey” their husbands.

But, husbands are still considered to be the head of the family and must provide for their wives and children as best they can. Both partners must fulfil their marital duties according to custom and tradition – which are rooted in attitudes and beliefs that often disempower women. A recent government study found that women spend eight times more time than men performing household chores, including caring for children and the elderly.

Women protected from family violence? – no

Violence against women, particularly within the family, remains a serious issue in Tunisia. According to a 2010 government survey, 47.6% of women who took part had experienced some form of violence at least once in their lives. Of them, just under one third had suffered physical violence, 28.9% psychological violence and 15.7% sexual violence. Of those who had experienced sexual violence, the vast majority (78.2%) said that their intimate partner had been responsible.

Even though domestic violence is recognized as a crime, over half of those who experienced violence said that they didn’t tell the police or anyone else, because it was an “ordinary occurrence which does not deserve to be talked about”. Others said that they didn’t want to bring shame on their family.

Those who do report abuse often say that the police discourage them from filing a complaint, telling them to put their children’s interests first and not break up the family. Emergency housing and shelters for victims of family violence are scarce, preventing survivors from seeking justice as they have nowhere safe to go.

Women’s rights protected in law? – no

Although Tunisia’s 2014 constitution safeguards gains made by the women’s rights movement and guarantees the principles of equality and non-discrimination, laws that discriminate against women are still a problem. The Penal Code classifies sexual violence as an assault on a person’s decency, emphasizing notions of “honour” and “morality”. Rape is poorly defined, and marital rape is not even recognized. According to Tunisia’s Personal Status Code, a husband cannot have sex with his wife until he has paid a dowry. The implication of this is that once he has paid, he can have sex with her whenever he wants to.

Many women whom Amnesty spoke to said that they never refused sex with their husbands because they didn’t think they had the right to. Further, a loophole in Tunisia’s law still allows rapists to escape punishment by marrying their teenage victims. Although this can only happen if the girl consents, how freely that consent is given is questionable.

So, is Tunisia the beacon of women’s rights it claims to be? Not yet. But having taken so many impressive strides forward, the country is undermining its own progress by dithering over these last few but significant hurdles.

History is well within Tunisia’s grasp. Let’s urge its leaders to seize it.