How Tunisia became the most feminist country in the Arab world

How Tunisia became the most feminist country in the Arab world


In Tunisia, women enjoy freedoms they do not have in other Arab countries.

In the streets of its capital you can see the women wearing miniskirts, smoking in the cafes or having a glass of wine in a fashionable nightclub. They are considered normal images in any western country. But this is not it.

99% of its little more than 11 million inhabitants are faithful Muslims.

Despite this, in Tunisia, women enjoy freedoms that are hard to find in the rest of the Arab world .

The list is extensive and includes the right to divorce, to abort, to vote and to run for public office, to create businesses, to demand salaries equal to those of men.

But how did this country, located in North Africa, neighboring Algeria and Libya, become the Arab country with the most rights for women?

The explanation goes back many years before the so-called Arab Spring, specifically to 1956, when the country became independent of France’s colonial mandate.

“That hateful rag”

“Before independence, women stayed at home, wore the veil and, basically, had no rights, what triggered the change was the high rate of access to education and urbanization, and an important middle class in which parents sent their daughters to study, “said Dora Mahfoud, a sociology professor at the University of Tunisia, to the BBC’s The Compass program.

Mahfoud explained that behind that impulse to the schooling of women was Habib Bourguiba, the first president of the country.

Habib Burguiba.
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Image caption Bourguiba promoted the modernization of the country.

Bourguiba enacted the Personal Status Code, a radical legislation in the Arab world, which banned polygamy and gave women almost the same rights as men , including the right to divorce and the right to education.

“As soon as he came to power, he pushed the parents to send their daughters to school.” He thought that becoming a champion of women’s rights was a good thing for Tunisia’s image as a modern and independent country. the beginning of Tunisian feminism promoted by the State, “he added.

Bourguiba also became famous because in the midst of that modernizing impulse he came to publicly repudiate the use of the Islamic veil, which he called “that odious cloth” from which he asked women to liberate themselves in 1956.

Dina Mansour-Ille, from the Institute for External Development, a research center based in the United Kingdom, noted that Bourguiba acted guided by the historical and political context, as in 1929 he had asked Tunisian women to continue wearing the Islamic veil .

“The nationalist movement was formed by a liberal and an Islamic trend, with independence came a confrontation between the two and as the liberal wing prevailed at that time we found Bourguiba trying to get rid of the traditional or conservative wing. to focus on a modern Tunisia and part of that vision had to do with women, “Mansour-Ille told the BBC.

Parity and new challenges

After independence, women in Tunisia continued to advance in the acquisition of rights, to the point of legalizing abortion occurred eight years earlier than in the United States.

“During the Arab Spring, Tunisia stood out because women protested alongside men and, once again, women’s rights went hand in hand with the struggle of the entire country for greater freedom,” Mahfoud said.

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Image caption In Tunisia, women participate actively in political demonstrations.

Thus, after the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali forced by a popular revolt, the country approved a new Constitution and new rules in which, for example, half of the candidates nominated by political parties are established to parliamentary positions must be women.

“Many countries do not have women in Parliament, but the Electoral Law in Tunisia states that women must occupy 50% of the candidacies of the parties, which is impressive and something that does not happen, for example, in the United Kingdom”, said Henrietta Moore, director of the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London.

He added that Tunisia is the example to follow in terms of gender legislation in the Arab world, as it was a pioneer in ending taboos and promoting women’s rights.

“While there are rich countries in the Middle East and in North Africa such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Qatar that may have higher levels of human development, they are well below Tunisia when compared in terms of gender equality”, added the expert.

A social problem

Despite being a pioneer in the Arab world in promoting gender equality, Tunisian society still has a long way to go in this field.

A recent report from the Ministry of Women and Family indicated that 53% of women in Tunisia suffer a violent attack throughout their lives .

“There is a lot of harassment towards women, there is a certain perception about the role of women that exists in some sectors of society, in rural areas and in poor areas both in Tunisia and in other Arab countries. -islamic, “said Mansour-Ille.

A woman votes in elections in Tunisia.
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Image caption The right to vote was one of the first conquests of women in Tunisia.

“If we look at Islam, it is not religion, it is culture that establishes the framework in which it is indicated that women should operate .” The law in Tunisia came to say that women could get out of that framework and that they can go further. there, but if you look at society, a part of it, still does not accept that, I think that’s the problem there,” he added.

However, laws can also be improved.

The Personal Statute Code does not sanction so-called honor crimes. The Constitution exempts men from punishment if they marry the woman they have kidnapped. Rape within marriage is not a crime nor is trafficking in women for sexual exploitation.

Henrietta Moore considers that in Tunisia, as in the rest of the world, what has made the difference in this matter has been education and laws, which does not avoid the conflict that arises from the right that some men believe they have over women, especially on those who depend on them as their wives or daughters.

“I do not think the problems are because of Tunisia, there is a global trend around the issue of terrorism and security that always moves against women’s rights, wherever a nationalist crisis or a border threat arises. , to culture or religion, the first thing that suffers are the rights of women, “said Moore.

The expert recommended paying attention to education.

“We have to look at how we educate women, but also at how they educate their children, and we also need to recognize that what is bad for women is also bad for men,” he concluded.

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