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What price women’s rights in Tunisia’s new democracy?

Published time: November 22, 2011 07:24
Edited time: November 22, 2011 12:45
Tunisian women demonstrate for their rights in the Kasbah of Tunis (AFP Photo / Salah Habibi)

Tunisian women demonstrate for their rights in the Kasbah of Tunis (AFP Photo / Salah Habibi)

Tunisia’s first free elections have been won by an Islamist party whose leader is set to head the country’s parliament. Now concerns are rife that women’s rights will be eroded as the country is gripped in the vice of narrow Islamic traditions.

Human rights – primarily for women – and the prospect of the North African country turning into an Islamic state, are among the most pressing issues facing Tunisian society. Last week, a storm of controversy was sparked by a statement from prime-minister-in-waiting Hamadi Jebali, the secretary-general of the Ennahda party. In a speech to his supporters, he referred to the approaching era of the Sixth Caliphate and of a Muslim theocracy – a state under the leadership of Allah who proclaims his will through specially-designated individuals. The last caliphate – the Ottoman Empire – came to an end in 1924.

The Islamist Ennahda party won the Tunisian Constituent Assembly election having scored about 41 per cent of the vote, or 89 out of 217 seats. The final results were announced on Monday immediately after Jebali made his statement.

‘We all are the women of Tunisia’

The indignation of secular Tunisians and Ennahda’s potential partners in the governing coalition forced Jebali to explain his party’s position. The secretary-general said that his words about “the Sixth Caliphate” had been taken out of their original context and that he had meant exclusively the cultural heritage and moral values of which Tunisia was proud. At the same time, Ennahda is committed to modernization and democratic principles. However, his words were unlikely to reassure secular Tunisians. This row is merely a precursor of future storms which Tunisia seems certain to face in the forthcoming period of transition. 

“We are all the women of Tunisia,” stated Professor Khalid Kshir of Tunis University in conversation with the author of this article. Professor Kshir is a member of the Democratic Modernist Pole, a coalition of leftist parties. He fears that the Ennahda party will push the country back instead of moving it forward.

Just a year ago, literally weeks before the start of the uprising in the country, Tunisians had joked that theirs was a country of free women and happy men. No other Arab nation had ever granted so many rights to women, fixed de jure and de facto, than Tunisia. That was something of which Tunisians were proud, and even boasted about. Today, many people in Tunisia fear that the country’s achievements on the road to becoming a modern society will be brought to nought.

”We need to focus all our efforts in the sphere of politics and culture on women’s rights, because women form half of our society and any infringement on their rights will be harmful to all of us,” Professor Kshir went on to say.

Strange as it may seem, the issue of women’s rights was also on the agenda of a conference on promoting tourism which took place in Tunisia early in November, shortly before the final election results were announced. The conference was organized by the Ennahda party, which decided not to wait for the National Constituent Assembly to convene and the government to be formed before holding a series of meetings with representatives of Tunisia’s major industries in order to lay out the priorities for getting the national economy out of its post-revolution stupor. The discussion on the prospects for yourism was among the first meetings to be held, along with a conference on the financial market, co-sponsored by Tunisia’s Brokers’ Association.

Ennahda’s choice of priorities in scheduling its conference was by no means accidental. Tourists and investors alike have been dismayed by the outcome of Tunisia’s election. In fact, Ennahda itself has been similarly confused. It is one thing to be a long-standing opposition party and earn a reputation as martyrs, but quite another when you have to assume responsibility for the fate of your nation and prove your merits by tackling economic and social issues.

Hamadi Jebali (AFP Photo / Fethi Belaid)
Hamadi Jebali (AFP Photo / Fethi Belaid)

Ennahda secretary-general and newly-appointed Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali confessed during his meeting with tourism industry heads that his party had come to power despite never having aspired to such a role.

“We are not aiming to split Tunisian society, and we are do not intend to drag the nation back into its past. On the contrary, we guarantee that the main principles of democracy, such as free speech and human rights, will be observed,”

was Jebali’s core message.

The party leader’s comforting assurance came in response to concerns expressed by travel agencies, tour operators, hoteliers and bankers at the meeting, who voiced questions such as, “What will be Tunisia’s international image following your electoral victory? What will happen to women’s rights? How will European tourists feel in Tunisia, and do they have a reason to fear Islamists?”

What started as a discussion on the prospects of tourism eventually escalated into a broader deliberation on Tunisia’s prospective path of development. There are strong reasons for such an interconnection: tourism accounts for six per cent of Tunisia’s GDP and makes up 60 per cent of the national trade deficit. The industry employs 12 per cent of the country’s working population, while one in eight Tunisian families live off tourism, one way or another. During the revolutionary turmoil which rocked the country between January and September 2011, tourism revenues in Tunisia plunged by 38.5 per cent compared to a similar period in 2010, while the overall number of tourists coming to Tunisia sank by 34.4 per cent.

That is why at present Ennahda is ready for dialogue and compromise. “We guarantee freedom in food, drink and clothes,” Hamadi Jebali said.

He emphasized that his party would respect democratic principles and that Tunisian society would retain its progressive nature. According to Jebali, the revolution took place in the name of improving the lives of Tunisian citizens and moving the country forward rather than hindering its development.

Many of those present at the conference believed the words of the Ennahda leader – or said that they did. “I believe Jebali. I am an optimist but only on condition that the rights of women won’t be violated and if we don’t follow the path of Saudi Arabia where a woman can do business but is forbidden to drive a car,” Sihem Zaiem, a member of the Federation of Tourist Agencies, said after the conference.

Delegates applauded her when she demanded that the Ennahda secretary-general explain Tunisia’s true face to the world as soon as possible, and demonstrate Islamists’ attitude to women’s rights. Jebali promised that nothing would change in the arena of women’s rights. His speech was very convincing.

Political promises notwithstanding, the mood in the country is increasingly anxious. Tunisia has been shaken by a series of attacks on offices of television stations broadcasting films of women film directors, assaults on women teachers who dress in European style and a boycott of their lectures by female Muslim students.

Although Ennahda’s leaders have officially criticized such phenomena, nevertheless, Tunisians will have to face a new reality where the right to wear a headscarf could contradict the right to wear European clothes. The burning question which remains to be answered is whether these two realities will be able to co-exist in the new Tunisia.

Marianna Belenkaya, RT Arabic

­The views and opinions expressed in the story are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.