Tunisian Revolt Could Threaten Women's Rights

The country was already known for its relatively secular rule, rejection of militant Islam and reforms of women's rights. Can these rights be preserved following the Jasmine Revolution?
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The uprising in Tunisia has shown alarming power, spreading to Egypt and igniting bloody anti-government protests.

Sparked by rising food prices and the self-immolation of a poor street vendor, the Tunisian revolt was spurred by ordinary citizens with democratic ideals.

However, the country was already known for its relatively secular rule, rejection of militant Islam and reforms of women's rights. The latter were exemplary in comparison with regional neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, where ousted president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali fled. Can robust women's rights be preserved following the Jasmine Revolution?

After gaining independence from France in 1956, Tunisia was strengthened by a central government not reliant on tribal loyalties and patriarchy, reducing the role of male kin in marriage, and fostering the development of women's equality in marriage, divorce and child custody. Reforms were facilitated by the government's use of ijtihad, a critical approach to the interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence. Polygamy was abolished, as was unilateral divorce, so it could only be granted by a court. But the most significant legislation occurred during Ben Ali's presidency. These included equal rights for all citizens, a minimum marriage age of 18, a woman's right to give her family name to her children if she is a single parent, and harsh punishment for domestic violence. Divorced mothers could be granted full custody of children and could refuse consent for the marriage of a child.

At the same time, female literacy rates rose to more than 64 percent and women's employment increased to more then 30 percent of the workforce.

Despite the reforms, some discriminatory laws still applied, as daughters could only inherit half the estate left to sons, and a husband was entitled to hold property acquired by the wife during marriage. And Muslim women were legally forbidden to marry non-Muslim men.

Ben Ali's wife, Leila, much criticised for corruption and nepotism, was a fervent campaigner for the rights of women and children. As chairwoman of the Arab Women Organisation, she worked on women's empowerment in Tunisia and abroad.

The Arab world, beset by low productivity, high birth rates and economic inequality, has been on the alert since Ben Ali was toppled on January 14. Early follow-ups were seen in demonstrations in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan, and a spate of immolations in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt.

As a result, several regional governments sought to pacify their populations with economic packages. Among other concessions, Kuwaiti citizens were promised one-off payments of more than $3500 and free food rations for 13 months, the Syrian government presented a plan to assist impoverished families, and northern Sudan announced free school meals and health programs.

A pledge to abolish new taxes for the poor in Egypt did not deter emboldened rioters, but a coup seems unlikely unless the security forces abandon the President, as occurred in the case of Ben Ali.

Notwithstanding despotic rule, pro-Western Tunisia has been extolled by the West as a model of moderation in the Islamic world, a Muslim country where civil laws prevail over sharia. There is no guarantee a future government will be able to withstand the forces of radical Islam that are determined to become mainstream.

Many Tunisian feminists, such as Munjiyah al-Sawaihi, Fawzia Zouari and Raja bin Salama, have criticised Islamic extremism and the subjugation of women. Bin Salama, who calls for the nation's laws to be based on the universal declaration of human rights, was vilified in a campaign by the Tunisian extremist leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi, living in London and head of the banned fundamentalist Ennahda (Renaissance) party. Ghannouchi has threatened to hang bin Salama in central Basij Square in Tunis, together with Lafif Lakhdar, a Tunisian reformer and male supporter of Muslim women's rights.

Ghannouchi is reportedly returning home, intent on filling the political void after the coup.

There are other reasons for Tunisian feminists to be cautious in a post-revolutionary period. During the Algerian and Iranian revolutions, women joined men to remove oppressive regimes in the expectation of a civil society and women's empowerment. But betrayals by their male compatriots and the new regimes left women worse off, with more sharia restrictions than before.

In Tunisia's politically fluid, post-revolutionary stage there should be clear support by the military for a civil society and secular government. And there is an opportunity for progressive changes envisaged by a new generation of Muslim reformers, seeking transition from the perceived failure of communism and Islamic fundamentalism to move to individual human rights and the democratic accountability of political elites.

It would be tragic to lose Tunisia as a bastion of freedom and women's empowerment unequalled in the Arab world.

Hard-won women's rights cannot be taken for granted, and it is up to the women's movement in Tunisia and the feminist movement worldwide to campaign for their retention.

Originally published in 'The Australian'.

Ida Lichter is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, published by Prometheus Books, New York

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