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A Mixed Bag of Responses: Tunisian Women’s Stance on the New Constitution

On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a referendum on the new constitution, a few months after calling for a popular consultation to identify the orientations of Tunisians on various issues and reforms pertaining to the political, economic, and social conditions. The referendum came after several extraordinary procedures introduced by the regime, including the dismissal of the prime minister, suspension of Parliament, and the dissolution of constitutional bodies and the Supreme Judicial Council, replacing the latter with a provisional council. According to the Chairman of the Independent High Authority for Elections, 94.6 percent of the voters approved the amendments. However, there was a low turnout, with only 2,756,607 voters out of 9.3 million entitled voters showing up, in what was described as “limited participation”.

Salient Amendments

One of the salient amendments was made to Article 5 pertaining to the identity of the state. The amended article stipulates: “Tunisia is part of the Islamic nation, and the state alone shall, under a democratic system, work to achieve the goals of pure Islam in preserving life, honor, money, religion, and freedom.”, with the phrase “under a democratic system” added to it.

Article 60 was amended to stipulate that the national legislature can be elected “directly”. Article 84 was also amended to bring the majority needed for ratification of Finance Law and Development Plans to one third of the members.

Another salient amendment enables Tunisian women to run for presidency. In addition, there are other amendments that covered several articles, including the one related to rights and freedoms. The old provision  stipulated that: “No restrictions shall be imposed on the rights and freedoms guaranteed under this Constitution, except pursuant to a law or a necessity required for purposes of national defense, public security, public health, and protection of the rights and public morals…” The new provision stipulates that, “No restrictions shall be imposed on the rights and freedoms guaranteed under this Constitution, except pursuant to a law or a necessity required by a democratic system, with the aim of protecting the rights or for the requirements of public security, national defense.”

Different Responses from Women

Tunisian women’s responses to the constitutional referendum differed widely, both for and against it. Some sided with the new Constitution, seeing the amendments as balanced, coherent, and promising, enabling building a strong nation after the state went through an exceptional political situation following the President’s announcement of exceptional decisions on 25 July 2021. For some feminist activists, the new articles are an additional guarantee of the rights of Tunisian women, particularly the amendment that guarantees their right to run for presidency, which was lacking before. Some expressed their satisfaction with the new Constitution, with it containing 141 articles concerned with public freedoms and economic and social rights, which would improve the status of the Tunisian citizens.

In contrast, others fear for women’s gains from the new Constitution. For many, there is a real threat that portends the atrophy of many gains that long generations have expended considerable efforts to achieve over more than six decades. Some of women’s rights associations criticized the gender-neutral language of the draft constitution and the description of the new constitution as “gender-neutral”. According to Naela az-Zoghlami head of Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, “the inclusion of the phrase “achieving the goals of pure Islam” in Article 5 makes the Constitution non-neutral and makes religion not only a cultural component but an important element of the political and legal life, which would  have repercussions for future legislation, guarantees to be protected, and limits to be imposed by the Constitution, in a clear reference to the law providing for women’s right to receive equal inheritance share as men, approved by the Tunisian Cabinet under the supervision of late President Beji Caid Essebsi.

In the same vein, several women associations affiliated with the Independent Women’s Movement expressed their fears over the absence of reference to a “civil state” in the draft Constitution. The statement of the movement noted: “After the initial reading of the draft Constitution, we express our serious concern over articles included in the Constitution that threaten democracy, public and individual freedoms, citizenship, and equality.” These associations also criticized replacing the phrase “gender equality” with justice. In addition, they expressed their resentment over holding a referendum under an election body that lacked representation of women, considering this measure a discriminatory step that blows the principle of equality provided for in the 2014 Constitution.

Qualitative Gains 

Since Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the country has been constantly trying to assert its political legacy in empowering women. First, it introduced the Code of Personal Status in August 1956, which was promulgated by a beylical decree and became effective in January 1957. It aimed at instituting equality between women and men in various spheres. Back then, the law provided for polygamy and granted women the right to vote, seek divorce, education, and work. In 1973, abortion was legalized and women were given other rights that strengthened their role in public life and supported their position in decision-making positions in the country.

Until today, Tunisian women are still obtaining political and social gains, considered a major milestone in the history of Tunisian women’s struggle, setting an example for their counterparts in the Arab world. On 11 August 2017, Law No. 58 of 2017 on elimination of violence against women was approved, in what feminist societies considered a legislative revolution. In addition, in 2015, the Rights, Freedoms, and External Relations Committee of the Parliament revised Law No. 40 of 1975 and ratified an amendment that provides for elimination of all forms of discrimination, pertaining to minors’ passports issuance and confiscation of passports or licenses in case of unapproved travelling of minors abroad. As such, minors’ traveling became subject to parents, guardian, and the foster mother’s approval after it was confined to the father’s approval.

The most notable gains that Tunisian women obtained are equality in electoral quotas, and public and individual freedoms, as well as the establishment of equal opportunities principle in the Constitution.

Beyond this, Najla Bouden was named prime minister, to become the first Tunisian and Arabian woman to hold this position. Bouden formed a government consisting of 24 ministers and a state secretary. Nine of these ministerial portfolios were assigned to women (ministries of Culture, Finance, Environment, Housing and Spatial Planning, Commerce, Justice, Industry, and Women, Family, and Children, as well as the state secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), accounting for 38 percent of the new government.

Notably, all of these feminist endeavors for empowerment coincided with the rapid change of the Tunisian public opinion over preference of men holding political leadership positions. A survey conducted by the Arab Barometer in July 2022 indicated that, out of nine Arab countries, Tunisia saw the largest decrease in the number of people saying that men are better than women as political leaders, i.e. a decrease of 16 percent (40% down from 65).

A Mixed Blessing? 

Many feminists fear that empowering women could be exploited to achieve implicit goals, far from those publicly stated. For instance, empowerment could be employed as a pretext for legitimizing the ruling regime and gaining international approval, particularly in cases where the regime makes extraordinary decisions that may provoke the international community and the human rights organizations, with Tunisia placed under the watchful eye of the international community.

Additionally, empowering women could be made capital of to upgrade Tunisia’s rank in international classifications, which ultimately bode well for the degree of international satisfaction with the ruling regime. Moreover, the level of empowerment of women in Tunisia could embarrass other Arab countries, particularly in view of the race of Arab and foreign platforms to issue reports comparing the situation of women in Arab countries.

That said, one of the confirmed gains of the empowerment of Arab women, is confronting the political Islam current that ruled several Arab countries, causing social and political damage to the position of women, damages that are still lingering amid the desperate attempts of Arab regimes to remedy their consequences.

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