For the last fifty years, the rights of Tunisian women have been guaranteed by law, thanks to Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, in 1956. Not only were women given the right to vote and divorce, but abortion was also legalized and polygamy outlawed. Now, these very rights have been called into question as the country continues to move through its democratic transition at a rather slow pace under the leadership of moderate-Islamist party Ennahda. While indications are that after much back and forth and many protests, the legal status of women will remain in tact, but the mood on the ground has definitely shifted.
The third draft of Tunisia’s constitution is nearing completion, and an article aimed specifically at protecting the status of women has been included in the text. Furthermore, it seems that the Code of Personal Status (the legal document that has protected the rights of women since 1956) will not disappear. This is a huge win for Tunisian women.
Just one year ago, observers were not so sure that women would retain their freedom. And since the revolution, Tunisian women have refused to stay silent, regularly taking to the streets so their voices could be heard and demanding that the constitution include language guaranteeing their status and freedom. But as Ennahda went around the country – and the world – speaking about the future it envisioned for Tunisia, it became increasingly unclear what the party leadership really thought about the country’s progressive laws. In each speech they made, observers would see a different vision for the future of Tunisia and different ideas about where women stood in society. With the final draft of the constitution nearly complete, it is becoming clear that Tunisia's outspoken women have been heard, and they will retain their rights.
But while women seem to be winning the legal battle, they may be losing the battle on the street. Since the revolution, Tunisia has become more openly conservative; some elements of society are becoming increasingly vocal about the role they see women taking in society.
"I have been yelled at twice in the last few months for wearing a sleeveless dress in public. This is something I've never had to justify before," one women's rights activist told me in Tunis three weeks ago, "I want to be free to look and act how I wish." Though their rights may remain legally guaranteed, it is unclear how this will translate into day-to-day life. Furthermore, many Tunisians are still wary of Ennahda’s intentions and are suspicious of their motives. Even within the party itself, there are vastly different opinions about the future of women’s rights, contributing further to the unease and confusion felt around the country.
Needless to say, should Tunisia backtrack, it stands to lose out on future investment opportunities. Multinational corporations that have set up region headquarters in Tunisia may pull out, and tourism will certainly continue to decrease. In a country so desperate for foreign money to help it get back on its feet and to bring jobs to thousands of unemployed college graduates, this is a huge risk that is not worth taking.
But Tunisian women are strong. They are relentless. They have opinions and are not afraid to voice them. They know their rights and will not stand to see them disappear. While the battle is not yet over, it is clear that Tunisian women will not lose. They will continue to be role models for women around the world and will continue to be a loud and important voice in the global fight for women’s rights.