Thousands of Tunisians Rally For Women's Rights

Over six thousand Tunisians — most of them women — rallied this week to protest against a major question of word choice. After a years-long effort to create a suitable constitution to bring Tunisia forward in its Arab Spring transition, a newly proposed constitutional draft would refer to women as "complementary to" rather than "equal to" men under law. While this may appear to be a simple question of wording, the issue has major implications for the lives of women in the region.

Efforts to draft Tunisia's new constitution have dragged on since February of last year. Contention has centered around heated national debates regarding the role of Islamic Law in document. Tunisia's re-born Ennahda movement ruling the country's constituent assembly made promises early on to create a stable and lasting order to protect citizens under the rule of law and to help boost the country's flailing economy. But the party has struggled to balance pressures from various groups to bring forward a successful constitutional order.

Conservative forces have been pushing throughout the country's transition for a range of changes that would effectively turn the clock back on women's progress in Tunisia. They re-invigorated domestic debates, for example, over regulating the wearing of the veil (which was banned by Law 108 of 1981), and pressed to get rid of the country's 1956 personal status law that once offered remarkably progressive protections for Tunisian women in marriage and custody rights.

In this context, the proposed constitutional draft's approach to gender is a particularly delicate and important issue for Tunisians. Thus, with the new draft proposal announced, Tunisian women's rights activists took to the streets on Monday, marching across the main roadways of the capital Tunis holding signs and calling for the proposed clause in the constitution to be scrapped.

Protesters held signs that read "Rise up women for your rights to be enshrined in the Constitution" and "Tunisian women are strong." Some men even joined in on the rally; one stood beside his wife and held a sign saying, "A woman is no complement, she is everything."

The rally highlighted an issue not just important for Tunisia. As of the country's neighbors are struggling to balance constitutional frameworks alongside Islamic legal norms, a successful Tunisian constitution guaranteeing equal rights and rule of law, some have argued, could serve as a "regional model" for a host of transitioning states.

But this week's significant stirring of Tunisia's women's movement has also sparked counter-protests. One female counter-protester and government official, Farida al-Obeidi, told reporters at the BBC that the issue was being entirely overblown, saying that the proposed wording underlines "Sharing of roles, and does not mean that women are worth less than men."

Ahlam Belhadj, chair of the country's Democratic Women's Association, balked at the claim, calling it a "major retreat" for women. She highlighted the problem the constitutional wording issue could imply for Tunisia's future, saying, "If we stay silent today, we will open the door to everything else and end up surprised by even more serious decisions to come."