Women's Rights in the Arab Spring
"When women thrive, all of society benefits and succeeding generations are given a better start in life."-----Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations.
The first ever democratic elections as a result of the Arab Spring that took place in Tunisia are a definite victory that marks the end of a 23 year old dictatorship under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. However, the victory of the Islamist party Ennahda raises questions, anxiety and doubts among the country's liberals and women.
A little background on the role of women in Tunisian society clearly explains why the election results may be alarming to many and why some may question what the role of women will be in the future. Tunisia has been at the forefront of women's rights under Ben Ali's regime. Tunisia is a progressive, Frenchified nation where Islamic tradition has always peacefully co-existed with modernist ideologies. It is not uncommon to see some Tunisian women covered from head to toe and wearing headscarves and others in mini-skirts, both accepted and tolerated in the society. The geographical proximity to Europe and cultural ties to France are perhaps at the root of this flexibility that Tunisia has demonstrated.
Tunisian women enjoy greater liberties, protection and equality than those of any other Arab countries. They have the highest rate of literacy in North Africa and outnumber men as university graduates and are the first among Arab women to be given the right to vote. The country has legalized abortion, banned polygamy, guaranteed equal rights in matters of divorce and written a legal code which explicitly outlaws spousal rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. Along with this, the women of Tunisia hold significant political power, being guaranteed a certain number of seats in the assembly. Basically, Tunisian women have been the most liberated in the Arab world.
With this backdrop and considering that Tunisian women have become accustomed to such a high regard in society, it is very understandable that they would now begin questioning if and how their rights may change under a new Islamist government. Fears may also ensue from the fact that critics of Ennahda state that it is a party which is moderate in public and radical in the mosques. Although representatives for the party have made declarations assuring that women's rights will be respected, a large number of women in the country remain unconvinced.
Ennahda has stated that with its coalition partners, it will model its government and new constitution on that of Turkey, which is a Muslim majority country with a completely secular constitution.
There is no reason to jump to conclusions and make assumptions that because Tunisia will now have a largely Islamist government that the rights of women will alter and be stripped. Only time will tell. However, the growing concerns of the women and liberals in the country cannot be overlooked. Given the history of the rights of women under Islamic governance, it is an area of understandable concern for a nation which has been governed as a secular state for many years.
To what extent Ennahada will be secular and Islamic is yet to be seen. It is unsure in which direction the balance will tilt. However, what remains certain is that a reversal of the rights and equality with which women have lived and are accustomed to would be injustice. It would be as if Tunisia had taken one step forward and ten steps back and a clear demonstration to the world that Islam and equality for women cannot co-exist. That would certainly be a sad statement.
Tunisia, being the country that pioneered the Arab Spring movement, the first in the Arab world to lead in equality and protection of women and the first to hold democratic elections is thus a nation which is at the forefront of innovation and positive changes. It has been highly regarded and respected for largely non-violent transitions in the right direction, an attribute which hopefully will be preserved.
Here is hoping that the women of Tunisia remain empowered and respected today and tomorrow.
Sabria Chowdhury is Senior Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star.