Earlier this week Tunisian President Beji Caed Essebsi sparked debate across the Muslim world by calling on his ministers to allow Tunisian Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. The Tunisian leader also called for a law which would see women given equal inheritance to men, a right called for by many women across the Middle East.
Many observers praised Essebsi while others including Egypt’s Al-Azhar criticised the president’s decision.
The president’s latest move appears progressive and follows the introduction of laws criminalising domestic violence and the removal of a law which allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims.
A glance at the Tunisian constitution reveals that the country holds some of the most forward thinking laws of any country in the region. Tunisian lawmakers attempt to paint the post-revolutionary state as a modern, secular, liberal democracy and a society of equals.
However, the reality for many is quite different and a walk through the streets of Tunis reveals a tale of two contrasting countries - the secular, liberal, equal Tunisia famed in western newspaper articles as the “success story of the Arab Spring” and the reality where abuse and harassment against women is common, bars shut their doors on Friday and men are sentenced to prison time for eating during Ramadan.
Mariam* is a 27-year-old from a middle class Tunis suburb. As a young woman, she stands to benefit from the supposed progressiveness of modern Tunisia. However, the reality of her daily life in the capital is very different.
“Women's rights in Tunisia are not as progressive on the ground as they are in theory. The laws are good but their implementation is the difficult part. The problem comes partly from the fact that the executive power doesn't apply those laws and partly because society is hardwired not to address matters such as domestic and sexual violence,” she said.
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Just last year, the Ministry of Women, Family, and Childhood reported that 60 percent of Tunisian women were victims of domestic violence. And 50 percent of women said they had experienced aggression in a public area at least once in their lives.
Meanwhile, The Center for Research, Study, Documentation, and Information on Women, a Tunisian group found that up to 90 percent of women had been victims of sexual harassment from 2011 to 2015.
Essebsi’s vision of a secular country is also at odds with the reality of life on the streets of cities and towns across Tunisia.
After all, Tunisia is one of the only countries in the Middle East where the sale of alcohol is largely prohibited on Friday for religious reasons. Most bars remain shut with only high end establishments aimed at wealthy Tunisians and foreigners allowed to serve alcohol.
Meanwhile, four men were sentenced to prison for eating in public during Ramadan this year. A judge in the northern town of Bizerte handed the men a one-month jail term for what he deemed a ‘provocative’ act.
The vast majority of restaurants in Tunisia close during Ramadan and police have previously raided establishments who dared to open their doors in daylight hours during the Blessed month.
The Ennadha party, affiliated with Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood, sits alongside Essebsi’s secular Nidha Tounes party.
The Islamic veil is worn by many Tunisian women and conservative attire is the norm in most parts of the country outside of touristic areas and the wealthy northern suburbs of the capital.
North African affairs consultant Youssef Cherif believes that Essebsi’s supposedly liberal outlook will spark much debate in parliament.
“There is a division inside Tunisia between a globalized, partly westernized minority and a more conservative majority.
“We can expect heated debates in the parliament once these laws are seriously debated.
“Freedoms for Tunisian women are much higher than in other Muslim countries. However, this is not to say that all Tunisian women enjoy the rights of European women, he added.
“Tunisia is home to both liberalism and conservatism. What Essebsi said will appeal to many liberals, and some conservatives as well, but most conservative minds are angry.”
Marriage among Tunisian women to non-Muslims is rare with their partners expected to accept Islam before walking down the aisle.
“When it comes to inheritance and marriage laws, these are based on the Islamic law and the Tunisian society, despite what so many might think, is a religious one,” Myriam said.
“Even women who stand to maybe benefit from amending those laws might stand against them. Changing the law is great but it won't be effective till the society is moved on from the religious ideologies,” she told Al Bawaba News.
“Of course I support Essebsi’s call for change,” she added.
Her views were echoed by Hind*, 24, also from the Tunisian capital.
However, she is suspicious of the Tunisian president’s reasons for the move.
“I am not sure what Essebsi stands to gain from this move. it seems so out of character. Perhaps he is trying to appeal to the progressive section of the country for their support but I think it might also be an attempt to brighten the image of Tunisia internationally with countries such as France and the US.”
Speaking about her hopes for a truly liberal future in Tunisia, Hind said: “I would like to see us teach human rights instead of Islamic rules in schools for our children because that will insure that the next generation will fight for those rights.”
* = Names have been changed.
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