Women's Rights Used to Cover-up a Counter-revolution, Tunisian Activists Claim

Published September 18th, 2017 - 07:12 GMT
Tunisia has seen widespread protests in recent days (Manich Msamah)
Tunisia has seen widespread protests in recent days (Manich Msamah)


  • Tunisian activists have accused the regime of using women's rights as a distraction tool after the controversial 'economic reconciliation' law was pushed through parliament last week
  • Protesters took to the streets in anger after the bill, which allows Ben Ali era officials to escape prosecution, was passed despite widespread ciriticism from activists and NGOs.
  • Just hours later, the government announced that a law which prevented Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims had been scrapped.
  • The timing of the move has been criticised by some, who believe that President Beji Caid Essebsi is attempting to hide the reality of life in Tunisia under the veil of  women's rights.

Tunisian activists have accused the country’s President Beji Caid Essebsi of exploiting women’s rights amid fears that the government is attempting to cover-up a counter-revolution.

The news comes as thousands took to the streets in protest at a controversial new ‘economic reconciliation’ law in recent days.

The bill, which will allow corrupt Ben Ali era officials to escape prosecution, was pushed through parliament on the fourth attempt last week despite widespread criticism from NGO groups and activists.

The move, on Thursday, drew widespread condemnation from many Tunisian activists, who accused the government of orchestrating a return to the Ben Ali regime.

The news featured heavily in the regional and international press alongside coverage and threatened to damage the country’s image as the so-called success story of the Arab Spring.

As anger mounted across the country, the Tunisian leadership announced the repeal of the law which banned Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men.

The decades-old law meant that non-Muslims who wished to wed Tunisian women were forced to convert to Islam regardless of their personal religious beliefs.

The move was seen by many as a positive step in the country which is seen by many as more progressive than neighboring states in terms of women's rights and also introduced a law criminalizing domestic violence earlier this year.

However, the timing of the announcement that the marriage law had been scrapped raised suspicions among many activists, who believe that the current regime is attempting to quietly undo the democratic gains won during the 2011 uprising, which ousted former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Activist Nada Trigui believes that the timing of the marriage law reform is destined to distract Tunisians and the international community from alleged abuses under Essebsi’s leadership.

“I think it was a maneuver to distract the international media from looking into the issue of the reconciliation law. The decision to repeal the marriage law was made a month ago. But it has only been put into effect now after the ruling parties forced a vote on a law that gives amnesty to public officials from the Ben Ali era for crimes related to the abuse of power and the misuse of public funds and assets,” she said.

She also accused the government of using women’s rights to pacify the public.

“The instrumentalization of the cause of women has become one of the easiest ways to buy satisfaction and absorb anger from the people that voted for Essebsi,” she said.

“Now that the country is preparing for Municipal elections, it is necessary to mend the bruises accumulated by the government over the past two years, and this is a way to get cheered as the liberator and reassert his image of a "modern" leader,” she added.

“For me, the cover-up of the counter-revolution is two-dimensional, it's about winning the image battle by diverting the attention of the upper classes and international media towards identity and personal freedom issues, and by winning again at the polls. This is why they chose to repeal the marriage law on the morning after the reconciliation law vote,” she added.

Political analyst Youssef Cherif also believes that the government is using the issue of women’s rights for political grains.
“The marriage law reform is a positive development, in line with Tunisia's reformism. The limited opposition by Tunisia's clerics.and.conservatives show that it is rather tolerated in society,” he said.

“However, I believe it is also an attempt to divert local and international attention from the economic reconciliation law, In a way, it is the instrumentalization of women rights for political gains,” he added.

Under the economic reconciliation law, officials who made money from corruption can avoid prosecution, provided they return the loot along with a penalty.

The law was spearheaded by current President Beji Caid Essebsi, a former figure in the Ben Ali regime.

Essebsi's secular Nidaa Tounes party and their Islamist political partners in the Ennahda Movement both backed the controversial law, which was first proposed in 2015.

Tensions simmered across the country in recent days with large protests on the streets of Tunis on Saturday attracting thousands of marchers, angry at the new law.

As anger mounted the head of Tunisia's Ennahda party said that municipal elections, due in December, would be postponed until at least next year.

Rached Ghannouchi told Shems FM radio: "We were not favorable to a postponement of the municipal elections but there are objective reasons for a delay."

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