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Tunisia as an Arab Women’s Rights Leader (Part I)

How does the North African country of Tunisia offer a different take on women’s rights?

July 11, 2007

How does the North African country of Tunisia offer a different take on women's rights?

Under the brutal but secular regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women benefited from some of the most female-friendly policies in the Arab world. Now, under the new Shia-dominated government, Islamist militias threaten women who do not follow their conservative dress code — and assassinate female teachers for educating illiterate women.

In Jordan, Syria, Egypt and most other Arab countries, a man who murders his female relative to defend family "honor" receives a reduced penalty — or may not be sent to prison at all. Jordanian feminists and the Hashemite Royal Family have tried to abolish the law, but conservative legislators refuse to change it.

In the Palestinian territories, despite the existence of a strong and vibrant women's movement, rapists are not prosecuted, while victims are forced to marry their assailants to "protect" the family's reputation. In non-Arab Iran, women are stoned to death for adultery, while men can enter into legal "temporary marriages" if they want to have extra-marital sex.

But the picture looks very different for women in the small North African country of Tunisia — which is proud of its Arab, Islamic and Mediterranean heritage and its commitment to the values of "moderation, tolerance, religious pluralism and equality for women."

Women constitute one-third of Tunisia's university professors, 58% of its university students, more than one-fourth of its judges, 23% of the members of parliament and are represented in the police and the armed forces. The illiteracy rate for women has dropped dramatically from 82% in 1966 to 31% in 2004.

The Tunisian Solidarity Bank makes loans to female entrepreneurs like Gamra Zeid, a 38-year-old mother with a sixth grade education, who received 10,000 Tunisian dinars ($7,700) to start a shoe sole factory.

Women have been given bank loans to open pastry shops, daycare centers, dress stores and other micro-enterprises. And their businesses make a significant contribution to Tunisia's economy: Female-owned businesses are almost twice as likely to survive after five years as those run by men.

But what really sets Tunisia apart from other Arab countries and most majority-Muslim states are its policies on marriage, divorce, child support, abortion, honor crimes and domestic violence. After all, what does it matter if a woman can attend university, own her own business and run for political office if she cannot choose her own husband and be free from violence perpetrated by her own family members?

Tunisia has had the most progressive policies on women in the Arab world ever since President Habib Bourguiba proclaimed the Code of Personal Status in August 1956, five months after declaring its independence from France.

The code abolished polygamy without exception and punished a man who married a second wife with a year in prison and a fine. It forbid husbands from unilaterally divorcing their wives and gave women more child custodial rights.

Bourguiba and the liberal nationalists who came to power in 1956 were not responding to the demands of a feminist movement, as there was none at the time.

They saw improving women's rights as an integral part of their effort to turn Tunisia into a modern country free from "anachronistic traditions and backward mentalities."

They also drew on the ideas of Tahar Haddad, the Tunisian Islamic reformer who wrote the famous book “Our Women in the Shari ‘a and Society” over 70 years ago. "Islam is an endless source of progress," Haddad wrote. "It preaches the equality of all people, particularly between men and women, whom God created as equals."

Haddad spoke out against forcing young girls into early marriages and giving women the right to work outside the home.

Dr. Kamel Omran, a leading Tunisian Imam and a lecturer in the Arabic Department of Al-Zaytouna University, follows the tradition of Islamic modernists in his interpretation of Quranic verses on polygamy. Most Muslims — and non-Muslims as well — believe the Qur'an allows a man to marry up to four wives.

But that is not what it says at all. Dr. Omran explains, "The Qur'an limits polygamy to a specific context — men were allowed to marry widows or orphan girls during a state of war when many Muslim men were killed" (Qur'an: Sura 4, Verse 3).

"Because of the widespread consensus among both religious scholars and the general public, polygamy in Tunisia is now unthinkable."

Compare the Tunisian interpretation of the Qur'an to the one in Saudi Arabia, which last March allowed a 110-year-old Saudi man to marry a 30-year-old woman because his 85-year-old wife "could not satisfy him." This man was not acting according to Qur'anic principles but from a widespread mistaken interpretation of the Muslim sacred text.

"It is custom, not faith, which is responsible for this kind of patriarchal interpretation of Islam," says Imam Omran. "Following the Qur'an and Sunna, the traditions of the prophet Muhammad, should make people more, not less, lenient toward women."

He also says there is no religious commandment that obligates women to cover their hair. "Islam requires women to dress modestly, which means covering her arms and legs. The hair is optional."

Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.