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

Is Tunisia setting the bar for Arab women’s rights in the 21st century?

July 12, 2007

Is Tunisia setting the bar for Arab women's rights in the 21st century?

Tunisia is the only Arab and majority-Muslim country where abortion is legal during the first trimester and where women can obtain government-subsidized abortions without their husband's permission.

Women do not have to use abortion as a method of birth control like they do in some developing countries. An ambitious family-planning program has successfully reduced population growth through education and making contraceptives readily available.

In 1993, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who succeeded Bourguiba as president, amended the Code of Personal Status to give women more rights. This time an active women's movement could take much of the credit for the changes. A wife was no longer required to obey her husband, a special fund was established to support divorced mothers and Tunisian women could now transfer their nationality on to their children.

And Article 207 in the penal code reducing the penalty for honor crimes was abolished.

A man who murders his wife after catching her in an act of adultery used to be guilty of just a misdemeanor. Now, however, he faces life imprisonment for manslaughter. Compare this to the situation in Pakistan, where a brother who kills his sister can escape any punishment at all by "confessing" to his father, who then promptly "forgives" him.

Souad Khalfallah, President of the Alliance of Women Lawyers, recalls the opposition from Islamic fundamentalists when Article 207 was eliminated.

"I was a student at the University of Tunis at the time. I can remember the fundamentalists distributing flyers around the campus saying, "Apply the Quranic Law! The CPS (Code of Personal Status) is anti-Quranic." But the government refused to back down.

Tunisia continues to raise the bar for Arab women's rights in the 21st century. This year, encouraged by the National Union of Tunisian Women, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and other women's groups, the government has launched a full-scale campaign to combat domestic violence.

Nabila Hamza from the National Board for Family and Population, which directs family planning and reproductive health programs, is the project's national coordinator.

The project is conducting the first national survey on the frequency of domestic violence and is working with imams, religious counselors, policemen, judges, doctors, midwives and social workers to raise awareness of family violence and advocate for measures to reduce it.

Since January 2007, they have organized workshops in four governorates, or states (Gabes, Kairouan, Monastir and Jendouba), meeting with male and female imams and religious scholars. "Last March in Jendouba, we met with over 60 imams and scholars," says Hamza.

"People talked about how the wives of the prophet Muhammad, especially his young wife Aisha, were military and religious leaders, and how he turned to them for advice."

"The imams agreed that the correct interpretation of Islam completely rejects all violence toward women. They differed only on whether this violence is an isolated phenomenon or a more pervasive social problem, with some saying they had not seen any evidence of this problem themselves. Some imams have made a commitment to begin speaking against domestic violence in the khutba, or sermon, they deliver in the mosques every Friday.

Can a small country like Tunisia — population ten million — set the pace for the future of women in the Arab world? According to the 2005 Arab Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Program, women's advancement is "a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance, inseparably and casually linked to the fate of the Arab world and its achievement of human development."

For anyone who wants to see this kind of renaissance in the Arab world, the remarkable progress of Tunisian women is a success story they cannot afford to ignore.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.