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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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TUNIS (AFP)  “Women keep wary eye on Tunisian revolt, Fear losing rights gained during ousted secular regime”

January 23, 2011

Tunisian women are watching warily should the popular revolt that ousted the authoritarian president also unravel women’s rights bolstered by his secular regime in this predominantly Muslim country.

“I’m scared of the return of the Islamists,” said Sonia, a 35-year-old government official who declined to give her last name, as the long-banned Islamist movement Ennahdha prepares to enter the newly-freed political scene.

They’ll impose a new culture that is totally alien to us like the fundamentalist dress code  

Sonia, a 35-year-old government official

“They’ll impose a new culture that is totally alien to us like the fundamentalist dress code,” said Sonia, referring to the Muslim headscarf worn by some but by no means all women in the north African state.

It’s a fear backed by little substance so far — except for some talk on chat shows and warnings on Tunisian Facebook pages.

Ennahdha, itself, has said it will respect the country’s laws.

Yet Mabrouka, 29, a journalist who also did not give her last name, was watchful. “I saw a lot of bearded men today. I was really afraid. I don’t think the laws on women’s rights will change but the Islamists are going to be even more forceful than before.”

The 23-year rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was widely hated by Tunisians and banned many democratic freedoms, but observers say the laws put in place by his regime had effectively improved rights for women.

Protesters demonstrate against Ex-Tunisian President Ben Ali in Tunis
Protesters demonstrate against Ex-Tunisian President Ben Ali in Tunis

The new transitional national unity government has emphasised it will defend these rights but many women are concerned by its promises to legalise the Ennahdha (Awakening) as a political party.

Ennahdha’s exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi has said he will return to his homeland “very soon”. He has embraced moderate goals similar to Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development (AKP) party.

The worry is mainly over any changes to the Personal Status Code — a law first approved after independence from France in 1956 which bans polygamy and gives equal rights to husbands and wives in a family.

It also says divorced women and their children should receive alimony.

Women’s rights groups are unconvinced by the assurances of the new government, notably with some commentators in recent days using the new freedom of expression on Tunisian television to advocate conservative values.

One commentator has said allowing multiple wives would help right a demographic imbalance in the country, another has called for women to stay at home in order to solve the Arab state’s unemployment problem.

“Women should wear veils to prevent sexual harassment. That is what one hears now on Tunisia’s streets,” an article in the La Presse newspaper said.

Women’s rights are over after the revolution  

A Tunisian young woman

It spoke of “a new era in which questions that we thought were dead and gone are re-surfacing and threatening the rights we thought were irreversible.”

“We have to be prudent and protect the rights of women that we have fought for for decades,” said Dorra Bouzid, a well-known journalist and feminist.

“We have to be careful and multiply our efforts to protect women,” she said.

An incident in the streets of Tunis illustrated such concerns this weekend when a group of youths shouted crude insults at a female AFP reporter, jeering and mocking her.

“Women’s rights are over after the revolution!” one shouted.

Bouzid, for one, has called on the government, which is preparing the country’s first democratic elections, to set up a special committee to monitor women’s rights and to increase the number of women in the executive and the parliament.

Sihem Habchi, head of the French feminist movement “Neither Whores Nor Submissives” has also warned about the rise of Islamists in Tunisia.

“I’m astonished that outside of Tunisia and particularly in France, the head of the Tunisian Islamist movement… presents himself as a moderate,” she said.

“I’m concerned for Tunisian women because they had gained and defended these rights,” she said, pointing in particular to laws allowing abortion.

“We have to support them and be wary of any obscurantist temptation.”


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