Tunisia has been long viewed as the most progressive among Arab countries in terms of women’s rights. This was also the case during the long rule of President Ben Ali (in power from 1987 to early 2011). Following the January 2011 revolution – in which women have actively taken part – most elements of relevant laws have been maintained or even improved, as evidenced by the human rights reports for 2011, published in 2012. The general legal framework established prior to the revolution still remains in place and is characterised by the following elements:

Muslim woman working on a computer
@GinaSanders / Fotolia
  • Political rights: The right to vote and stand for office is accompanied by a parliamentary quota for women;
  • “Personal status” (covering areas such as marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance): polygamy and repudiation (the right of a man to divorce his wife by a mere declaration of will) are outlawed; men and women are given equal rights to divorce and are required to go through the courts to obtain it; the minimum age for marriage for both sexes is 18; women have the right to pass their name and nationality to their children; the penal code specifically prohibits rape, including spousal rape; polygamy is illegal; abortion is legal.
  • Labour law: The law explicitly requires equal pay for equal work.

However, under Ben Ali’s rule these laws were not always applied – for example women engaging in political action faced arbitrary arrest and “personal status” issues were in practice often regulated by Sharia-based customary law.

The post-revolution period has seen some improvements, at least in terms of legal provisions in force.

First, the new electoral law not only provided for parity between women and men, but also required political parties to alternate between males and females on their candidate lists. However, few parties put women in the first place of such lists and only 49 women were elected to the Constituent Assembly out of 217 seats. In 2011 three of 41 members of the new cabinet were women.

Second, the interim government has lifted previous reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It only maintained the general declaration referring to Chapter I of the Constitution (see table below). Tunisia has been the first country in the region to do so. In addition the country is one of only two countries in the MENA region to adopt the Optional Protocol to CEDAW (the protocol which entitles individuals or groups of individuals to submit complaints on women’s rights violations to the CEDAW Committee).

The list of reservations to the CEDAW formerly made by Tunisia started with a general declaration that Tunisia “shall not take any organizational or legislative decision in conformity with the requirements of this Convention where such a decision would conflict with the provisions of chapter I” of its Constitution. Chapter I establishes Islam as the state religion. Other reservations, now dropped, mainly concerned the Convention’s provisions relative to family matters, including marriage, divorce and passing nationality to children.

Third, in 2011 women were allowed to use pictures showing them wearing a hijab in their national identity cards, which had been prohibited under President Ben Ali’s regime.

Finally, the national citizenship code was amended to grant women married to non-citizens the right to transmit their citizenship to their children without official consent from the fathers.

It should be noted that the reports for 2011 (partly due to their limited time frame) have not fully grasped all post-revolutionary changes in Tunisian politics. In particular, some later press reports pointed to the rise of the Salafi movement and local alliances that the Salafists are believed to have formed with the ruling moderate Ennahda party. As a consequence certain long established women’s rights are being challenged at present. Therefore many commentators argue that the actual impact of the revolution on women’s situation cannot be assessed at this point.

Sources

Annual Report 2012 / Amnesty International.

World Report 2012: Tunisia  / Human Rights Watch

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011: Tunisia / U.S. Department of State.

The text is one of the four summaries published on the same day by the Library of the European Parliament. See also:
Women in 2011–2012 reports: Egypt
Women in 2011–2012 reports: Iran

Women in 2011–2012 reports: Syria