News / Middle East

Return of Islamic Leader Worries Some Tunisian Women

Return of Islamic Leader Worries Some Tunisian Women
Return of Islamic Leader Worries Some Tunisian Women
Cecily Hilleary

Last week, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi and other members of the Islamic al-Nahda Party returned to Tunisia after more than two decades in exile. Ghannouchi’s return—and the warm welcome he received at the Tunis airport—touched off concerns about a resurgence of political Islam in the North African country. 

No one is more concerned than Tunisia's women, who have enjoyed more than half a century of political, legal and personal freedoms unprecedented in the Arab world.  The 1956 Personal Status Code gave women a key role in Tunisian society; it abolished polygamy, allowed women the right to divorce and gave them access to birth control and abortion. 

Today, 99% of Tunisian women are educated.  Women participate actively in politics, law, medicine, academia, media and business.

Mariam Saari, a Tunisian women’s rights activist, told VOA she was surprised by how many women supporters turned up to welcome Ghannouchi.

“Tunisian women, we have freedom, we get paid the same as men.  We can vote.  We can divorce.  We can make our own businesses, for years now,” Saari said.

She wonders how women, in light of their hard-won gains in Tunisia, could support a religious figure who has publically declared his commitment to Sharia—or Islamic law—under which women have fewer rights and liberties than men.

In the biography, Rachid Ghannouchi:  Democrat within Islam, Azzam Tamimi describes Ghannouchi as supporting a balance of democracy and what he calls the “moral authority” of Islam.  Critical of the Personal Status Code and anti-polygamy laws at first, Tamimi writes that by the 1980s, Ghannouchi had decided the code was “acceptable” to his al-Nahda movement.

“What Rachid Ghannouchi advocates,” Tamimi told VOA, “is a democratic system that gives the people the ultimate choice of freedom.  They choose their government, government is accountable to the people, and he doesn't see any incompatibility between the democratic procedure and Islamic values.

"And I have him on the record saying that if the Tunisian people were to choose Communism as a system of governments or liberalism as a system of government, we have no choice but to accept that and respect it and try to change it through democratic means in the following election.”

In a televised interview with France24 television a few days prior to his return to Tunisia, Sheikh Ghannouchi insisted he did not intend to run for president or hold any ministerial post in a new Tunisian government.  However, this has not completely allayed fears among secular Tunisians that the collapse of the Ben Ali government—and Ghannouchi’s return—will open the door to a political legitimacy which al-Nahda was long denied.  They are also concerned that a revival of Islam in Tunisia could lead to the infiltration of religious extremists from neighboring Algeria.

Tunisia has been strongly secular ever since it won independence from France in 1956.  Both Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al Abeddin Ben Ali suppressed the Islamic veil on women or beards on men.   Tunisia’s legal system is based both on French civil and Islamic codes.  Sharia courts were abolished in 1956, but the constitution declares Islam the state religion and stipulates that the President of the Republic must be a Muslim.  Ghannouchi has, in the past, gone on record as saying that the Quran and Sunna are the “ultimate law.”

So, could Tunisia possibly see a return of religious law?

“It is up to the people to decide if the majority of the people in Tunisia or in Egypt opt to remove such incompatibilities,” said Tamimi.  “That's a choice that has to be respected, and I'm sure that al-Nahda movement would want to see a system of law and a system of governance that is in full compatibility with Islam.”

Tunisian-born Larbi Sadiki is Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter in Britain and author of Rethinking Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy.   He was on the airplane that brought Ghannouchi back to Tunisia. “He arrived to a quite joyous reception,” he said.  “Huge crowds, maybe five, six thousand people, which is amazing.  If anything, it's an affirmation or confirmation of the following still enjoyed by the al-Nahda Party after more than 20 years in a political wilderness.”

However, Sadiki said he does not believe a resurgence of fundamentalism will occur in Tunisia.  He characterizes Ghannouchi as a proponent of what he calls as “soft Islamism,” more along the lines of the Justice and Development Party—or AKP—in Turkey, and far removed from the Taliban or even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  Sadiki said Ghannouchi has “adjusted his ideas very, very deeply, in a way that makes him approving of democracy or democratic transition, the place of woman, for instance, the Personal Status Code, which is something the Islamists contested in the 1970s and 80s."  Sadiki said that Ghannouchi's change of mind about the Code "allayed the fears" of women and other secular forces in the country.

Sadiki said believes that the al-Nahda party returns to Tunisia not to dominate politically, but to share power with other groups.  “Ghanouchi himself,” he said, “when I was talking with him [on the airplane] and also, this is from his own pronouncements to the media and to the world, says that he will focus on bottom-up civic society building--government institutions and associations.  I do not really expect Ghannouchi, at the moment, to be talking about trying to confront Tunisia's society, which is still confused, with such debates.”

Sadiki paused for just a moment and then added, “It’s just not the time for that.  He won't do that.”

Though elections will not take place in Tunisia for several months, women’s groups in Tunisia will likely remain vigilant.   Miriam Saari said she is not terribly worried.  The fight for women’s rights is part of the fight for democracy, she said. “Tunisian women love their freedom too much to give it up.”

 

NEW: Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs