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
TEXT SIZE - +
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 Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites 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.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid