News / Africa

Tunisian Women Fear Rights Curbs

Lisa Bryant
For decades, women in Tunisia have enjoyed some of the most far-reaching rights in the Arab world. But a clause in Tunisia's draft constitution describing women as complementary - not equal - to men has sparked uproar and concerns over women's rights.

At her factory outside Tunis, owner Salma Rekik talks about the origins of her family-run business. The group, Cofat, specializes in automobile cables and food processing and Rekik says she feels comfortable operating in sectors traditionally dominated by men.

Rekik says there may be some wariness when she starts a new project. But that changes as soon as she asserts herself and proves she's efficient.

Rekik's views are also shaped by her environment. Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world when it comes to women's rights. Past Tunisian presidents championed them - although they stifled other human liberties.

Under threat

But today, many Tunisians feel these rights are under threat. Last month, thousands took to the streets. At issue: an article in Tunisia's draft constitution describing women as complementary - not equal - to men.

Leading rights activist Khadija Cherif blames the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, which inserted the language, for going back on campaign promises to uphold women's rights.
Cherif says the question of women's rights is central to the social and democratic future of Tunisia. She fears the country's achievements have been compromised.

But defining "complementarity" is a matter of dispute. Activists like Cherif believe the constitutional clause can be interpreted so that men may decide everything…and even allow for polygamy. Already, she says, women and even young girls are being pressured to adopt the hijab - which once was seldom seen on Tunisia's streets.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi offers a narrower interpretation.

Ghannouchi says there are several places in the draft constitution clearly stating equality between men and women. Only once is there a reference to complementarity, within the family. He says it means men and women complement each other - not that one is better than the other.

Progress

In fact, more conservative Tunisian women, like doctoral student Hajer Nadie, say they have more freedom today than before the revolution, because they can assert their religious beliefs. 

Nadie says under former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, she was harassed because of her hijab. Today, she feels free.

Business owner Rekik is expressing her views in another way. She's a founding member of a new, secular party called Nidaa Tounis, or "Call of Tunisia."

Rekik says she is wading into politics because she wants to fight for what women here have achieved. She accepts differences and freewheeling debate in Tunisian politics and society. But not rolling back women's rights.

Rekik's party is off to a good start. A recent poll placed Nidaa Tunis second behind Ennahda, with 20 percent of public support.

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