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The unfinished revolution of Tunisia's women
As the world marks International Women’s Day on Thursday, many Tunisian women fear they are losing the gains obtained before and during the revolution of January 2011. But some of them are not ready to give up.
To commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8, Amel Ben Attia says she will trade her customary jeans and sneakers for the colourful flowing traditional Tunisian robe still worn by peasant women in this North African nation.
For the 31-year-old artist and activist, her special Women’s Day garb is a provocative act intented at “showing all those who stole the revolution and who want to impose customs that are not ours that the niqab [the Saudi-style, all-concealing Islamic garb] does not represent Tunisian women," she says emphatically.
Attia was among the many Tunisian women who took to the streets in December 2010 in spontaneous uprisings that toppled Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and provided spark for the uprisings that swept across the region.
Tunisia has long been dismissed as a small, pro-Western, French-influenced county. But the North African nation has led the way in the Arab world, ushering in an era of democratic aspirations and holding the first post-Arab Spring election.
But the results of the October 2011 elections for the Tunisian Constituent Assembly do not harbour well for women like Attia.
The October 23 poll gave the Islamist Ennahda party the majority of the seats in the Assembly and led to the inauguration of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who heads a government that Attia caustically calls an “Islamist dictatorship-lite”.
“In Tunisia, the uprising started with good will. But it was then hijacked by foreign forces like the Gulf states and the bearded men,” said Attia, using a popular Tunisian nickname for Islamists, who sport long beards.
Denouncing the growing influence of the hardline Salafi movement and the attempts to make Islamic Sharia law the sole reference in the new Tunisian Constitution being written currently, Attia is experiencing a bitter aftertaste of the so-called "jasmine revolution".
A history of women’s rights
Women played a leading role in the popular uprising that led to the downfall of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. "We did not have genders at the time of the revolution. We were all in the same boat, men and women wanting to topple the dictatorship, men and women threatened by the police, we took the bullets,” recalls Attia.
As soon as Ben Ali was deposed after 23 years in power, feminists demanded that secularism and gender equality be explicitly outlined in the new Constitution.
These were not new demands in Tunisia. The country’s 1956 Personal Status Code proclaimed "the principle of equality between men and women" as citizens and prohibited polygamy. It also legalised divorce and abortion - 19 years before abortion was legalised in France. The country’s female literacy rate, at 71 percent according to UN figures, is the highest in North Africa.
Tunisia’s commendable record on women’s rights was a source of pride for Ben Ali, who never failed to cite it at international forums and in his longstanding argument that his regime was the only possible bulwark against Islamic extremists.
Backed by feminist gains, Tunisian women won their first post-Arab Spring victory in April 2011, when a law on electoral parity was adopted, making it mandatory to have an equal number of men and women on electoral lists - a world first.
From moderate Islamists to morality crusaders
But, for many Tunisian feminists, the overwhelming victory of the Ennahda party in October was a blow. Tunisian women’s rights activists now fear that the ground gained during the revolt has been stolen by the rise of the Islamists.
"Today, there are two projects and a societal clash in Tunisia: one retrograde and draconian, the other modern and progressive. The problem is that the first camp is going to win,” said Meriem Zeghidi, a leading member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a Tunis-based NGO.
In the run-up to the October polls, Ennahda sought to allay progressive fears by promising to guarantee women’s rights and freedoms. In what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture, Souad Abderrahim, an unveiled pharmacist, was propelled to head the party list.
But the party’s symbol of moderation rapidly transmogrified into a force of moral censure, defending “morality” and calling Tunisia’s single mothers' status "ill-repute”.
"Today, the issue of women’s rights is at the heart of political debates. Women's rights have not yet been affected. But between the references to Sharia, the statements of [Ennahda party chief Rashid] al-Ghannouchi on polygamy and recent references to Islamic marriages and female circumcision, we are not reassured ... " declares Zeghidi.
Attia herself has been harassed in recent months with verbal abuse and threats – once, when she was smoking in her car in the capital of Tunis, a passerby spat on her. But she’s determined not to give up.
"We must save the day and not lose our gains,” Attia maintains. It’s a rallying cry for many of her sisters as the world marks International Women’s Day.