Medal-winning Tunisian fuels women’s rights debate

Runner Habiba Ghribi has become the first ever Tunisian woman to stand on an Olympic podium, after winning a silver medal at the London Games this week. Her victory has fueled an ongoing debate over women’s rights back home.


Tunisian runner Habiba Ghribi dashed to win a silver medal in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase at the 2012 London Games, becoming the first Tunisian woman in history to step onto an Olympic podium this week. However, her win has enflamed passions in her country, where rights groups say women’s equality is under attack.

Her victory stands as a milestone in Tunisian sports history, and not only because Ghribi is a woman. The small north-African country had been medal-less in Athletics since the great Mohammed Gammoudi won silver in the 5,000-metre race at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Her medal is Tunisia’s second in London; swimmer Oussama Mellouli won the bronze medal in the men's 1,500-metre freestyle on August 4.

“This medal is for all the Tunisian people, for Tunisian women, for the new Tunisia,” Ghribi, who finished behind world champion Yuliya Zaripova of Russia, told reporters after the race.

Her words were considered by many as a nod to Tunisia’s women’s rights movement, who are currently outraged by language proposed for Tunisia’s draft constitution that states women are “complementary” rather than “equal” to men.

Lawmakers from the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party want the new constitution to state that a woman is a “complement to the man in the family and an associate to the man in the development of the country”.

The draft text has drawn widespread criticism from opponents, who say it tears away the principle of women’s equality, which is protected in Tunisia under the so-called Code of Personal Status (CSP).

“This position threatens and undermines past achievements and allows for a patriarchal system that gives all power to the men and denies women their most essential rights,” warned a joint press release signed by several rights groups including Amnesty International.

Ennahda became the biggest party in Tunisia’s parliament in the October 2011 elections that followed the overthrow of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda, which was banned under Ben Ali, assumed power on the pledge that it would not weaken women’s rights.

Ghribi’s ‘underpants’

Aside from the debate over the new constitution, Ghribi’s Olympic performance in itself has become a controversial topic between secular Tunisians and more conservative Muslims, who feel evermore emboldened to express their views while Ennahda is in power.

Hard-line Muslims said they took offence to Ghribi running “in her underpants” - a reference to her running attire - while representing their country.


While her shorts are considered of normal length by Olympic standards, some said she was running virtually naked. “Tunisia does not need medals that come from women who are uncovered and naked. We should strip the nationality of she who has dishonoured Tunisia with her nudity and debauchery,” said one comment on the social networking website Facebook.

But Ghribi, who ran her personal best in the 3000-metre steeplechase on August 6 was defended by prominent Tunisians, like Ibrahim Kassas, an MP from the independent Al Aridha party.

“The underpants of Habiba Ghribi have honoured us,” Kassas joked during a radio debate with female Ennahda MP Farida Labidi on Tuesday. “What have [Ennahda MP’s] underpants done for us?”

Kassas went on to argue that the 28-year-old athlete had enabled Tunisia’s flag to fly at the most important international sports event and called on sports minister Tarak Dhiab to welcome her upon her return home.

Interestingly, the topic of the debate - hosted by the popular ShemsFM station - was not Ghribi or her Olympic victory, but the controversial language Ennahda has backed for the constitution.

Test for troika

Tunisian women’s rights activists are not standing idle, but have rallied to demand the language about women’s “complementary” status be stricken from the constitutional text before it ever comes up for a vote in parliament. A protest has been organised for August 13, the date on which the CPS was adopted 56 years ago and a symbolic day for Tunisian women’s rights.

Boosted by Ghribi’s Olympic victory, feminist groups are gaining support and may be turning the tide against Ennahda officials.

According to French magazine Jeune Afrique, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of Tunisian’s constitutional assembly and the left-leaning Ettakatol party, may be on the verge of breaking the fragile entente that allows the Islamist party to govern.

While Ennahda won the 2011 elections, its margin of victory was not enough to avoid a coalition government, the so-called troika, with Ettakatol and the secular and nationalist Congress for the Republic party.

Citing Ettakatol members, the magazine says Jaafar could resign from his post if Ennahda pushes ahead with the controversial text.

While opposing forces continue to battle over the final language in Tunisia’s new constitution, Ghribi’s refusal to be overshadowed at the Olympic Games has given women’s right groups a good reason to keep fighting.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning