When one thinks of the status of women in the Middle East, one usually thinks of their lack of rights and freedom. However, the Republic of Tunisia shows how women in the Middle East can have freedom, rights, and political zeal.
Since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, Tunisian women have enjoyed a great degree of freedom due to the passing of The Tunisian Code of Personal Status in 1956. This document abolished polygamy, required that divorces only take place in courts,set a minimum age for marriage, and required that both parties give their full consent in order to marry. This is a radical difference from countries where women do not have the same divorce and marriage rights as men. For example, in Yemen, women are not allowed to marry “without the permission of their male guardians”.
In addition to giving women more freedom in terms of marriage and divorce, Tunisian women have had access to birth control since 1962 and abortions since 1965. In contrast, American women were only guaranteed abortions after the landmark Supreme Court Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Women in Tunisia also participated in the demonstrations against the regime of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011. They marched alongside men for democracy and against authoritarianism. One woman, Igui Najet, who stood out among the men for her political knowledge, was even encouraged by men to run for president, as they didn’t seem to think being a woman was a problem. The fact that men and women were on equal footing during the demonstrations created solidarity between the sexes. Bilel Larbi, a Tunisian lawyer, said that after standing side by side against the dictator, Tunisian men were not going to let anyone take away the rights of Tunisian women.
Despite this progress, women in Tunisia still face obstacles in a patriarchal society. According to the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, nearly 70% of Tunisian women are victims of abuse, with domestic violence being the most common form. In addition, the return of Islamist parties that were banned under Ben Ali has some women worried about the future of their freedoms. However, according to Khadija Cherif, a feminist activist, women “will continue to combat, which is to make sure religion remains completely separate from politics.”
When observing the various states that have descended into chaos as a result of the Arab Spring, one needs to understand what set Tunisia apart. Tunisian women’s pre-existing freedoms helped to set the stage for their political activism nearly 60 years later.