Women in Tunisia During the Arab Spring: A Case Study for Inclusive Peacebuilding and Gender Reform

Author: Nicole Smith, 2019.

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“This research aims to uncover insights into how women’s roles within the peacebuilding process in Tunisia enabled continued participation and positive change, so that future conflict-impacted areas can use the country as a case study when implementing their peacebuilding frameworks.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons.  


I. Introduction

During the Arab Spring, women were everywhere. From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain to Yemen, Libya, Syria, Morocco and Jordan, women mobilized across geographies and socioeconomic backgrounds to lead and participate as organizers and demonstrators. They put their lives on the line alongside their male counterparts, to demand change and equality. While so many of these revolts were led and started by women, their leadership was mostly temporary as they were forced to return to gendered roles following the uprising, or worse, were uniquely punished for their participation. Only Tunisia, the first country to demand democracy in 2011, saw women both maintain leadership roles and usher in legislation to advance gender equality. But how did women in Tunisia maintain inclusion and momentum following the Arab Spring? Why is Tunisia different and what were the conditions present for women to capitalize on their leadership in the struggle for democracy?

This research aims to uncover insights into how women’s roles within the peacebuilding process in Tunisia enabled continued participation and positive change, so that future conflict-impacted areas can use the country as a case study when implementing their peacebuilding frameworks. The research highlights how Tunisian women’s continued leadership was a result of their inclusion within the constitution-drafting process, the implementation of government quotas as a mechanism to ensure participation, influence within the trade union system, and legislation addressing violence against women. Existing legislation, specifically the Code of Personal Status (CPS), also served as a strong starting point from which women could enact further change.

II. Addressing the Gaps in the Tunisian Context

To uncover how women strategically and effectively sustained their inclusion in the democratic revolution in Tunisia, this analysis draws from a variety of sources. To understand why women did not maintain inclusion following previous democratic transitions, this study uses a chapter titled “Women Activists in Democratic Transitions” from Georgina Waylen’s 2015 book, Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders,as a framework. Waylen found that differences in women’s success are due to a variety of factors such as: “the importance of women’s organizing; the ability of female activists to build broad coalitions involving allies in the bureaucracy political parties, legislatures and civil society; and activists’ ability to frame their issues effectively” (Waylen 381). This framework proved useful as it examines previous democratic revolutions where women were sidelined, and argues why women need to take a multi-pronged approach to maximize inclusion and influence within the political realm. For example, while women in Chile played an important role in the revolution of the 1980s, reforms were hampered because there was no constitutional convention. Waylen writes:

Chilean female activists organized prior to the 1989 elections to ensure that their demands were included in the manifesto of the winning centre-left coalition, yet without a constitutional convention where women could play a role in framing the outcome document, demands for reform were much harder to achieve (382).

Waylen concludes that it is essential for women to organize as early as possible in the transition process, form alliances, intervene in the full range of political processes, develop a platform that can unite different groups of women, and maintain momentum during the implementation and consolidation phases (Waylen 400-401).

While researchers have begun to analyze women’s continued participation within the Tunisian government and legislative process, a comprehensive overview as to how women sustained inclusion is missing. This research draws on reporting and analysis to produce an extensive look at women’s participation in Tunisia during the democratic transition — filling a knowledge gap that can serve as a case study for international organizations, states, and local leaders to ensure women maintain active participation within peacebuilding.

III. Building Upon a Solid Foundation: Code of Personal Status 

Following Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, state-initiated family law reforms ensured that each citizen was treated equally. Led by Prime Minister and later President of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, new legislation included the CPS, “which abolished polygamy, established the minimal age for marriage, introduced the requirement of mutual consent of both parties for a marriage, and created a judicial procedure for divorce” (“Tunisia Passes Historic Law to End Violence Against Women and Girls”). Bourguiba was likely inspired to create the CPS by a combination of factors such as the early death of his mother, his time living in Paris, and popular literature of the time, including feminist magazines. Such literature emphasized that the future of Islam lies in its ability to modernize, which included improved conditions for women (Pace). While Bourguiba is credited with the CPS, further research is required to see if and how women had a direct impact on its drafting, ratification, and implementation.

The CPS was critical as Tunisian women became involved in drafting the new 2011 constitution and pushed for more progressive reforms. The CPS focused on equality within traditional roles in the home, and reforms would have likely been more difficult to achieve without this existing legislation. For example, when a draft of the new constitution used the term “complimentary” to refer to men and women in Article 28, which focused on roles within the family, activists cited the CPS as a precedent for equality that could not be reversed (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 121). The CPS granted women equal rights within the home, whereas the term complimentary is open to interpretation, “especially in a society where local customs and religious norms are part of the template of identity” (Sadiki). On Tunisian Women’s Day in 2012, women’s groups organized a mass sit-in in front of the National Constituent Assembly to secure equal rights under the constitution (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 101). Tunisian women refused to settle for legislation that was up for interpretation. By drawing on the CPS and through organized protests, women ensured their right to equality in the constitution.

IV. Women’s Involvement Within the Drafting of a New Constitution

Women’s participation in drafting the new constitution included their involvement within the constituent assembly and women’s groups, with the latter having the strongest impact (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 149). Election lists for the 2011 election of the constituent assembly required every second candidate to be a woman. As a result, women secured over 25 percent of seats in the National Constituent Assembly (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 131). While parity was not immediately reached and women’s groups pushed back against the roles given to elected women (i.e. “Spot-fillers with little opportunity to contribute),” others saw it as “a foot in the door” (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 131).

The constitution-making process, therefore, was used by women to mobilize local efforts, connect with gender rights advocates, and participate in transnational dialogue. Tunisian leadership also chose to use the constitution-drafting process to practice democracy by allowing for open and inclusive participation from both within and outside the government. This factor produced great stability during the country’s transition and led to constitutional “guarantees on gender equality, religion-state relations, rights in the family, rights to political participation, and the employment of programmatic rights” (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 92). In 2014, Tunisia withdrew all of its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), further proclaiming the country’s commitment to advance women’s rights (“Tunisia: Landmark Action on Women’s Rights”).

While women in leadership roles were low in number at the decision-making level, they oversaw the Committee on Human Rights and Liberties, tasked with most issues pertaining to women (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 97-98). Women’s involvement was also not a one-size-fits-all approach. Women’s groups used open forums to ensure localization of issues and the inclusion of different viewpoints across the country. During the early stages of the drafting process, one of the Members of Parliament organized a lunchtime meeting for all female members to discuss what they viewed as the most pressing issues. Tunisian women’s groups also connected with women in South Africa to learn best practices following their own constitution-drafting process, which among other measures, guarantees equality between genders (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 116).

In contrast, women in Egypt did not participate in the constitution-drafting process. Only one woman, a holdover from the previous regime, was appointed to the interim cabinet (Cole and Cole). The ruling military council in Egypt appointed the committee. There were no elections for the constituent assembly, let alone quotas. The resulting constitution reflected a political compromise between the military and the Sunni Islamic organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, “rather than a response to calls from women’s right advocates” (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 123). In fact, the new constitution took a step back from the rights embedded within the 1971 version as women are now included within the chapter focused on moral foundations, rather than rights and freedoms (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 123).

While the openness of male leaders in Tunisia to include quotas for women in the constitutional assembly likely aided their efforts, it was the leadership of women’s groups and those within the legislature that truly ensured the strong outcomes for women within the constitution. For example, women used open forums as an educational opportunity (which allowed for debate on issues outside the public realm), focused on inclusivity, and refused to settle for “complementary” rather than equal rights language. Tunisian women were also able to play an important role throughout the entire constitution-drafting process since peacebuilding was civilian-led, allowing for elections and continued discourse that involved women. The women in Tunisia recognize that constitutional guarantees are nothing without enforcement and have turned their focus to ensuring legislative representation is both meaningful and high in number (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 145). By having women represented and in positions of influence, there is a greater opportunity to strengthen and expand women’s rights.

V. Governmental Quotas and Leadership

In 2018, women made up 47 percent of local council positions in Tunisia (“Historic Leap in Tunisia”). This dramatic increase follows a 2016 electoral law that requires men and women to alternate their placement on election lists (“Historic Leap in Tunisia”). The law makes Tunisia one of the only countries that require equal representation both across and down candidates lists (“Historic Leap in Tunisia”). The 2016 electoral law did not come without struggle. Women made up only a quarter of the constitutional assembly in 2011 and held minimal leadership roles. The women in the constitutional assembly spent close to five years fighting for parity, facing continued resistance from religious and patriarchal social norms. While women showed up in larger numbers at the polls in 2011, research from 2012 shows that young women demonstrated low levels of political awareness and female politicians had very low visibility one year after the revolution (Ben Yahia and Borovsky 25). Continued education, unified organizing, and lobbying from women’s groups are needed to push forward current legislation.

In Egypt, previous quotas were removed from the constitution following the revolution, as the Muslim Brotherhood exerted its influence within Parliament to reinforce traditionally gendered norms. This resulted in rapid declines in female participation. A one-time quota was introduced in 2014, which temporarily increased women’s participation. However, under an authoritarian regime, such as the one in Egypt, elected women tend to be loyal to the ruling party (Fracolli). For a quota to lend itself to women’s rights, it must work alongside other efforts to break down gendered stereotypes and open up opportunities for parity (Fracolli).

VI. Trade Union Optimization

Like other governments in the Middle East, President Zine al-Abine Ben Ali’s regime tolerated labor unions and their grassroots organizing power within Tunisia. As a result, when democracy came, the labor unions were still intact as independent entities (Fisher). This was not the case in Egypt. While unions were critical to the revolution’s success, the Egyptian government quickly infiltrated them after the uprising (Paul).

Women have unusually high membership within trade unions in Tunisia, making up 43 percent of close to 500,000 members (Cole and Cole). The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) played a strong role in pressuring the new government to implement real reforms—and women leaders within the group were critical to protests and ensuring resulting rights included measures for gender equality. Women leaders in UGTT provided significant support to women’s groups and leveraged their membership base to push forward reforms for working-class women (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 116).

In December 2013, Tunisia’s rival factions were close to the brink of war. With the Islamist Ennahda Party in power, the elected assembly reached a deadline over growing concerns of a rising conservative agenda (Malsin). Tensions escalated after the assassination of a left-wing politician in July, resulting in more protests in the streets (Malsin). It was a “Quartet” of labor union leaders who stepped forward in unison to broker a comprise and peaceful transition. The Islamic Ennahda Party stepped aside, resulting in new elections and the drafting of the new constitution (Malsin). This “Quartet” won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. One of the recipients was Wided Bouchamaoui, who became the president of the employer’s union, the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts. Bouchamaoui is the first woman to ever lead the organization (Stephen). During the press conference after accepting the prize, Bouchamaoui ensured women’s efforts were recognized on the global stage when she said, “I am proud to represent the women of Tunisia,” using an opportune moment to unite and inspire women to keep pushing for reforms (“‘It’s an extraordinary day:’ Tunisian Noble Peace Prize winner”).

The ability of Tunisian women to optimize their participation in the country’s labor unions during and after the Arab Spring resulted in women obtaining positions of influence and sustaining momentum both on the grassroots and leadership levels. Optimizing the influence of these membership-based groups remains vital as women work toward additional legislative reforms focused on inheritance and land ownership; strengthening maternity leave policies, since the current maternity rule only covers 30 days of leave for the women (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 142); and increasing access to contraception and safe abortions (Blaise).

VII. Legislation Specific to Violence Against Women

While women may gain political influence and reforms through a variety of means, their power cannot be fully utilized unless legislation (and its proper enforcement) specific to violence against women is in place. Tunisia has long been regarded as progressive when it comes to women’s rights in the Arab world, but according to a report from the Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood in 2016, 60 percent of women faced domestic violence and 50 percent of women interviewed experienced aggression in a public area at least once in their lives (Blaise). While women’s rights organizations campaigned for decades for legislation addressing domestic violence, Tunisia did not pass its first national law combating violence against women until 2017 (“Tunisia Passes Historic Law to End Violence Against Women and Girls”). This legislation was an extension of the CPS and “in addition to physical violence, the law recognizes other forms of violence against women and girls, including economic, sexual, political and psychological” (“Tunisia Passes Historic Law to End Violence Against Women and Girls”).

Law 58 also makes prosecution easier, eliminating a provision that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he married his victim. The law also imposes penalties for sexual harassment in public spaces and empowers citizens to notify the police when witnessing violence. In addition, it requires children to be educated about human rights in schools and both the police and judges are to be trained on how to handle reports (Blaise). In 2015, Tunisian women also ensured past lobbying efforts dedicated to persecuting domestic abuse were accounted for and played a key role in the establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which was formed to expose violations, make reparations, and hold abusers accountable (Gall).

While the law in Tunisia is comprehensive, it does not include a funding mechanism for implementation (“Tunisia: Landmark Step to Shield Women from Violence”). Additionally, several existing national laws, including men being legally recognized as the head of the household, make the law more difficult to enforce on a day-to-day basis (de Silva de Alwis, Rangita, and Ward 128). A legislative reform agenda to ensure that women, for example, can be named as heads of households or property owners is required to ensure proper enforcement.

VIII. Remaining Challenges: Economic Pains, ISIS Recruitment and Radicalization Efforts

One challenge remaining for women in Tunisia is access to equal economic opportunities. The country currently ranks 119 out of 149 in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, with large gaps in labor force participation, estimated earned income, and access to decision-making roles. In a recently published agricultural employment study, researchers found that “levels of economic empowerment are worse for women in Tunisia than for those in Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda, which is striking given the relatively high(er) levels of per capita GDP, educational attainment, and many other indicators of development” (“Women’s and Youth Empowerment in Rural Tunisia”). Strong religious and cultural norms as well as women doing most, if not all, of the unpaid work at home have contributed to the issue of high unemployment among women (“Women’s and Youth Empowerment in Rural Tunisia”).

Another challenge is the recruitment of women by terrorist organizations. When economic opportunities are inaccessible and decision-making feels constricted by social norms, the chance to join an extremist group that taps into a women’s wants and needs through propaganda can be hard to resist. As of 2016, between 6,000 and 7,000 Tunisians left to join the Islamic State — the most from any country in the region (Trofimov), and a significant portion of these recruits were women, who in 2015, neared 1,000 persons (Huckerby). Terrorism is on the rise in Tunisia as well (Aliriza and Walsh). In 2018, a female suicide bomber injured nine people in Tunis (“Female Suicide Bomber Wounds 9 in Tunisia’s Capital”). With the gains made following the Arab Spring, it is difficult to understand how Tunisia harbors extremist groups with apparently significant numbers of women engaged within them. While frustrations around the lack of employment and social mobility are cited as reasons for joining extremist groups (Raghavan), additional research is required to examine the underlying factors.

IX. Discussion and Policy Implications

The successful inclusion of Tunisian women in the peacebuilding process during and following the Arab Spring embodies several key elements of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, which stresses the importance of women’s equal and full participation in the peacekeeping and peacebuilding processes. This includes increasing women’s involvement and representation at all levels of decision making (“Security Council Resolution 1325”). Women in governmental positions in Tunisia ensured an open dialogue with women’s groups across the country, maximizing the opportunity to build a message that identified the most important peace and security entry points for women within Tunisia. While sexual violence was addressed in the constitution, women did not stop demanding for change until the passage of a comprehensive bill several years later. Furthermore, they also organized to establish reforms focused on delivering reparations to victims of abuse, a crucial element of the peacebuilding process.

Other countries impacted by the Arab Spring insisted on a top-down approach, whereby any new legislation was shaped by the government, which often included few women. In Tunisia, a determined combination of civil society groups assisted the country in achieving democracy and used the constitution-making process to bring the new system of government to life through elections, open forums, and more. The country refused to revert to a regime led by military or Islamic interests. The demand for reform and a civilian-elected government has inspired other countries in the region as well. For example, Sudan has followed Tunisia’s approach (Reddy and Wind). Having witnessed Tunisia’s success and Egypt’s struggles, the Sudanese people have refused to be ruled by a government controlled by the army. The people in Sudan have also recognized the importance of membership-based and institutionalized groups, such as unions, in playing a leading role to mobilize and project a united front.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, an independent trade union, took the lead in creating an organized group of activists that had the appeal of an unaffiliated and non-ideological body. The group was instrumental in mobilizing massive amounts of people, while also reigniting the previously important role of unions in Sudanese politics (Kushkush). Sudanese women have used their visibility to reject gendered societal roles that project them as submissive (Kushkush). It is no longer enough to change the figurehead of a country. True change requires a civilian-elected government and legislation that addresses the root causes of conflict. This includes the oppression of women.

X. Conclusion

This research examined how women’s roles within the peacebuilding process in Tunisia enabled ongoing participation and legislative reforms specific to women’s rights. By underlining the importance of the CPS as a legal starting point, this paper uncovered how women utilized past legislation to draft a new constitution, implement government quotas, and advance new comprehensive legislation addressing violence against women. The strategic move to utilize membership-based groups, such as labor unions, to mobilize women across socioeconomic backgrounds and secure leadership positions, not only resulted in reforms, it ultimately prevented more violence in the country.

Women in Tunisia organized early in the transition process, forming a range of alliances and developing a platform that united women across the country. Momentum was sustained through continued organized efforts that spanned sectors, as women refused to settle for complementary language or a return to conservative gendered norms. While this is informally being done in Sudan, there is an opportunity for international organizations such as the United Nations to adopt the strategies used by women in Tunisia as they aid in future peacebuilding efforts. This includes uncovering any existing legislation that can catalyze more progressive reforms; ensuring any governmental quotas address both quantity and quality of representation; providing support and aid to membership-based groups; and ensuring any legislation specific to violence against women covers the full spectrum of women’s needs and rights.

States can view Tunisia as a model for achieving and sustaining stability, while local players can utilize a similar open communications network to effectively promote collective demands. While impressive gains were made, more action is required within Tunisia to address current challenges such as shrinking the gap in women’s economic empowerment, countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization, and safeguarding institutions that respect women’s sexual reproductive rights, and more.

A limitation of this research is that there is a general lack of quantitative data and analysis available, specifically related to women’s participation. Hence, this paper focused on current event reporting sources. While the Arab Spring began eight years ago, academic analysis is only in the beginning stages and there is ample opportunity for future research. Such research should include how the new laws addressing violence against women are implemented in Tunisia today, what impact lack of funding has on their success, and what measures labor unions are taking to address female unemployment. With a new democracy in place and women continuing to push for additional gains, Tunisia remains a country ripe for exploration — for those looking to support the women within the country and those watching closely from afar for their turn to rise.

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