The Tunisian government's progressive moves in women's empowerment have been getting a lot of attention, but are the moves really about women, or is the government trying to distract the public from a controversial corruption amnesty law?
For the past five years, I, a 28-year-old female teacher of English and a journalist , have been commuting back and forth between Tunis and Jendouba to teach at a university in a town bordering Algeria.
The hour and a half commute has become a ritual of sorts; a ritual, which like all rituals, is enforced by repetition.
Chronology does not matter as to when the ritualistic scenes fall into place but my commute always ends with the same scene: the sight of a dozen women dressed poorly riding in the back of a pick-up truck. Sometimes the truck lags behind us as it makes stops on the way to pick up more women and sometimes it leads the way only to stop at one of those vast fields of Jendouba to drop women off at work.
Whether it is in the pouring rain or under the scorching sun, these women take their daily morning journey to work in the fields of the rural areas of Jendouba for hours without social security or healthcare—and in a country that recently made headlines for allowing women to marry non-Muslims—where they work for half the pay of their male counterparts.
One article headline read, ‘’The Next Arab Spring? Women’s Rights”. Kamel Daoud calls Tunisian President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, a “revolutionary” for reviewing laws regarding equal inheritance for women and for legalizing interfaith marriage.
Newspapers read ‘’Tunisia allows its women to marry non-Muslims ‘’ and criticism from hardliners in the Arab world started pouring in.
Fast forward to 8.30 am when my first class of the day begins, my students complain about the poorly resourced library that lacks references materials.
Over the past five years, some of my female students were obliged to marry and drop out. A lack of employment opportunities means their families conceive of marriage as their only shot at a decent life.
The situation is no different in the capital of Tunis where a young woman, a victim of sexual harassment in the train, was laughed off by the police when she went to report the incident. Her traumatic experience was met with neglect from policemen who told her to forget about it. For many young people, measures like the repeal of law No. 73—that bans Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslim men—though worthy of applause, the motivations triggering it remain questionable.
Interfaith marriage is unquestionably a right but the government’s timing of the announcement is suspicious. Just the day before, the Tunisian parliament approved the Reconciliation Law that seeks to absolve officials of the old regime from prosecution for corruption.
The announcement sparked youth movement protests, namely “Manich Msameh” (I will not forgive). For many young people, such a law thwarts the revolution’s goals to end corruption as it gives amnesty to the corrupt, and it threatens Tunisia's democracy.
As many cheered the victory for women’s rights, others expressed their fears that the government is only trying divert the attention of its people away from the counterrevolution.
Feminism after all, is about providing equal economic, political, and social opportunities for women. This opportunity is lost when it comes under the sway of corruption which leaves young people—including young women—unable to pursue their studies or agreeing to being paid half of what men are paid in the agricultural sector. Following the approval of the Reconciliation Law, protests spread throughout civil society in downtown Tunis.
It’s crucial not to allow the positive moves from the government to overshadow criticism—and accountability—of the regressive Reconciliation Law which can have a ripple effect over all facets of life in Tunisia. Protesters fear that such laws signal the return of the old regime – and amnesty for their crimes.
In an effort to change the narrative, the following day, on Sept. 14, President Essebsi announced Tunisian women are allowed to marry non-Muslim men. This attempted transformation of the discourse is no different than the old script used by previous Tunisian governments dating all the way back to the country’s independence.
Women’s rights have always been manipulated and used as a propaganda tool to polish the country’s international image. Government-led pseudo feminism has always played a pivotal role in promoting Tunisia as a “modern and progressive” state.
The government has always pitted women’s rights against the looming danger of extremism, and used it as a shield, despite the mounting evidence of human rights violations under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
Whether before or after the revolution, the political discourse seems to portray women’s rights as the sole defense against the threat of terrorism, but these measures—including allowing interfaith marriage—are not inclusive of the other struggles of Tunisian women, as the impact of corruption is deep-rooted in every sector affecting all Tunisians regardless of their gender.
In the days following the announcement, others pointed out that Tunisia will always be a pioneer in women’s rights advocacy, sarcastically remarking that Saudi women were only just granted the right drive. Yet, Tunisia ‘s long history of advocating women’s rights is not a political battle, as feminist thinkers such as Tunisia’s iconic sociologist, Tahar Haddad and the activists of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)—as well as many others—sowed the seeds and implemented the ideals of gender equality. Corruption threatens the progression of women's rights.
Victories for women's rights are not the work of government - but the result of years and years of social activism and deep seated awareness surrounding equality. While the announcement is about women’s rights, the debate on the issue remains political at its core.
The Reconciliation Law then comes as a blow to the hopes of many young Tunisians who dreamed that the revolution would establish social and economic justice. While it is imperative to revolutionise women’s rights, the women in question refuse to be pawns in the hands of politicians who are using it as a diversion tactic.
Many supporters of the government praised the president’s decision as “revolutionary,” claiming that such decisions will only further weaken the Ennahdha Party and consequently the Islamists’ hopes of power.
Ironically, they seem to turn a blind eye to the fact that despite the rhetoric, their own party, Nidaa Tounes, is in fact in a coalition with Ennahda, and that the two parties united to pass the very unrevolutionary Reconciliation Law — 31 of the 117 deputies who voted for the law are from Ennahdha. This highlights the obsolete nature of the supposed identity-based polarisation. Nidaa justifies their very political existence on the myth that they, as the vanguard of "secular modernists," are fighting against religious conservatives to guarantee women’s rights.
Is the regime following its predecessors’ tactics of manipulating women’s rights as a propaganda tool? Was interfaith marriage allowed only so it could distract Tunisians from the dangers of passing the Reconciliation Law? Is the counterrevolution underway already or has it already achieved its goals?
In Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars, Noam Chomsky writes, “Maintaining public attention diverted away from the real social problems, captivated by matters of no real importance. Keep the public busy, busy, busy, no time to think, back to farm and other animals.”
This comes to mind as I head back to Tunis from work and see the women from this morning with cracked hands and sun-burnt faces waiting for the pick-up trucks to take them home.
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