The Islamist Ennahdha party’s election victory in Tunisia has come to mean many things to many people. For many outside observers wary of how the “Arab Spring” might reshape regional politics, their victory signals a trend that will allow more conservative elements in the region to follow suit and succeed to power. For others, the victory is a positive sign that political Islam in the region has become ‘moderate’ and will adhere to a model of democracy a la Turkey.
But for women’s rights activists in Tunisia, the victory is a worrying sign that their battle for equality has suddenly become a great deal more difficult.
Days after Tunisia’s historic 23 October elections for a constituent assembly, tasked primarily with writing a new constitution, Tunisian feminists held an emergency meeting at Tunis’ feminist university to discuss strategy options.
“Our conviction now is that we have to fight for the preservation of the women’s rights that were included in the previous constitution,” says Salma Hajri, a physician and a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, or ATFD by its French acronym.
Ennahdha, which bills itself not as an Islamist party but as a party “in reference to Islam,” won roughly 40 percent of the vote and took 89 out of 217 seats in the new assembly, three times more than their closest opponents. The victory has set off alarm bells for many women’s rights activists who are concerned that instead of pushing to achieve legal parity, they will now be forced to defend the rights that Tunisian women have already won. “We have to be very watchful and very focused,” says Hajri.
Tunisian women enjoy relatively strong legal protection of their rights in comparison to neighboring countries. The Code of Personal Status, promulgated in 1957 by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy, created stricter divorce laws aimed at protecting women, and improved women’s access to higher education. Subsequent amendments to the code have further bolstered women’s rights.
However, Tunisia is not a constitutionally secular state, and women’s rights are still subject legally to a reading of Islamic law in one particular and important case: inheritance. Tunisia’s inheritance law, based on Islamic law, or Sharia, grants the greater share of inheritance to male heirs. ATFD saw such Islamic influence over the law as a threat to women’s rights and are concerned over greater reliance on the Sharia following Ennahdha’s win. “Feminism is really completely the opposite of the philosophy and conviction of the Islamists,” Hajri says.
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