Helping journalists, producers and conference planners find the female guests, speakers and expert sources they need.

Tunisian women debate constitutional rights

The Kingston Whig-Standard by Bev Baines 22 December 2011

As Tunisia looks to rebuild its society in the new Arab Spring era, must women speak with one voice? They spoke with one voice when they demonstrated against the president who was ousted on Jan. 15, 2011, and when they successfully advocated a gender parity law for the elections to the National Constituant Assembly.

However, fissures have appeared between conservative and progressive women, making it difficult for them to agree over how to protect their constitutional rights. Recently, more than 90 Tunisian woman lawyers and activists held a forum on Good Governance, seeking agreement on three issues: protecting gender equality, improving gender parity, and describing the Tunisian identity in the new Constitution.

Their discussion of equality rights revolved around whether to use general words guaranteeing men and women equality rights or whether to detail the specific equality rights that women need. A male Tunisian constitutional law professor spoke strongly against detailing gender equality rights, maintaining this approach would leave little or no protection for any rights that were not specified.

In contrast, a Tunisian woman law professor proposed a middle road consisting of a general guarantee of gender equality in the preamble (which courts treat as enforceable), and six or seven specific equality rights set out in the text of the constitution. Foremst amongst the specific rights would be the right to work. A woman human rights lawyer from Libya spoke eloquently about the necessity of forcing the state to guarantee work in her own country’s proposed new constitution.

Other specific rights included the right not to be discriminated against in employment (equal hiring, equal pay, equal working conditions, prohibiting sexual harrassment, etc.). In the social context, the participants proposed prohibiting violence against women, giving women inheritance rights, and providing training and education for poor women in the rural areas.

According to the woman law professor, Tunisians should move past the traditional way of thinking about gender equality to adopt a new and more forward-looking approach. In particular, she argued that detailing the most important specific equality rights that all women wanted would not preclude the protection of other women’s rights by the state, the courts, and/or the constitution in the future.

When the participants discussed the gender parity law, they agreed improvements were required. The parity process for elections to the National Constituent Assembly prodiced onlu 23% (or 49) women of whom 42 were members of the Islamic party, Ennahda.

Although parity required parties to present equal numbers of women and men as their candidates for election, it did not always happen. Moreover, when the parties did comply by alternating women and men on their lists, they usually started with men at the head of the list.

The participants argued for procedural improvements, including assigning women and men an equal number of seats in the new legislature. They also argued gender parity should apply to the new constitutional court expected to enforce constitutional rights.

The most contentious issue was the description of the Tunisian identity. Article 1 of the 1959 constitution had described Tunisia as a free, independent, and sovereign state, its religion as Islam, its language as Arabic and its government as a Republic.

The participants debated whether to continue to refer to Islam as Tunisia’s religion and, if so, whether to add a new reference to Tunisia as a civil society. A majority of the participants supported articulation of Tunisia’s identity as a civil society, and adding “democratic” to republic.

The NGOs and individuals who participated did not always speak with one voice. What matters, however, is women spoke freely and thoughtfully about their rights to gender equality, gender parity, and constitutional identity.

Beverley Baines is a professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University.