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Will the Tunisian constitution erode the gains of women in the Arab Spring?

The dignity of gender equality could have a hard time penetrating the written constitution.

Tunisian women shout slogans during a protest calling for the respect of women's
Tunisian women shout slogans during a protest calling for the respect of women's rights. Photograph: Getty Images

Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis is a palimpsest of recent political protest: with official street signs nearby marking "Place 14 janvier 2011", and a public instruction to take care of the avenue because of its significance in last year’s revolution – on Monday night the city’s most famous street was layered over, again, between the crowds sat in salon de thés after Iftar, with a protest to mark National Women’s Day. The demonstration – alongside protests in other cities such as Monastir – concerned the proposed wording to describe women in the constitution, the new constitution-in-process being the other striking palimpsest of revolutionary signifiers, a mosaic of jurisprudential traditions, language of the revolutionary protests, and complex institutional legacies stitched together into a kind of permanence. What language bubbles up from the revolution of 2011 into the paper-white terminology of constitutional law will – like the official street sign marking "Place 14 janvier 2011" – crystallise the revolutionary moment, speak to Tunisia’s future, and how it tells itself the story of the nation’s most recent re-birth. 

The protests on Monday evening concerned a phrase in particular, translated as “associate” or “complement”, to describe the status of women vis-à-vis men in the proposed constitution. According to France 24, Article 27 translates in English as: “The state guarantees to protect women’s rights, as they stand, under the principle of man’s complement within the family and man’s partner in developing the country”. Women’s rights activists have expressed concern that women’s equal status is being denigrated to a kind of ‘auxiliary’ role, while MPs have pointed out that the article directly contradicts Article 22, which states men and women are equals. Perhaps the most striking issue is how vague the article is, and the protests thus seeming to express a concern that, unless commitment to women’s rights is fully enshrined and fully-stated, the gains of equality are easily corroded – a symptom of the sense that the current ruling figures are ‘duplicitous’ and deliberately vague, and the widespread unanswered questions on how the future constitution will be interpreted.

Tunisia has a reputation for its progressive history regarding women’s rights: often setting legal precedents in the Arab world under Habib Bourguiba, since 1956 polygamy was abolished, civil marriage established, and women given the right to vote, open bank accounts and establish businesses without the consent of their husbands. Bourguiba’s Code of Personal Status has since become symbolic of Tunisia’s progressive position on gender issues – although aspects such as the banning of the hijab have equally been interpreted as the secular authoritarian edicts of the Francophile elite. Part of the frustration at Article 27 is thus in part a fear that long-established rights will be ‘rolled back’ by Ennahda’s still-vague vision of how they wish Tunisia to be. In a telling episode, protests to mark National Women’s Day on Avenue Bourguiba – the street synonymous with the revolution that allowed Ennahda to come to power – were banned earlier this month, for concerns over “traffic.” Others argue the criticism of Article 27 is based on an unfair reading – and literal mis-translation – of the post-revolutionary situation, noting that Ennahda committed to elevating the ground-breaking 1956 statute of gender-equality to the status of basic law, meaning it can be annulled only by a two-thirds majority rather than the usual simple majority.

Another pertinent facet of the protests on Monday is how people took to the streets over specific articles in the constitution, an illustration of how closely Tunisian civil society is following the constitution-drafting process, and the dynamics between the constitution-drafting authorities and the Tunisians who witnessed the revolution last year. Yesterday, Habib Kheder, the General Rapporteur of the constitutional committee, stated that the constitution would be completed by February 2013, a shift from the earlier estimation of October 2012. Such an extensive constitution-drafting process may – as is happening in Egypt – mean doors increasingly close to civil society and divergent voices, but it also gives more time for groups to make their concerns heard on constitutional issues. The question is, which voices will permeate from Tunisia into the text?

A popular cry of last year’s revolution was “karama” – most often translated as dignity. During this period of establishing Tunisia’s future legal frameworks, it remains to be seen if, and how, the dignity of gender equality will translate from the language of the revolution to the language of the constitution. The protests on Monday, however, seemed to say that the language of Article 27 is not a language many recognise or want to hear.

Heather McRobie is writing her PhD on constitution-drafting in the Arab Spring.