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.

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.


Tunisian women shout slogans during a protest calling for the respect of women's rights. Photograph: Getty Images
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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.