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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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.