Project MonMa in Tunisia

Project Monma travelled to Tunisia to learn more about how the Arab Spring had impacted women’s rights in the country. We aimed to learn whether women’s rights had improved or declined as the country moved into democratic rule.

After the 2011 revolution, many Tunisians were overjoyed when the 22-year dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown and the country began a trajectory towards democracy. However, after the Islamist party Ennahda began to gain power, many women began to fear that they would loose their rights. Ennahda made a statement for example, declaring that women were just complementary to men, not their equals.

After independence from France in 1956, women gained many rights when the first government of Tunisia introduced major changes in family law to support women’s rights under the Code of Personal Status. This included the abolition of polygamy, the end of male privilege to end a marriage at will, the ability for a woman to file for divorce and to have custodial rights over her children were part of the new code. The hijab, or headscarf, was banned in state offices and universities.

Many women have therefore been afraid of losing their rights. However, whilst Ennahda has failed to gain significant political ground and the rights women have already gained remain relatively intact, women still face a number of challenges. A woman may be granted custody of her children for example, but the father still remains the legal guardian. Article 58 of the personal code gives judges the discretion to grant custody to either the mother or the father based on the best interests of the child, but prohibits allowing a mother to have her children live with her if she remarries. No such restriction applies to fathers.

Meriem bel Hadi Aissa and Hadhemi Mohamed, both local professionals said that since the revolution, violence against women had increased or at least became more visible.

‘Economic stress and political instability had made people more violent’, they said. ‘Women who had for years enjoyed relative freedoms were now being confined to traditional roles by the Islamists. Some women said they were feeling pressured to wear the veil.’

Two female medical students, Gabes Syrine Missaoui and Rawdha B. Othman, both said in interviews that they have experienced an increase in sexual harassment since the revolution and noted harassment from police and even young boys now.

Taissyr Sellimi, a young woman living in Tunis said, ‘Men say very bad words, there’s unwanted touching, perverts follow you with their cars and sometimes they masturbate in public in front of you,’ she explained.

‘They always blame women, they say that she is dressed in a revealing way, she’s playful, she answered back to the man or she shouldn’t defend herself. But even women in veils and long clothes are victims of sexual harassment,’ she said.

For Hammami Sourour a 21-year-old student from Siliana she feels that much of discrimination towards women in Tunisia has come about after the revolution, when the Islamists parties began to gain power. ‘Tunisian people didn’t speak about religion before but now with democracy they speak freely and they are using religion to oppress women.’

However, in a speech on National Women’s Day this year, Tunisia’s current President Beji Caid Essebsi gave a speech where he directly challenged Islamic law and called for a change to inheritance laws so that brothers and sisters can inherit equally.

Kadri is very happy about the prospect of the new law allowing her to be able to inherit the same as her brother.

‘It’s not fair that men can inherit more than women,’ she said. ‘It makes you feel like you are inferior,’ she said.

While she remains hopeful that the law will be passed, she is concerned that the Islamic parties might try and stop it.

‘The Islamists strongly oppose women having the same rights as men,’ she explains. ‘The problem is that they say this is the religion and you can’t touch it,’ she added. ‘People are victims of ideas.’

The National Office for Family and Population in Tunisia has found that about 50 percent of Tunisian women have suffered some form of violence. The study showed that from a sample of 3,000 women, 31 percent had been victims of physical violence, 28 percent suffered sexual violence and 7 percent were subject to economic violence. That is when one intimate partner has control over the other partner’s access to economic resources, which reinforces dependency.

Hammami Sourour, feels that for the situation of women to improve then there needs to be a change in societal attitudes. ‘We need another revolution,’ she says. ‘A revolution of the mind. The mentality needs to change. I want more importance given to women and to what women can do in their society, women are not just sexual objects,’ she added.

Asma Sahli, a 35 year old woman in Tunis, agrees that there is still much more room for women to progress in Tunisia, particularly in areas of freedom, equality and positions of power. ‘I want a woman to be President,’ she says.

As Rawdha B. Othman, ‘we want our respect back. Women need to feel entitled to their rights and have their place in society.’

In accordance with Islamic law, Tunisian women are also denied half the inheritance that their brothers are entitled to. 

Project MonMa in Tunisia

Project Monma travelled to Tunisia to learn more about how the Arab Spring had impacted women’s rights in the country. We aimed to learn whether women’s rights had improved or declined as the country moved into democratic rule.

After the 2011 revolution, many Tunisians were overjoyed when the 22-year dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown and the country began a trajectory towards democracy. However, after the Islamist party Ennahda began to gain power, many women began to fear that they would loose their rights. Ennahda made a statement for example, declaring that women were just complementary to men, not their equals.

After independence from France in 1956, women gained many rights when the first government of Tunisia introduced major changes in family law to support women’s rights under the Code of Personal Status. This included the abolition of polygamy, the end of male privilege to end a marriage at will, the ability for a woman to file for divorce and to have custodial rights over her children were part of the new code. The hijab, or headscarf, was banned in state offices and universities. 

Many women have therefore been afraid of losing their rights. However, whilst Ennahda has failed to gain significant political ground and the rights women have already gained remain relatively intact, women still face a number of challenges. A woman may be granted custody of her children for example, but the father still remains the legal guardian. Article 58 of the personal code gives judges the discretion to grant custody to either the mother or the father based on the best interests of the child, but prohibits allowing a mother to have her children live with her if she remarries. No such restriction applies to fathers.

Meriem bel Hadi Aissa and Hadhemi Mohamed, both local professionals said that since the revolution, violence against women had increased or at least became more visible.

‘Economic stress and political instability had made people more violent’, they said. ‘Women who had for years enjoyed relative freedoms were now being confined to traditional roles by the Islamists. Some women said they were feeling pressured to wear the veil.’

Two female medical students, Gabes Syrine Missaoui and Rawdha B. Othman, both said in interviews that they have experienced an increase in sexual harassment since the revolution and noted harassment from police and even young boys now.

Taissyr Sellimi, a young woman living in Tunis said, ‘Men say very bad words, there’s unwanted touching, perverts follow you with their cars and sometimes they masturbate in public in front of you,’ she explained.

‘They always blame women, they say that she is dressed in a revealing way, she’s playful, she answered back to the man or she shouldn’t defend herself. But even women in veils and long clothes are victims of sexual harassment,’ she said.

For Hammami Sourour a 21-year-old student from Siliana she feels that much of discrimination towards women in Tunisia has come about after the revolution, when the Islamists parties began to gain power. ‘Tunisian people didn’t speak about religion before but now with democracy they speak freely and they are using religion to oppress women.’

However, in a speech on National Women’s Day this year, Tunisia’s current President Beji Caid Essebsi gave a speech where he directly challenged Islamic law and called for a change to inheritance laws so that brothers and sisters can inherit equally.

Kadri is very happy about the prospect of the new law allowing her to be able to inherit the same as her brother.

‘It’s not fair that men can inherit more than women,’ she said. ‘It makes you feel like you are inferior,’ she said.

While she remains hopeful that the law will be passed, she is concerned that the Islamic parties might try and stop it.

‘The Islamists strongly oppose women having the same rights as men,’ she explains. ‘The problem is that they say this is the religion and you can’t touch it,’ she added. ‘People are victims of ideas.’

The National Office for Family and Population in Tunisia has found that about 50 percent of Tunisian women have suffered some form of violence. The study showed that from a sample of 3,000 women, 31 percent had been victims of physical violence, 28 percent suffered sexual violence and 7 percent were subject to economic violence. That is when one intimate partner has control over the other partner’s access to economic resources, which reinforces dependency.

Hammami Sourour, feels that for the situation of women to improve then there needs to be a change in societal attitudes. ‘We need another revolution,’ she says. ‘A revolution of the mind. The mentality needs to change. I want more importance given to women and to what women can do in their society, women are not just sexual objects,’ she added.

Asma Sahli, a 35 year old woman in Tunis, agrees that there is still much more room for women to progress in Tunisia, particularly in areas of freedom, equality and positions of power. ‘I want a woman to be President,’ she says.

As Rawdha B. Othman, ‘we want our respect back. Women need to feel entitled to their rights and have their place in society.’

In accordance with Islamic law, Tunisian women are also denied half the inheritance that their brothers are entitled to. 

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