Over six thousand Tunisians — most of them women — rallied this week to protest against a major question of word choice. After a years-long effort to create a suitable constitution to bring Tunisia forward in its Arab Spring transition, a newly proposed constitutional draft would refer to women as “complementary to” rather than “equal to” men under law. While this may appear to be a simple question of wording, the issue has major implications for the lives of women in the region.
Efforts to draft Tunisia’s new constitution have dragged on since February of last year. Contention has centered around heated national debates regarding the role of Islamic Law in document. Tunisia’s re-born Ennahda movement ruling the country’s constituent assembly made promises early on to create a stable and lasting order to protect citizens under the rule of law and to help boost the country’s flailing economy. But the party has struggled to balance pressures from various groups to bring forward a successful constitutional order.
Conservative forces have been pushing throughout the country’s transition for a range of changes that would effectively turn the clock back on women’s progress in Tunisia. They re-invigorated domestic debates, for example, over regulating the wearing of the veil (which was banned by Law 108 of 1981), and pressed to get rid of the country’s 1956 personal status law that once offered remarkably progressive protections for Tunisian women in marriage and custody rights . . .