Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s call for full equality between men and women has been received mostly with applause in Tunisia, but with more mixed feelings from Muslims elsewhere in the region. During his speech on August 13 for Tunisian National Women’s Day, which commemorates the abolition of polygamy in 1956, Essebsi called for legalizing Muslim women’s marriage to non-Muslims and ensuring equality in inheritance. While the overwhelming atrocities in the region from anti-revolutionary fronts may shape views towards the Arab Spring, let us not forget that there’s a small North African country that is making different strides in the region.
Many observers may not even be able to locate Tunisia on the geopolitical map, but when it comes to women’s rights, countries in the region have long considered Tunisia to be a leading progressive society, especially following the success of its peaceful revolution — the first of the Arab Spring. With 75 female members of parliament, a figure that amounts to 34.6 percent, Tunisia holds an advanced position in terms of allowing more women in decision-making circles, with a higher percentage than countries such as the United Kingdom (32 percent), the United States, (19.6 percent), and Israel (27.5 percent), which was previously described as the only democracy in the Middle East.
The Tunisian commitment to fulfilling the revolution’s objectives and embracing democracy is resisted not only by the deeply rooted police state, but also by the region’s not-so-successful post-uprising regimes. Immediately following the Tunisian president’s speech on National Women’s Day, statements started mushrooming on social media and in newspapers, notably al-Azhar’s rejection of his speech on the basis that it “collides with lslamic sharia legislation.” Though similar claims came from Islamic clerics in Tunisia as well, this was not surprising, given that the issue has not previously been tackled. What is surprising, on the other hand, is the systematic attack from Egyptian media to the point of defamation and fueling hate against Tunisia, with articles such as Alaa Areibi’s in the Egyptian newspaper al-Wafd:
“What if the Tunisian parliament got rid of sharia law and implemented laws compatible with their secular views? What if this was passed to referendum and Tunisians largely accepted it? What’s the Arab and Muslim states’ stance on this? Will they just condemn this? Will an Arab-Muslim military be called to overthrow the ruling regime and bring back the country to Islamic sharia? Or shall we let the Islamic State and extremist groups punish them and bring them back to consciousness? And how will we face the world that sees only extremism in our religion? Will the big powers allow the siege and war on Tunisia from the Arab and Muslim countries?”
— Alaa Areibi, “Will we wage war against Tunisia?”
At first I thought this was a new piece in al-Hudood, the Arabic version of the Onion, but apparently it wasn’t. It is actually a real op-ed article published by al-Wafd, an Egyptian “liberal” pro-opposition newspaper. Last Monday, the director of the Ibn Taymiyyah Center for Knowledge and Ideological Research, Mohamed Mustafa Suleiman, filed a suit with Egyptian Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadiq against the Tunisian president; the Tunisian grand mufti; Dr. Hoda Badran, president of the Egyptian Feminist Union and Federation of Arab Women; and Dr. Azza Kamel, Director of the Center for Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development. Suleiman accused them of contempt of Islam and the destabilization of Egyptian national security — all because of the Tunisian president’s statements on equality in inheritance between men and women, and the recognition of marriages of Muslim women to non-Muslims.
But how much is the new American administration doing to support this newly emerging successful Tunisian model in a region characterized with turmoil? Not much has been planned, unfortunately. The budget submitted by President Donald Trump to Congress for review cuts the aid to Tunisia by more than half — proposing a 67 percent reduction — which, according to the Project on Middle East Democracy’s report on the fiscal year 2018 foreign affairs budget, is “the most dramatic cut to bilateral assistance for any country in the entire MENA region.”
During my 18 months of experience as projects officer with the Tunisia office of Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization promoting peaceful conflict resolution, I worked on a project for creating dialogue between secular and conservative women during the process of drafting the country’s new constitution. With Tunisia’s constitution seen as the most liberal piece of legislation in the region, I feel like my efforts, and those of all other organizations that worked on this issue, have paid off. But at times when Tunisia seems to be cornered alone in the region, losing a major asset of support for civil society and for building stronger state institutions will be more than dangerous — particularly while Tunisia is demonstrating such progress on democracy building and issues such as women’s rights.