Women Face Fight to Keep Their Rights in Tunisia

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TUNIS -- At the funeral this month of Chokri Belaid, the murdered secular opposition leader in Tunisia, his widow Basma Khalfaoui, a prominent feminist, stood on the ambulance carrying his casket, her head uncovered, raising her arm to wave a defiant victory sign.

"My husband was denouncing Ennahda's double talk and we will continue his struggle," Ms. Khalfaoui, 42, said at the funeral, referring to the moderate Islamist party that governs the country. "We will not give up the fight."

Tunisia, perceived by the West as the most secular country in the Arab world and a staunch promoter of women's rights, has gone through a rocky transition since the revolution two years ago that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. While political pluralism exists for the first time in decades, new freedoms for some are threatening long-cherished ones for others -- in particular those for Tunisian women.

After Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956, the government passed laws to expand women's rights, including the right to education and gender equality. Over the following decades, Islamists were persecuted and exiled while the government pushed the secularization of society to such an extent that a decree in 1981 banned women from wearing a veil in public buildings and universities.

After the fall of Mr. Ben Ali's regime, the Ennahda party won elections in October 2011 with a comfortable majority. Since then, worries have grown that one of its aims is to restrict women's freedoms in a country where, until recently, those rights had been taken for granted for decades.

"I think it's normal that the Islamists are so vocal -- veiled women used to be harassed and the frustration came out all at once," said Sarah Ben Hamadi, 28, a blogger and journalist. "We are simply paying today for Ben Ali's mistakes."

"I don't think the country is more radical," she added. "There is more freedom so we see more of the religious people who were hiding in the past."

Certainly, the religious ultraconservatives known as Salafists are more visible. The University of Manouba, in suburban Tunis, experienced months of tension last year after Salafist students rioted against the ban on the niqab, the face-covering veil.

More worrying are legal overhauls, human rights officials say. As Tunisia's Constituent Assembly writes a new constitution, there have been repeated confrontations between Islamists, who dominate the assembly and want to roll back some rights acquired by women, and secular liberals, who want an expansion of those rights to include, for example, equal inheritance rights.

"We cannot speak of an obvious rollback since the legal reality is still the same," said Amna Guellali, the director of Human Rights Watch in Tunis. "But acquired rights are being threatened by repeated attacks by Salafist groups on those they consider infidels or on behavior they deem contrary to Islamic morality."

When a young woman was allegedly raped by police officers in September, she was charged with indecency and risked six months in prison before the charges were dropped, after a huge uproar. Human rights organizations cite the case as an example of how rights are under threat.

"Under the old regime, there were similar cases," Ms. Guellali acknowledged. "Now with the new freedoms in the country, the media is paying attention to these kinds of stories." Still, she said, even allowing for the amplifying effect of the news coverage, something has changed.

Chema Gargouri, the president of the Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability, a nongovernmental organization that provides training and microloans for women and young people in poor areas, said women were more secure under Mr. Ben Ali.

"What was really striking to me after the revolution was that women started to lose their self-esteem," Ms. Gargouri said. "The dictatorship was pro-woman. The hatred against the dictatorship is expressed through action against women."

The rise of social and religious repression and the loss of self-confidence "prevents any entrepreneurial initiative for women," she added.

Ms. Gargouri, who is in her 40s, said that women of her generation had never previously had to debate or defend their rights. But recent developments had pushed her to work to raise awareness of the challenge now facing them.

"What scares me is that the Tunisian woman seems lost," she said. "In many places I go to, people ask what the government can do for them. We try to teach them to do it on their own."

The fact is that Tunisia has an Islamist majority, said Ms. Ben Hamadi, the blogger. "Article 1 of the Tunisian Constitution states that it is an Islamic state," she said. "If we want real democracy, we must listen to everyone's voice."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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