Women’s rights in frontline of tussle for Tunisia’s future
TUNISIA entered a fierce debate this week over the document that could be an example for the changing Arab world, as the assembly that will create the constitution reconvened.
The body, elected last year, will set out Islam’s role in society, the role of women and how to share political power after decades of dictatorship following the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
However, differences over how to word the document are already threatening to tear apart the ruling alliance of secular and religious parties that hold Tunisia precariously together.
Amid recent unrest by jobless protesters and youths supporting ultra-conservative Islam, the assembly will have to be approved by two-thirds of the assembly before elections next March or, failing that, a popular referendum.
After Tunisians overthrew their long-ruling dictator Ben Ali in January 2011, they overwhelmingly voted for a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, giving it more than 40 per cent of seats in the assembly.
Ennahda, allied with two secular, left-wing parties, has struggled to get the economy on track, create jobs and keep the peace.
During Ramadan, in July and August, gangs of ultra-conservative Salafis attacked several artistic festivals for being impious. A visiting French parliamentarian of Tunisian origin was beaten by a gang who objected to his wife and daughter’s skimpy summer clothes.
The latest threat to the ruling party, however, has come from within its coalition, from president Moncef Marzouki, a long-time human rights activist from the leftist Congress for the Republic.
At the opening of the annual conference for his party last month, a statement from Mr Marzouki criticised Ennahda for monopolising power.
“There is rising sentiment that our brothers in Ennahda are trying to dominate all the political and administrative levers of the state and place their followers in position of power, regardless of whether they are competent or not,” he said. “These practices recall those of the past regime.”
However, there are parts of the old Tunisia that Mr Marzouki and secular activists want to retain, particularly its progressive women’s rights.
Legislation passed after Tunisia won independence from France decades ago outlawed polygamy, gave women a say in divorce and mandated equality of the sexes. Women are prominent in medicine, government and the security forces.
Mr Marzouki attacked draft language in the constitution that describes women as “complementary” to men, rather than equal.
Many fear that might be an attempt roll back women’s rights legislation.
He is also fiercely opposed to Ennahda’s efforts to vest power in the prime minister, rather than an elected president.
The assembly will have to decide whether the president will be elected directly by the people, or be a more symbolic figure elected by parliament.
“Marzouki wants to rediscover his image as an activist and a man of principle,” said Neziha Rejiba, an activist who left the Congress for the Republic out of disgust with Mr Marzouki’s alliance with the Islamists.
“He’s played his cards and Ennahda has truly buried him.”
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