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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 1993, Page 50

Special Report

Women's Rights an Affair of State for Tunisia

By Richard H. Curtiss

The total equality of women and men in civil rights, education and employment is a legal reality that affects all aspects of life in Tunisia, and Dr. Nebiha Gueddana, secretary of state to the prime minister in charge of women's and family affairs helps to keep enforcing it at the top of her government's list of priorities.

She is proud but not surprised that Tunisia's legislation puts the country in the forefront of the struggle for women's rights in the Arab world. Among Islamic countries, she acknowledges a Tunisian debt in the field only to Turkey, where the late President Kemal Ataturk adopted a civil code mandating equality of the sexes in the course of forcibly converting his country to a democratic secular state in the 1920s and 1930s.

Mrs. Gueddana's present concerns, however, do not center on the rights already guaranteed by Tunisian law, but rather on encouraging women to seize the opportunities mandated not only in the professions and industry, but in government and politics as well.

An Early Reformer

The roots of Tunisia's pioneering role in women's affairs reach back to the beginning of the 20th century. It was then that a modernizing Islamic reformer, Tahar Haddad, a scholar of Tunisia's Great Mosque of the Zitouna, called for freeing women from all of their traditional bonds. In a book entitled Our Women in the Shari 'a and Society, published in 193O, he advocated formal education for women and maintained that over many years Islam had been distorted and misinterpreted to such an extent that women no longer were "aware of their duties in life and the legitimate advantages they could expect."

In the name of Islam, Tahar Haddad denounced such abuses against women as "repudiation," whereby a husband could divorce his wife without grounds or explanation, sending her back to her family or leaving her for another wife. Refuting assertions that such conduct is permissible for Muslims, the reformer declared:

"Islam is innocent of the oft-made accusations that it is an obstacle in the way of progress. Rather it is the religion of progress par excellence, an endless source of progress. Our decadence is the consequence of the chimera with which we have filled our minds and the scandalous, paralyzing customs within which we have locked ourselves."

Building upon the positive atmosphere created by Tahar Haddad's writing, Tunisian women advanced their own cause significantly by playing active roles in their country's struggle for independence, which broke into the open in 1938 when leaders of the Destour party, and women who joined in a party demonstration, were arrested. On the eve of World War II, when Tunisians informally suspended their agitation for independence from France in order to support the allied cause, members of one group of women were arrested and jailed for 15 days for unfurling the party's banner in the presence of the visiting French president.

In l950, as post-war agitation for independence resumed, the Neo-Destour party founded its first official women's section. A large number of women members were arrested in subsequent demonstrations that preceded French withdrawal and the attainment of Tunisia's independence on March 20, 1956. One woman who was prominent in the women's movement then and who remained so until her recent death at age 87 was Mrs. Bchira Ben Mrad, who translated Tahar Haddad's teachings into action. As a result of local practices, the prominent role of women in the new nation's politics, and—perhaps most of all—the remarkable foresight demonstrated by Habib Bourguiba, leader of the Neo-Destour Party and Tunisia's first president, women benefited almost immediately from the country's independence.

Having negotiated that independence almost bloodlessly, less than five months later President Bourguiba, in a speech on Aug. 13, 1956, paid special tribute to the role of women in the independence struggle and issued a Code of Personal Status (CPS) to "remove all injustices" and promulgate "laws rehabilitating women and conferring upon them their full rights."

From that time on, polygamy became a crime punishable by a fine and imprisonment, a unique development in the Arab world, but one patterned upon a similar prohibition previously adopted by Turkey. That and other reforms incorporated in the CPS were based upon the Islamic practice of ijtihad, making legal judgments reached by consensus by applying the underlying principles of Islamic jurisprudence to changing modern conditions.

Other reforms incorporated in the 1956 CPS abolished the right of a father to force his daughter to marry against her will. Now marriage in Tunisia can only take place with the consent of both parties to the marriage. The code also set the legal age for marriage of a man at 20, and for a woman at 17, with marriage below those ages permitted only with the consent of both parents and the decision of a judge. Also abolished was unilateral repudiation, the custom mentioned above whereby a husband could simply terminate his marriage without explanation.

Now in Tunisia either a husband or a wife can initiate divorce proceedings. A divorce can be granted only by a judge who has exhausted all efforts to reconcile the two parties. Women also may be granted a financial settlement under the law, and the government has set up a fund to pay the divorced husband's obligations to his former wife if he fails to do so himself. Also abolished was the custom of awarding custody of children from the age of seven in the case of boys and nine in the case of girls automatically to the father. Custody arrangements now are worked out on a case-by-case basis by the court as a part of the civil divorce procedure.

Similarly, where previously widows did not automatically retain custody of their children, the CPS provides that a surviving parent, regardless of sex, remains the principal guardian of minor children. Inheritance laws, too, were overhauled to improve protection of the rights of women.

Tunisian law also protects the right of a woman to decide whether or not to practice birth control, and whether or not to have an abortion. "The right to decide whether to give life and decide the number of children she would like to have is the essential element in woman's emancipation," says Nebiha Gueddana, who was a Sorbonne-educated medical doctor before entering government service.

The fact that Tunisian families are exercising their legally protected right to choose is manifested by the reduction in the size of the average Tunisian family from eight persons (including the parents) at mid-century to 4.5 persons at present. This means Tunisia has virtually stabilized its population growth, another pioneering development in the Arab world.

The change from tradition to the Code of Personal Status has shattered some other stereotypes. Formerly a woman was treated by the law as a minor until two years after her marriage. Now, under Tunisian law, men and women alike gain full adult rights at age 20. After that, men and women have exactly the same rights to vote, enter into contracts and buy and sell property and goods.

Penal law also applies equally to men and women. The penal code, as amended on March 8, 1968, stipulates that adultery is a crime and lays down equal sanctions for a wife or husband judged guilty of adultery. These are up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of 500 Tunisian diners, roughly equivalent to U.S. $500.

Penalties for rape also have become increasingly severe. A March 1985 law allows the death penalty in cases of rape where violence and armed threat are used, and where the victim is under 10 years old. The penalty for all other kinds of rape is imprisonment at hard labor.

Another inequity was ended very recently when Tunisian women married to foreigners were granted permission to pass on Tunisian nationality to their children, just as can Tunisian men.

In the workplace, women also can serve in any government, political or party capacity, and are guaranteed the same rights to work as men. At present, Dr. Gueddana is concentrating her efforts in this field.

She points out that women already are serving in all professions and industries, even in some jobs traditionally reserved for men such as airline pilots, judgeships, and uniformed police and military positions. Although women now occupy some 28 percent of civil service positions, the secretary of state for women's and family affairs would like to see more women in public office. She feels that only when women hold a significant share of political power will everyone feel certain that the progress of Tunisian women is irreversible.

At present, fewer than five percent of members of the national Chamber of Deputies are women. On the municipal councils, however, which are training grounds for future national parliament members, participation of women had risen from less than 2 percent in 1959 to some 14 percent in 1990.

In Tunisia and, in fact, throughout the Arab world, a high percentage of medical doctors are women, like Dr. Gueddana, a pediatrician. Her 1981 medical dissertation at the University of Paris was on The Immune System of the Underweight Newborn. Subsequently she earned her certificate of specialization in pediatrics from the Universite Rene Descartes in Paris and an assistantship diploma from the University of Tunis Medical School.

While practicing medicine at women's care centers in working-class neighborhoods in Tunis, she continued her research and writing. Her published study on The Tunisian Adolescent, Health and Environment earned an award from the Paris-based International Children's Center. Another publication in French, Un Enfant et Deux Tunisies, analyzing causes of infant mortality in Tunisia, won an award from the Maghreb Societies of Medicine and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's award for medicine in July 1990.

Although she is the mother of two boys, now aged 17 and 14, and a girl, aged 10, her husband, also a medical doctor whom she met at the University of Tunis, always has supported her increasing role in women's organizations and in the Democratic Constitutional Rally, Tunisia's incumbent political party. Initially she served as secretary of state to the minister of social affairs from 1989 to 1991, and then as secretary of state to the minister of social affairs in charge of social welfare from 1991 to 1992. Her present appointment was made by President Ben Ali in August 1992, emphasizing his own strong personal dedication to women's rights.

Dr. Gueddana devotes much of her time to strengthening Tunisian women's organizations, which have grown from one, the Girl Scouts, in 1947, to a network of diverse women's groups capable of wielding real political power. In her determination to further ensure the irreversibility of women's gains in Tunisia, she is completely in tune with the president.

Not long after assuming office he stated on March 31, 1989: "On more than one occasion, we have reaffirmed our commitment, and the commitment of the government, to defending women's rights and gains. We will devote ourselves to firmly entrenching the latter and to sanctioning them. Better still, we will work to expand them in order to guarantee women an effective role in our struggle for progress."

Since then, Secretary of State Gueddana points out, the president has matched his words with deeds. Today, in her opinion, the remarkable combination of laws and social achievements that has made Tunisia a model of true equality for all citizens constitutes a strong and irreversible foundation for Tunisia's continued economic, social and political evolution.