Women, Politics, and Islam: The Case of Tunisia
Summary of a meeting cosponsored by the Middle East Project and Africa Project with Lilia Labidi, University of Tunis (Tunisia) and current Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow.
According to Lilia Labidi, Woodrow Wilson Center fellow, the women's movement in Tunisia is far advanced relative to other Middle Eastern countries. She provided a synopsis of the Tunisian women's movement during two periods: the 1930s through 1955 and the 1970s through the 1980s. Labidi stressed the fact that the women's movement in Tunisia during the 1930s was not only the result of the country's struggle against French colonialism, but also the result of men's recognition of their dependence upon women as mother figures. Additionally, the role of women during the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by a realization of the state's dependence on women for cultural and economic reasons.
According to Labidi, from the 1930s through 1955, Tunisian women were discriminated against. Tunisian women were taken out of school, forbidden to see male doctors, and limited in the political sphere. Yet, during this period Tunisian women experienced a certain "consciousness" of their deprivation and began fighting effectively to progress their role within society.
In 1956, Tunisia adopted a "Personal Status Code." In fact, the "Personal Status Code" of Tunisia was initiated even before the Tunisian constitution was established in 1956, and was the first of its kind in the Middle East. In a timely manner, Tunisian women earned rights: to vote and to be elected to parliament, to pursue equal wages to the male working class, access to mixed gender education and to divorce laws. The second movement occurred in the midst of governmental conflicts with Islamists. As a result, the state realized its dependence upon women as valued members of society. Accordingly, women were given rights that were unprecedented in the Muslim world. For example, by 1993 "honor crimes" were criminalized within the country. Wives gained full participation in family affairs and were not bound to the duty of obedience. Later, men who could be proven to have fathered children out of wedlock were obligated to support the child.
Labidi gave credit to the first national president of Tunisia, President Bourguiba (1956-1987) for his role in advancing the role of women in Tunisian society. Labidi noted President Bourguiba's appreciation for the female intellect; according to her, President Bourghiba loved to be in the company of women, and often spoke openly and affectionately of his love for his mother and admitted the important role of mothers. "Borguiba did much to transform women's standing within Tunisian society," concluded Labidi.