Tunisia, Women’s Rights, And Constitutional Reform

By: Martin Sigalow Tunisia, a country many view as a relatively benign member of the so-called “Arab Spring” countries, is currently in a crucial governmental transition period that will determine the role civil and religious issues will play in governmental policies. Tunisian general elections were held last October following the ouster of former Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the new governing body, called the National Constituent Assembly, has since postponed the next round of elections until a new constitution can be written[1]. The election of this 217 member governing body was largely a result of ad hoc decrees by individual lawyers, and there is legal consensus that it could not serve as a model for Tunisian presidential election cycles[2]. Until around one year from now, Tunisian policymakers - including many members of the NCA - will be fighting with one another to hash out the precise details of the constitutional rights afforded to citizens, including the provisions for voting in subsequent presidential and NCA elections[3].

It is important that this new constitution protect women’s rights. Women, who played an incredibly active role in the revolution last year, won many important rights as a result. However, many Tunisian women are fearful that these rights will be revoked.  Actions by the current NCA demonstrate that the body is willing to sacrifice women’s rights issues in political bargains[4]. Women advocates in Tunisia feel that, unless civil liberties for women are enshrined in the constitution, they may be sacrificed at any time. Thus, advocates see now as a key time to push for progressive change to solidify meaningful rights[5].

Status-quo constitutional debates are dominated by religious issues.[6] There are reasons to think that Islamists wield tremendous political power, since the significant party leader in the NCA, Ennahda, is an Islamic party[7]. Though most Tunisian Islam is fairly moderate, that may be changing, as indicated by recent mass protests involving thousands of citizens, alongside many NCA members, vocally demonstrating their support for the adoption of Sharia Law[8]. Indeed, organizers of these protests, including the hard-line Salafi movement, have stated that they will work to reinstitute practices like polygamy and ancient Islamic marriage laws, things that stray a long way from modern women’s rights efforts[9].

Although pro-Islam groups do make up a significant amount of the NCA, there is still enough relevant opposition to prevent monopolization of the constitution procedure. Tunisian news sources believe that female members of the NCA will push women’s rights as an issue. Indeed, 48% of the Ennahda bloc in the NCA is made up of women[10]. Moreover, the former prime minister of Tunisia recently came out and gave a statement urging secular members of the NCA to rally against the Muslim bloc[11]. Already, secularist political parties left to stew after the revolution seem to be coming together to mount an effective secularist response to the religious constitutional question[12].

It is absolutely critical that the transition to liberal constitutional governance in Tunisia go correctly. Tunisian commitments on civil rights issues are strong predictors of the actions that other states in the region will take. Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country to revolt, and its type of revolution was soon modeled by the other countries in the region when it was their time to revolt[13]. Tunisia is viewed by other Middle Eastern countries, especially countries like Yemen, Egypt, and Libya, as a key indicator of the true success of the revolts of the Arab Spring. Tunisia is viewed by many foreign policy analysts as a beacon around which subsequent international policies of Arab states have been organized post-revolution.

Members of constitution drafting are currently locked in fruitless squabbles and have not yet constructively engaged the topic[14]. This means that the United States must move now and offer technical assistance for writing a constitution to change the direction of the debate in favor of women’s rights. The United States cannot send a signal of unwillingness by ignoring the country. This will convince the rest of the world that the United States is uncommitted to democracy, which would a disastrous outcome[15]. Additionally, if the United States involves itself in more geo-strategically important countries like Yemen, a base for Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and key target for drone attacks[16], rather than Tunisia, this will only confirm the idea that America only cares about human rights insofar as it helps our agenda of acquiring tangible resources or purging terrorists threats.  This discovery would amplify the rampant anti-American sentiment that pervades much of the Middle East. Tunisia was happy to accept US democratic aid and advice in the past[17], so there is no reason to think that United States democracy promotion will increase anti-Americanism. The only significant risk to the US and to the people of the region is for the United States to not act.

[1] Wafa Ben Hassine, “Tunisia: Experts Plan Framework for Future Elections,” All Africa News, March 13, 2012, accessed March 22, 2012,

[2] Ibid 1

[3] Ibid 1

[4] Sarah Leduc, “The unfinished revolution of Tunisia's women,” The Guardian, March 7, 2012, accessed March 21, 2012,

[5] Ibid 4

[6]  Paul Schemm, “Tunisian Islamists Spark Fear of Culture War,” Associate Press, March 9, 2012, accessed March 21, 2012,

[7] Ibid 4

[8] Associated Free Press, “Thousands Rally in Tunisia to Demand Islamic Law,” AFP¸March 25, 2012, accessed March 25, 2012,

[9] Asma Ghribi, “Tunisia: Role of Islamic Law in Local Constitution Provokes Debate,” Tunisia Live, March 22, 2012, accessed March 22, 2012,

[10] Mehrezia Labidi, “Tunisia's women are at the heart of its revolution”  The Guardian,  March 23, 2012, Accessed March 22, 2012,

[11]Associated Free Press, “Tunisia ex-PM hits out at Islamists”, AFP, March 24, 2012, accessed March 24, 2012,

[12] Kaouther Larbi, “Tunisia's secular opposition unites against Islamists,” All Arabia News, March 23, 2012, accessed March 22, 2012,

[13] Ibid 15

[14] Jannie Schipper, “Optimistic in the face of Tunisia’s challenges,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, March 23 2012 accessed March 22, 2012,

[15] Victoria Taylor, “Tunisia at the Crossroads,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 21, 2011, accessed March 21, 2012,

[16] Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Teaming With New Yemen Government on Strategy to Combat Al Qaeda,” New York Times, February 26, 2012, accessed March 24, 2012,

[17] New Opinion Workshop, “Clinton pledges US help for Tunisian reforms” Al Arabia News, February 25, 2012, accessed March 23, 2012,

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