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Debating the status of women in Tunisia

PAOLA BERNARDINI

As noted in a previous post on the Contending Modernities blog by Michael Driessen, post-authoritarian Tunisia has become the site of fascinating debate between contending modernities — one being self-consciously Islamist and democratic and the other being assertively secular and liberal.  One battlefield where the conflict is currently fiercest is the status of women.

News agencies recently reported a major victory on the part of Tunisian women who had fought to amend Article 27.1 of the new draft Constitution. The article they opposed originally read:

The state shall guarantee the protection of women’s rights and support for their gains, in considering her a true partner with man in building the nation; the role of these two is complementary within the family. The state shall guarantee the parity (takāfuʾ) of opportunity between the woman and the man while accepting different responsibilities. The state shall guarantee prosecution of every form of violence against women.

Local analysts argue that the amended article 27 is a manifestation of a larger movement in Tunisia, which is attempting to drive a wedge between “Islamic feminism” and what is generally considered the “Western” model of thought about women.

“Western” feminism vs. the new “Islamic” feminism

Representatives of what is often defined as the “western” secular model of feminism worried that the approval of Article 27.1 would have compromised the equality between women and men as established in the Tunisian personal status code of 1956. They were concerned that women would have been accorded rights not as individuals but only in reference to men. Note that the proposed language of Article 27.1 guaranteed the protection of the rights of the woman context of “considering her a true partner with man in building the nation.”

It is interesting to note that although this form of feminism is called “Western,” so-called Western feminism has been questioned in the West.  Even some Western feminists have opposed the “feminism of identity” model. Consider feminists such as Iris Marion Young, for example, whose theory of affirmative action emphasizes gender difference rather than the equality of men and women’s rights.

On the other hand, according to the “Islamic” feminists who supported Article 27.1, it would not have jeopardized women’s rights. These rights, they say, are securely recognized not only in the 1956 personal status code but also in Article 1.22 of the draft Constitution.  Rather, according to the new Islamic feminism, Article 27.1 would simply have treated men and women’s rights as reciprocal and complementary.

Common ground?

The new Islamic feminism of the post-Ben Ali regime resembles more than one aspect of the post-Vatican II model of Roman Catholic feminism. To begin with, they both emphasize the complementarities of men and women, which in the Judeo-Christian tradition are rooted in the Book of Genesis. What further common ground might there be between Catholic feminism and the Islamic feminism that has become increasingly influential in Tunisia?

On the other hand, religious and secular models of feminist discourse seem to be harder to reconcile. Their dichotomy is based on the presupposition that complementarity is the opposite of equality. But is this really so? As Michael Driessen and Alfred Stepan have noted, secular and Islamist modernities in Tunisia have found common ground on several important issues. Why not also on the issue of the status and rights of women?

On what theological grounds can the new Islamic and Catholic feminisms account for the complementarity of women and men without jeopardizing their equality?  Conversely, to what extent can secular feminisms that emphasize the equality of women and men come to appreciate their complementarity?

We invite discussion on these and related questions.

Paola Bernardini is the Associate Director for Research for Contending Modernities. Paola received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy, where she was a Russell Berrie Fellow in Interreligious Studies. Paola’s doctoral thesis was a comparative study of Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s human rights theory and Jacques Maritain’s natural law theory. Her past publications include Natural or Political Man? The Foundation of Human Rights in Martha C. Nussbaum (2009), and Multiculturalism and Adult Dialogue Education (2003). Paola received an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a concentration in human rights and conflict resolution education.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Mir Emme November 1, 2012, 1:56 am

    I suggest this is not the business of a state, which should only guarantee equal treatment before the law and prohibit discrimination based on gender. Women within a society must be free to define their own roles in their own lives, without having any restrictions placed on them by their government’s idea of what they should be or do. Simply a part of human rights.

    This seems to be a prelude to Shariah enforcement.

  • Paola Bernardini November 2, 2012, 6:08 pm

    Thank you for your reply. I agree with you that the State should guarantee equal treatment before the law. This should be considered a universal, non-negotiable principle.
    However, what this equal treatment entails in practice is an open question, which requires to be addressed by taking in consideration social and anthropological factors.
    Even though women and men have the same rights, they might need to exercise them differently. Take for instance the case of the equal right to work. A woman’s right to work should include the right to take maternity leave from work, without incurring in the risk of losing her job in case she was pregnant. In this sense, a woman’s right to work is at the same time equal to, and different, from man’s right to work.
    And the State should consider this gender difference and complementarity, not ignore it, if it really wants to protect women’s rights effectively.
    From my understanding, this is what Islamic feminism is up to.