President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s two-decade reign preserved the foundations of the country’s strong women’s rights legislation, established in 1957 with the adoption of the Code of Personal Status. That code guaranteed women in Tunisia far more extensive rights than women have in many other countries in the region. It gave women the right to initiate a divorce, open a bank account and establish a business without spousal consent and access abortion services. The country has also outlawed polygamy.
In the wake of the revolution many women feared they would lose those rights, but in 2014, women’s rights were enshrined in a new constitution. Gender parity on electoral lists has been made mandatory. Around 30 per cent of the legislature is currently made up of women, but several parties have raised the notion of possibly imposing a gender quota system for all levels of government and the civil service.
While Tunisian women graduate from university at a rate almost double that of their male counterparts, female unemployment currently stands at 26%, versus 16% for men. Women face serious pay discrimination, especially in the agricultural sector, according to some advocacy groups. In March of this year, the Tunisian Association for Cultural Action published a report that said 99%of women working in the private agricultural sector do not receive equal pay as men for doing the same job.
The challenge facing women in Tunisia today is to find ways to exercise the power that Tunisia’s progressive laws give them. One way they are learning to do that is by attending “political academies” that have sprung up since the revolution. The academies are designed to help them make an impact in the male-dominated world of government and be effective in advancing women’s rights.
Aswat Nissa, which translates as “women’s voices,” is an NGO founded just after the revolution that holds once-a-month training sessions for women who have entered, or are about to enter, political life. Women who attend the sessions, which last a year, learn how to communicate clearly and with conviction; research and read laws; draft gender-sensitive budgets; canvas; debate effectively; fundraise; and mobilize volunteers.
Aswat Nissa has enrolled 40 women in its academy this year, all of whom are active in politics. Much of the training is geared at women such as Rhouma who are preparing to run in the upcoming municipal elections, but it also focuses on women who are already in office.
Karima Tagaz, 33, a graduate of the academy, is about to debut as an elected representative in the next session of the Assembly of Representatives of the People, which begins this week. “Women must dare to impose themselves in politics so as to take their rightful place,” she said. “They can’t wait for it to be done for them. No matter what their action is, every woman must have a personal conviction that she is able to do something to make things better.”