Saied Is Bad News for Women’s Rights in Tunisia

Saied Is Bad News for Women’s Rights in Tunisia
Then-candidate Kais Saied speaks to his supporters and the media after advancing to the second round of Tunisia’s presidential election, in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept.17, 2019 (AP photo by Mosa’ab Elshamy).

Tunisian President Kais Saied has steadily chipped away at a decade of democratic progress in the country since consolidating power via a self-coup in July 2021. One of the rights most under threat today is gender equality. Beginning with its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has prided itself on being one of the most advanced countries in the Arab world when it comes to protecting women’s rights and promoting women’s empowerment. Saied, however, has used a variety of tools straight out of the authoritarian playbook to give lip service to gender equality in Tunisia, while simultaneously undermining it.

That has implications beyond the moral and ethical realm. Gender equality is one of many dimensions of good governance. Research by the OECD has shown that greater participation of women in government can contribute to lowering inequality and improving public trust in government. Full political representation ensures that a state’s decision-makers more accurately reflect the makeup of society. And societies with higher levels of gender equality in education tend to have higher economic growth.

Women’s Rights Before the Revolution

Tunisia began enacting gender reforms soon after its independence, even while maintaining tight control over feminist organizations. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, promoted a Code of Personal Status, or CPS, that abolished polygamy, regulated divorce, raised the age of marriage and required a women’s consent for marriage, among other measures. Tunisia was ahead of the curve globally in providing women with access to birth control in 1962. Abortion was legalized in 1973.

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