When Tunisians overthrew dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, they kicked off a wave of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and spurred a jubilant sense of unity at home. But for champions of women’s rights in the country, that jubilation was soon replaced by a sense of dread over what might happen to those rights as Islamist conservatism began to take hold.
While Ben Ali’s two decades in power were marked by corruption, human rights abuses and tight restrictions on free speech and political opposition, his regime did preserve the secular foundations of Tunisia’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 in most other Arab countries, including to initiate a divorce, open a bank account, and establish a business without spousal consent; and to access abortion services. It also outlawed polygamy.
Anxiety concerning the future of women’s rights in Tunisia was laid to rest by the country’s 2014 constitution, which solidly enshrined those rights and mandated gender parity on electoral lists. Today, women make up some 30 percent of the legislature, known as the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Several parties are broaching the notion of a possible gender quota system for all levels of government and the civil service.