UGTT, Tunisia’s largest labor federation and a key player in the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on International Women’s Day said that the country’s new constitution must include language that guarantees equal rights for women. The labor federation also urged the government, which is led by Ennahda, an Islamist political party, to activate the UN’s Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
“(UGTT) lays emphasis on the need to guarantee women’s social and economic rights, notably the right to employment and equality of compensation, treatment, and work conditions away from all forms of discrimination,” reads a statement issued last year by the federation. “Preserving women’s rights should be among action priorities of the government, parties, and associations to further consecrate the values of modernity and tolerance.”
Tunisia in 1956 adopted as part of its constitution the Personal Status Code, which among other things guaranteed women social rights such as the right to divorce. Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to adopt such guarantees, but these protections didn’t lead to full equality. By 2010, women comprised only 25 percent of the away from home workforce and had higher poverty rates than men.
Women played key roles in the overthrow of Ben Ali, and many hoped that a democratic government would finish the work of gender equality begun in 1956.
But since Ennahda’s rise to power, the country has taken steps backward. Last August, a commission dominated by Ennahda and its allies charged with writing the rights and liberties section of the new constitution adopted language that would change the Personal Status Code by defining the role of women within society as “complementary to men within the family and as an associate of men in the development of the country.”
The wording raised fear among feminists and human rights supporters that the Islamists were seeking to undermine the social status of women.
Ennahda leaders said that it was not their aim to make women second class citizens, but the party’s reassurances did little to quell the anger and sense of betrayal felt by many women.
On August 13, Tunisia’s National Women’s Day thousands of people demonstrated against the proposed language. The demonstrations were organized by women’s and human rights groups, and UGTT played an important role in mobilizing its members to participate.
Since then opponents of the proposed changes to the Personal Status Code have been waging a campaign to defeat the proposed language.
Tunisians aren’t the only ones concerned that the proposed changes could lead to diminished rights for women.
In January, Amnesty International voiced concern about the proposed changes in the new constitution and Tunisia’s drift toward a more repressive society.
“In the past year, freedom of expression and women’s rights have been undermined in Tunisia,” reads an Amnesty International statement. “It is therefore crucial that the new constitution fully protect these rights.”
Also in January, the UN Working Group on discrimination against women called on the Tunisian government to ensure that the new constitution guarantee gender equality.
“We are concerned at the persistence of loopholes and ambiguities in the current draft of the (Tunisian) constitution which, if not removed, might undermine the protection of women’s rights and the principle of gender equality,” said Kamala Chandrakirana, the head of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice. “While equality between men and women is recognized, the prohibition of discrimination, including on the ground of sex, is not articulated in the second draft constitution, and there is a lack of provision on the right to remedy.”