Letters from Tunis: Tunisia will lift reservations on CEDAW

21 March 2011

Tunisian women, their NGOs and their protection afforded by legislation have always been considered an example to follow inside the Arab world. Female adult illiteracy has dropped by 27% since 1980, but at 42% remains significant. Nevertheless, this figure is expected to drop as nearly 100% of girls were enrolled in primary school by 1998. Women currently make up approximately 31% of the workforce.


Several women's organizations have been working to advance women's rights in Tunisia. The largest civil society group is the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT). Other groups, such as the Center for Studies, Research, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF) as well as the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates, have been active in researching and publicizing women's issues.

This is the reason why after the Jasmin revolution Tunisian women were worried, I could say, they were even scared about the return of representatives of radical Islam in their country, who might damage their condition.

In the very delicate period of transition the new government gave a perfect answer both to the fears of Tunisian women, whether activists or not, and to the dreams of radical Islam to get sharia to influence Tunisian Personal Status Law, in particular, and Tunisia, in general.

It is very important, even though almost nobody noticed it,  that last February 1st, after the Cabinet meeting of the Tunisian Interim Government, Mr. Taieb Baccouche, Minister of Education and Government Spokesman said at a news conference that the meeting focused essentially on political, economic, social and security issues.  He announced that one of the first steps aimed at empowering the condition of Tunisian women. Mr. Baccouche declared that the meeting looked at ways to take action on the international scale, among Arab and other countries, to identify and use necessary mechanisms to return assets despoiled by symbols of the former regime. The Cabinet meeting approved Tunisia's adherence to several important international conventions likely to help Tunisia join developed democratic countries.

It is noteworthy to stress that much attention was paid to reservations issued by Tunisia on several international conventions, particularly reservations related to the UN Convention on Elimination of Various Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which "reserves emptied the country's adherence to such conventions from any content." Tunisia ratified the CEDAW on September 20th, 1985. Like many other Islamic countries, upon ratification Tunisia made reservations to some articles. As a matter of fact the main reservations from Tunisia were the ones regarding inheritance and the marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. Both issues are very important and are a clue to a true equality between sexes. It is well known that until now a non Muslim man wanting to marry, even with a civil rite, a Tunisian woman has been asked to convert to Islam and his conversion had to take place in Tunisia itself.

Tunisia is often referred to as the most progressive country on women's issues in the Arab world. Over the past several decades, government commitment to incorporating women into the public sphere, coupled with reforms to the personal status code, have helped the country achieve near gender equality. Under the Tunisian Personal Status Law, women have rights nearly equal to that of their male counterparts, particularly with regards to marriage, divorce, child custody and autonomy of persons. Although Islam provided a foundation for these laws, there are no direct references to the religion in the Code. The Ministry of Women and Family Affairs have developed several media campaigns to promote awareness of women's legal rights, particularly among illiterate women.

Early reforms of its Personal Status Law, which abolished polygamy and granted the right to divorce to both spouses, and its reform of the inheritance law. Even in Ben Ali's Tunisia there have been continuing legislative reforms by the State party. Amendments to the Personal Status Law had been voted, which provided women with the capacity to institute legal proceedings in their own name, affirm the principle of equality and partnership between spouses, provided that both parties should cooperate in managing family affairs, prevented manipulation of divorce proceedings by the husband, allowed spouses to agree to a joint property regime and granted women the right to give their family name to a child born of an unknown father and the opportunity for gene-testing to prove parenthood. Even Tunisian Penal Code has been reformed and imposed heavy penalties for the killing of a woman for adultery. There was a progressive development of the national machinery and the reconstitution of the Ministry for Women and Family Affairs as a full Ministry in 1999 and whose budget was doubled since 1994.

The relevance of the Interim Government's decision to lift reservations on CEDAW is immense and it should be "advertized! more so that the new Tunisian government will be responsible of this in front of its people and in front of the outside world. So that this decision will not remain just a "wishful thinking" but a total engagement in the name of Tunisian women and against radical Islam.