In the wake of the “Arab Spring” revolts in Egypt, the Maghbreb and some parts of the Arab world (it might be better termed Berber Spring than Arab Spring, as it began in largely Berber North Africa), many of the “progressive” policies put in place by dictators have come under attack by new political factions.
In Tunisia, where the revolutions began, the previous ruler had done a great deal to advance feminist causes in his country, possibly at the urging of his wife. Many of these Muslim leaders were educated and trained in the West before they came to power, and during the course of their instruction they absorbed a lot of what is known as progressive policy today. In fact, sometimes they were ahead of the West in that regard because, being authoritarian dictators, they had little standing in their way when they chose to implement new policies.
A report released by Consultancy Africa Intelligence describes in detail the policies implemented by Ben Ali and his predecessor in Tunisia:
Directly after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the president of the new Tunisian Republic, Bourguiba, issued a personal status code (PSC). As a result, the role of Islamic law in this domain was ended or at least curtailed, and a more egalitarian family was established. This code was then, and still is, famous within the Muslim World and beyond for its abolition (or re-interpretation) of classical Islamic precepts.(2) For example, until this day, Tunisia is the only Arab Muslim country that prohibits polygamy and that secures equal divorce rights for men and women.
In the years that followed, other codes were issued which aimed at women’s emancipation as well. In 1959, Tunisia proclaimed a constitution, protecting the equality principle, and measures were taken to enhance female participation in society: women were granted active and passive voting-rights (1957), an effective programme of family planning was introduced (3) and women were granted a right to education (1980). In 1985, Tunisia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which, on the basis of the constitution, prevails over Tunisian national law.(4) These measures together are generally termed le féminisme Bourguibien.(5)
Despite the nod to voting rights (even the Soviet Union held “elections”), this was all accomplished without the hindrance of democracy, so it was quite easy.
Ben Ali equally took a number of measures to improve the situation of divorced women. The first concerned maintenance upon divorce: although the PSC was the only family code in the region obliging the man to pay maintenance to his ex-wife upon divorce, this was often not enforced in practice. In order to improve this situation, Ben Ali created a state fund to secure payment of maintenance to mother and children after divorce (1993). The second measure concerned the nationality code, allowing women to pass on their nationality to their children. This was crucial to prevent women who had married a foreigner losing custody upon divorce on the grounds that the child had a foreign nationality (1993). The third measure provided that couples could choose to marry in community of goods, as opposed to the general practice where the spouses do not share any goods, even if these are acquired during marriage. The community of goods could prevent women who did not earn a living during their marriage ending up with empty hands upon divorce (1998). Fourth, the mother who has custody over her children obtained the right to stay in the marital home after divorce (2008), even if this belonged to the father.
Hmmm, sounds just like home. Looks as though Ben Ali modeled his country’s divorce laws on California code. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Arab Spring began with a slap to the face of a young man by a female authority.
Ben Ali, according to the report, used feminism as a means to gain legitimacy even as he committed human rights violations. As is so often the case, the excuse that one is “protecting women and children” often serves as a license to commit egregious violations of human rights.
…Under Ben Ali, state feminism served a different goal: in a context of outraging violations of civil and political rights, the protection of women’s rights became a means to gain legitimacy, both on the national and on the international levels.(12)
The governments of Bourguiba and Ben Ali cautiously protected their feminist politics. They installed official institutions that promoted state feminism, such as the Tunisian women’s organisation UNFT (Union Nationale de Femmes Tunisiennes, established in 1957), a research centre for women’s affairs (CREDIF),(13) and a special Secretary of State dealing with issues concerning women and the family, later transformed into a Ministry. In the meantime, all voices of contestation were silenced through censorship and by making life difficult for those who dared to disagree. (14) But despite (or because of) this repressive context, state feminism was indeed contested.
Finally, the author of the piece, who is evidently a feminist (or feminist friendly) herself, admits that most feminist achievements in the region were achieved not in spite of oppression, but because of it:
Tunisia is currently at a crossroads between authoritarianism and democratic rule. In this context, women’s rights form a crucial stake. This is not only true because the feminist laws issued under the previous regimes were imposed on the Tunisian population in an authoritarian way, making a democratic renegotiation of these laws inevitable. That women’s rights form a crucial stake in the current context is also due to the fact that the authoritarian feminist laws were very progressive, while the current government is relatively conservative. This situation has caused an intense fear among Tunisian feminists for a roll-back of the achievements in the field of women’s rights, however undemocratic these achievements may be.
Feminism needs authoritarianism for obvious reasons: men must be forced by those with more power than they have to submit to the women in their lives. Feminists may sometimes claim to support freedom and democracy, but the smart ones know that both must be curtailed in order to achieve their version of equality.
Ultimately, however, as Tunisia demonstrates, the symbiotic relationship between authoritarianism and “progressive” policies such as feminism create an environment that is too much for the people to bear, and unrest breaks loose. When that happens in the West is an open question, but given our economic stagnation, I can only see the pressure rising from here on out.