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Tunisians and political parties have been celebrating Women’s Day today, the 13th of August. Besides the many appraisals of contemporary and historic Tunisian women political parties organized rallies to celebrate this national day. Above (see picture) a banner of the Republican Party (Parti Republicain) can be seen reading “The Tunisian woman is the symbol of the republic”.

What is actually celebrated?

So what is exactly celebrated at Women’s’ Day one might ask? Before answering this question we have to go back to Tunisian independence  in 1956, and the first president of the Republic Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba regarded expanding women’s rights a very important – if not decisive – in pushing Tunisia into modernity. Having studied law in Paris Bourguiba came in direct contact with Western thought and civilization, which must have had a huge impact on forming his ideas about women’s rights. In contrast to what is commonly known he was not the first however. Before him Taher al-Haddad (1899 – 1935) published in 1930 a book called “Our Women in Islamic law and society”, in which he advocated for women’s rights to be rigorously expanded. Being a religious scholar and graduate of the famous Islamic Zaitouna university, which has been for centuries a center of Islamic learning, his book was controversial among other religious scholars because of his reformist interpretations on Islamic law. Habib Bourguiba has more than once mentioned Taher al-Haddad’s religious opinions as evidence that his ideas about women’s rights were not conflicting with Islam, but a mere reinterpretation of it in parts that he argued were open to (changing) interpretation.

What was exactly changed with the new Code of Personal Status (CPS)?

In 1956, half a year after the independence, the Code of Personal Status (CPS) was enacted. Better known in Arabic as  مجلة الأحوال الشخصية. This code is directly related to women’s rights and abolished polygamy, repudiation, enabled also women the right to divorce, made divorce only possible through an official judicial procedure, increased the minimum age of marriage women from 13 to 16, gave women just like men the right to vote in elections and ensured equal payment as well as equal citizenship between both sexes. Although the CPS was opposed by some prominent Tunisians such as some – though not all – religious scholars and/or (former) Justice Minister al-Jait, nevertheless the Personal Status Code was enacted into the new constitution and is until this day widely celebrated in society. It signified a radical turn that (still) makes Tunisia the most progressive Arab country with respect to women’s rights.

Consensus

Prior to the revolution former president Ben Ali used women’s rights as an important propaganda tool to the international community in showing that his regime was protecting women’s rights and actually very progressive. After almost 60 years of having dealt with the Personal Status Code (CPS) many Tunisians do not know anything else besides the rights that women have enjoyed for the last decades. After the revolution and visible growing importance of the Islamic Ennahda party there was some fear that they might want to turn back the tide on (some of) the rights that are documented in the CPS. Nevertheless, Ennahda was quick to express that they are comfortable with the CPS as it has been since 1957 and support it. Although critics still remain reluctant to actually believe Ennahda on its word it has after a year and a half of governing experience not seem to have changed its stance. Though within Ennahda there is a more conservative group that would argue for the Code on some issues to be reviewed such as polygamy. Apart from Ennahda there is among parties (and civil society groups) from different backgrounds wide consensus in supporting and celebrating the Personal Status Code.

Celebrating women’s rights

After the revolution each party has taken it upon itself to defend celebrate women’s rights and the Personal Status Code visibly. From socialists to nationalists, Bourguibists and Islamists such as Ennahda…all went out on the streets today to celebrate Women’s Day. Of course, each party with its own interpretation and campaigning on the day that should celebrate the rights of Tunisian women. Call of Tunisia (Nida Tounes), a Bourguibist opposition party that is expected to do well in next elections, emphasizes that it was first president Habib Bourguiba who gave Tunisian women their rights. The Republican Party (Parti Republicain), led by female political Maya Jribi, frequently uses the slogan “The Tunisian woman is the symbol of the Republic”, whereas Ennahda links activism of women to importance of succeeding the democratic transition of Tunisia.

Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes):

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Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) banner: as a Bourguibist (opposition) party it shows former president Habib Bourguiba, left of him the reformist Taher al-Haddad who inspired former president, and right another scholar of the Zitouna university who supported Bourguiba’s women’s rights and the Personal Status Code as being in line with Islam, well-known Shaykh Taher Ben Achour. A part of Bourguiba’s speech is cited that explains some rights mentioned in the Code.

Ennahda:

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Ennahda banner: the Islamist’s party banner reads that the Tunisian woman supports the democratic transition phase and national unity. Clearly reflecting the current political situation where pressure is on the government to hand over its power to a national salvation government composed of independent candidates that will not take part in next elections.

Republican Party (Parti Republicain):

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Republican Party banner: it reads “the Tunisian woman is the symbol of the Republic”. Second right (below) is the leader of the party Maya Jribi.

A (live) blog in English can be found here with more pictures and indepth information about the different rallies that were hold today and what has been said.

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