Conditions of Women
Tunisia stands out as the most progressive nation on women’s issues in the Arab region. Successive reforms of the national personal status code have achieved near gender equality. The government is committed to incorporating women into human development through attention to gender concerns. Although women’s position in Tunisia can still be improved, the government’s track record provides optimism for the future.
In the area of education, women in Tunisia have shown steady improvement. Female adult illiteracy has dropped 27 percent since 1980, but remains high at 42 percent. This number can be expected to drop further as the World Bank estimates that nearly 100 percent of both boys and girls were enrolled in primary education by 1998. Literacy has proven vital to women asserting their rights under the reformed personal status code. A government survey in 1991 found that 70 percent of illiterate women were unaware of their rights under the code. The Ministry of Women and Family Affairs has undertaken several national media campaigns to promote awareness of women’s rights.
Law of Personal Status
Women’s personal status in Tunisia is generally equal to that of men. The Tunisian Code of Personal Status does not contain explicit references to Islam, though Islamic values played a role in its crafting. The Tunisian government has sought to develop a new phase of Islamic thinking (ijtihad) distinct from the Islamic law in other Muslim countries. This new thinking has included reforms to create gender equality in the areas of marriage, divorce, child custody, and women’s social autonomy. The latest round of reforms in 1993 brought Tunisian law in accordance with international human rights standards. Supporters of the reforms do not see this as an abandonment of Islamic values, but rather as an evolution for the modern period. Problems have been reported in the enforcement of the reforms when they are contrary to social convention.
Women hold relatively few senior positions in the government (3 percent at the ministerial level) but there are a number of governmental bodies created to deal specifically with women’s issues. National institutions for women include the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, the National Women and Development Commission, and the National Council of Women and the Family. In the 1999 parliamentary elections, women won 21 of the total 182 seats in the national government. Women have a higher level of representation at the local level, where 17 percent of municipal council members are female. President Bin Ali proclaimed on November 7, 2007 that the Constitutional Democratic Rally Party, of which he is the leader, will raise the ratio of women’s presence on its parliamentary and municipal election lists from 20% to at least 30%. He asserted that this positive discrimination in favor of women is in harmony with the development of Tunisian society, and makes Tunisian women responsible for preserving their gains and advancing them.
Aside from government institutions, women are represented in politics by a number of civil society groups. The largest of these is the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), a nationwide organization with government affiliations. The UNFT has undertaken national education campaigns for women. Other groups, such as the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates, are active in debating and publicizing women’s issues. The Center for Studies, Research, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF), one of the leading research centers on women in the Arab region, is based in Tunisia. Several women’s organizations have been denied representation by the government. The first Tunisian woman to head a political party was elected on December 25, 2006.. Mrs. Al-Juraibi, 46 years old, was one of the founders of the Democratic Progressive Party in 1983.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
Tunisia signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on September 20, 1985 with reservations as regards conflict with Islamic values.
Women comprise 31 percent of the workforce in Tunisia and 36 percent of women work. It is estimated that 1,500 women hold senior positions in businesses. President Ben Ali has made several public statements emphasizing the need to encourage women’s participation in economic development. The government has also sought to incorporate gender models in development planning. Tunisia has long taken a progressive position on women’s participation in the workforce; maternity leave policies and employment protections for mothers were established in 1966.
The Ministry of Defence announced on December 26, 2002 that mandatory military service would be imposed on Tunisian women in 2003, as a step designed to enhance gender equality. During the past few years some parliamentarians, including female members, have called for mandatory military service for Tunisian women. The Minister of Defence declared that women's recruitment would be gradually enforced.