Tunisia Leads The Middle East In Gender Equality

Tunisia has always been a little more progressive than its Middle East neighbors: it was the first country in the Arab world to ban polygamy, has seen legal abortions since 1973, and provides contraception to its citizens. Now, as the country readies its brand-new constitution and its interim prime minister Ali Larayedh steps down to make way for the new government, gender equality isn't getting left behind — in the last week alone, updates to the constitution that require equal rights and representation for both genders have been approved.

And as Tunisia works to rebuild its post-Arab Spring nation as a constitutional democracy, the future there looks even brighter for female citizens. On Thursday, prime minister Larayedh resigned as part of a political agreement to make way for the new constitutional government. And later that day, the nation's constituent assembly approved an amendment to provision 45 with a vote of 116-40 (32 abstained) that requires equal representation based on gender in Tunisia's new government. It wasn't easy — things got heated, and even women stood on both sides of the issue, arguing that this amendment's positive discrimination might counteract their promised gender equality.

So, how did this all start? In December 2010, the Arab Spring ignited when a young Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller set himself on fire in a public marketplace, protesting corruption in and unfair actions by his government. This act of rebellion inspired a wave of protests across the Middle East and removal of leaders in various countries, including Tunisia's President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January.

Since then, Tunisia hasn't been the only country trying to rebuild in the aftermath of revolution. However, in terms of building a constitutional democracy and ensuring gender equality, it's been one of the most successful.

After an official state of emergency and an ensuing dizzying spell of governmental resignations and replacements, Tunisia elected a constituent assembly of 217 representatives in October 2011. Now, the constituent assembly is voting on each of the 180 propositions in numerical order. This is big. It's the first time an Arabic-speaking country has allowed a freely elected assembly to publicly debate a constitution — no army, king, or dictator pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The Islamist party Ennahda won the majority of seats in parliament, which led some to fear a reduction in citizen rights. However, on Monday, 159 out of 169 lawmakers voted to approve Article 20, which establishes gender equality and prohibits discrimination based on sex. It reads, "All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties. They are equal before the law without discrimination." And while some have argued that the language is not detailed enough to ensure its enforcement, its overwhelming approval indicates a change in the male-centric culture of the region.

But aren't these new developments contrary to the precedent in countries where an Islamist party is in power? Well, as Islamic culture expert Sami Brahem explained to the AFP, "You could say that Ennahda has shown itself to be a modern movement, but also that it didn't have a choice, because Tunisian society is modern and progressive." Thus, gender equality and equal representation — and spontaneous singing of the national anthem by parliament and the audience when the second article was approved, followed by angry yelling from extreme Islamists who didn't approve.

This contrast of values and ideals is indicative of both the situation as it is today and Tunisia's probable future, as things normalize after the new constitution is (hopefully) approved on Jan. 14. However, the legislations face more hurdles before they're actually enacted within the nation, from the approval of the constitution itself to a future leader's acceptance of the document. Compromise and consensus will be necessary — but doesn't that sound a lot like democracy?

For now, here's what's cool: while women in nearby Saudi Arabia are forbidden to drive cars and traditionally don't ride bicycles in Afghanistan, the presiding member calling for order in Thursday's chaotic parliament was female.

As we all know, having gender equality required by law isn't necessarily enough to ensure that it exists in the real world. And this is only one issue — the Human Rights Watch complained that these laws do not address issues of discrimination based on "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." But if nothing else, it's a start. Over the coming months and years after Larayedh's resignation, it'll be interesting to see if Tunisia follows through on these ideals of gender equality as they build a new government.

Image: Getty