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Women in Tunisia

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Women in Tunisia

Women in Tunisia
Women working at a factory in Soliman
Gender Inequality Index
Value 0.261 (2012)
Rank 46th
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 56 (2010)
Women in parliament 26.7% (2012)
Females over 25 with secondary education 29.9% (2010)
Women in labour force 25.5% (2011)
Global Gender Gap Index
Value NR (2012)
Rank NR out of 136

Since the January 2011 revolution in Tunisia and protests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) began, many Western news sources have published articles discussing the unprecedented role that Tunisian women played in the protests. Many of these articles highlight some of the secular freedoms instituted by Habib Bourguiba in 1956, such as access to higher education, the right to file for divorce, and certain job opportunities. While women in Tunisia have enjoyed certain freedoms and rights that are often denied to women in neighboring countries, the social norms have shifted since 2011. Additionally, even though some aspects of society were relatively liberal, the regime still classified itself as an Islamic State. Thus, women in Tunisia live within an oscillating society that at times encourages strict abidance to Islamic law.


As of 2008, the U.S. Population Reference Bureau reported that Tunisia's population of women between the ages of 15 and 49 was 3,000,000.[1] By 2015, there will be 3,100,000 women of the same age bracket in the country.[1] The life expectancy for women, from birth, is 76 years (men in Tunisia have a life expectancy of 72 years).[2]
Flag of Tunisia


When Tunisia was still a colony of France, the majority of Tunisian women were veiled, uneducated and performed the domestic duties required by husbands and fathers. However, with the onset of the country’s independence movement, a voice for equality between men and women emerged.[3] In fact, by the early 20th century, many urban families were educating their daughters.[3] When Tunisia gained its independence in 1956, the country’s founder—Habib Bourguiba—discussed repeatedly the need to include all persons in Tunisian society.[3]

In 1956, The Code of Personal Status (Tunisia) was enacted—a document that has undergone heavy reform since its inception. This document has abolished polygamy and repudiation, enabled women to ask for divorce, enacted a minimum age for marriage and ordered the consent of both spouses before marriage.[3] Moreover, women earned the right to vote in 1957 and in 1959, women were able to seek office.[3] The Constitution of Tunisia promulgates “the principle of equality” which has been applied favorably for women within the judiciary system, enabling them to enter untraditional job sectors (for example medicine, the army and engineering) as well as open bank accounts and establish businesses.[3] In 1962, women were able to access birth control and by 1965, abortion was legalized (8 years before American women gained access).[4]

In 1993, feminists and women’s organizations’ lobbying efforts resulted in certain modifications to the Code of Personal Status. The modifications stated that a wife was not obliged to obey her husband, but did require her to “share part of the financial burden of the family”.[5] Despite releasing women from obedience to their husbands, they were now required to equally contribute to managing family affairs. However, a vague clause within the Code requires women to “deal with their husbands in accordance with custom and tradition.” This clause makes it difficult for women to assert their independence (and thus ability to contribute to her family's financial burden) because 'tradition' and 'custom' are often used to reinforce a woman's subservience. After the Association des femmes tunisiennes pour la recherche et le développement and the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD) presented a document in which they demanded the full implementation of the agreement, the Tunisian government ratified the agreement on September 20, 1985.[6]

As for the reservations shown by Tunisia at the signing of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979, they show that those in power have not yet decided to take the step of equality.[7] The agreement was signed on July 24, 1980, but with reservations, like other Muslim countries, concerning a few paragraphs of sections 15, 16 and 29 on the grounds of their contradictions with the provisions of the Code of Personal Status and the Quran.[6] · [8]

To mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the Code of Personal Status (Tunisia), president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali announced two Bills that were adopted by the Chamber of Deputies of Tunisia on May 8, 2007. The first reinforces the legal housing rights of mothers having custody of children, and the second establishes a minimum age for marriage, at 18 years, for both sexes despite the fact that the actual average age at marriage had already surpassed 25 years for women and 30 years for men.[9]

In matters related to motherhood, Tunisia is often considered as a country open to changes coming from the modern world.[10][11]

On the occasion of the announcement on March 8, 2008 that the government would adhere to an additional protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, coinciding with the International Women's Day, the president of the ATFD, Khadija Cherif, described the process as "positive but insufficient" and said it would continue "to advocate for the lifting of reservations that emptied the Convention of its meaning".[8]

Tunisia observes several national holidays dedicated to women: International Women's Day (March 8)[12] and August 13, the anniversary date of the implementation of the Code of Personal Status (Tunisia), which has become a public holiday called National Women's Day.[7]

A desire for modernization or a political necessity?

In Tunisia, the pursuit of feminist politics is all the more necessary since it is the main support to the good image of the country in Europe.[13] In effect, even though the Economic growth is not negligible, it does not stand out from other countries in North Africa such as Morocco; as well, the suppression of the free speech and the political opposition in Tunisia have long tarnished the country's reputation abroad.[7] The status of women remains a domain in which Tunisia, while under Bourguiba as under Ben Ali, could vindicate its uniqueness.[7]

Colette Juillard-Beaudan believes that Tunisian women,
left to choose a form of democracy, "they" prefer it to be secular.[14]
And this type of propaganda bore fruit as the country enjoyed, during the reign of Bourguiba, a solid reputation of national and civil secular in a region that more often consists of military dictatorships or monarchies connected to religion,[15] as the CSP was itself declared in an authoritarian manner, since it was not been debated publicly or in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly.[16]

On February 9, 1994, a Tunisian Women's Day was organized by the Senate of France under the slogan "Une modernité assumée, la Tunisie" (in English: Tunisia: Embracing Modernity).[7] Shortly after a debate organized in June 1997 in the European Parliament on the situation of human rights in Tunisia, Tunisians were dispatched to Strasbourg to give Europe another image of their country.[7]

A series of laudatory articles followed in the French press on the condition of women in Tunisia.[7] In October 1997, during Ben Ali's official visit to France, the Tunisian regime's defenders also cited the status of women, while ignoring the criticisms of the organizations defending human rights:
Is the Tunisian regime feminist through political necessity and to mask the democratic deficit that it seems happy to entrench, or through its modernizing conviction?[7]
In August 1994, during a conference devoted to women and the family, the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD) denounced the ambiguity of the forces in power and the use of religion to control the status of women in the country, criticizing foremost "the patriarchal oppression of women".[7] Moreover, women attempted to rebel against the official discourse were quickly called to order, notably through the bias of a Tunisian press rigorously controlled by the authorities.[7] The president of the ATFD, the lawyer Sana Ben Achour, explained on March 9, 2010 that her organization was living in a
situation of being clamped down upon and strangled that means a breakdown of any possibility of dialogue with the public authorities.[17]
She denounced among other things, the "police inclosure" of the ATFD headquarters and its women's university, and the fact that the association was prevented from staging a theatre production that was supposed to mark the March 8 International Women's Day.[17] In this context, filmmaker Moufida Tlatli — made famous by her film The Silences of the Palace (1994) — was heavily criticized[18] in the Tunisian magazine Réalités for having shown her scepticism towards the supposed feminism of Islam during a television program broadcast in France in October 1994:
When I was a child, explains Moufida Tlatli, Tunisian women were called 'the colonization of the colonized.' It was in thinking about my mother (to whom The Silences of the Palace is dedicated) and the taboos that prevailed throughout her life that I wrote the screenplay (...) it was understood: behind this denunciation of the lives of her ancestors, Moufida Tlatli is in fact speaking of the present. And what this calls into question, is the silence that, still today, stifles Tunisian women.[19]
On August 13, 2003, the 47th anniversary of the enactment of the CSP, the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'homme (in English: Tunisian League of Human Rights) declared :
We believe that total equality between men and women remains a fundamental claim.[20]


Prior to the 2011 revolution, Tunisia restricted women's right to wear the hijab. Even though the population of Tunisia is 98% Muslim, and women in the Muslim world commonly wear hijabs, the governments of both Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba pursued the eradication of public Islamic traditions, including hijab. In 1981 Habib Bourguiba ratified law no. 108 effectively banning Tunisian women from wearing hijab in state offices.[21][22] In 1985, he went further and ratified law 108 extending this ban to educational establishments.[23]

During ben Ali's regime, the government began cracking down on females wearing the hijab. In 2008, Amnesty International reported that women were forced to remove their hijab before being allowed into schools, universities, workplaces and some were even forced to remove it on the street.[24] The report goes further stating that scarfed women were denied entry to the Tunis International Book Fair and at times were taken to police stations and made to sign a written commitment to stop wearing the hijab. "Some of those who refused were assaulted by police officers".[24]

While recent changes under the new government of the Ennahda party have lifted restrictions on wearing the hijab, a broader shift in social values toward Muslim conservatism has caused women to feel more restricted in many ways. A number of women complain that they can no longer wear skirts because of harassment by men. Additionally, they state that hijabs have become a social requirement instead of an option.[25]


Although these facts appear to put women in Tunisia on par with Western women, only 30% of women are employed. Women’s minimal participation in the work force does not derive from lack of education. In fact, 91% of Tunisian women, between the ages of 15 and 24, are literate.[26] Young women represent 59.5% of students enrolled in higher education in Tunisia.[27] In addition, the level of illiteracy for girls and women ages 10 ten years and over dropped from 96% in 1956 to 58.1% in 1984, 42.3% in 1994 then 31% in 2004 (the level among men was 14.8% in 2004).[28] The main reason behind this change has been the number of girls enrolled in primary education: 52 female students for every 100 male students in 1965; as well as the number of female students enrolled in secondary schools: 83 female students for every 100 male students in 1989, an increase from the level of 37 in 1965.[29] Compared to the regional statistic, only 65% of MENA women are literate.[30] More women are enrolled in secondary school (81%) than their male counterparts (75%).[31] Although, Tunisian girls have a high enrollment rate, many girls drop out during or after they complete their primary education. Tunisia’s enrollment rates for girls are higher than its surrounding neighbors, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, and even Lebanon and Jordan.[32] Women in Tunisia are also less likely than men to enter a career in business, economics or engineering.[32] This phenomenon may be due to the disconnect between content learned in school and needed skills to participate in the labor force.

Women's participation in the work force

Women constitute 26.6% of the workforce of Tunisia in 2004, an increase from 20.9% in 1989 and only 5.5% in 1966.[33]

Female participation and mobility in the labor force are constrained by the socially acceptable behavior of women in Tunisia and even laws. For example, women are discouraged or prohibited by family members from traveling far from home (in both rural and urban environments). Indeed, traveling alone is not an option for a woman or girl. Therefore, given that a job involves commuting, often alone, to the location of work, for women this is socially unacceptable and/or prohibited. Certain Tunisian laws restrict the type of work women participate in, the number of hours they work as well as require a woman’s husband or father to approve of her job and hours worked.[30] The World Bank found that women in Tunisia and the surrounding region (MENA) do not use the same job search methods as men of the same region. Women are significantly less likely to use networking with a friend or contact an employer directly to obtain employment.[32] The World Bank research found that women struggle with finding a suitable working environment because they fear sexual harassment and working long hours.[32] Within the MENA region, the Tunisian government offers the shortest amount of time for maternal leave for women (30 days).[30] Separate maternity leave laws apply to women who work in the public or private industry. Women who work as civil servants or public employees have 60 days of maternity leave while those women who work in the private industry only receive 30 days.[30] In comparison, The Family and Medical Leave Act, in the United States, enables mothers (and fathers) to take up to 12 weeks (84 days) of maternity leave.[34]

They work in all areas of business, as well as the Army, the Civil Aviation or Military and police [9] and represent 72% of pharmacists, 42% of the medical profession, 27% of judges, 31% of lawyers and 40% of university instructors.[9] In addition, between 10,000 and 15,000 of them are entrepreneurs.[9] However, unemployment affects women more than men since 16.7% of women work in private employment rather than the 12.9% rate of men as of 2004.[35]

From 1999 to 2004, job creation for women grew at a rate of 3.21%, to produce an average of 19,800 jobs per year.[33]

Post January 2011

Immediately prior to the Tunisian revolution of 2011, women represented 14.89% of the government, 27.57% (59 of 214) of the elected members of the Chamber of Deputies elected on October 25, 2009,[36] 27.06% of municipal councillors and 18% of the members of the Economic and Social Council.[9][33]

Moreover, in the absence of a law on equality (after the Tunisian revolution of 2011), the principle of parity was adopted in April 2011 for the election of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly pf 2011.[37]).

Currently many Tunisian feminists are worried that the rights they enjoyed before the revolution may disappear as the power vacuum is infiltrated with religiously zealous ex-pats returning to the country. Women such as Munjiyah al-Sawaihi and Fawzia Zouari, known Tunisian feminists, are worried that the Tunisian revolution will follow the past examples of Algeria and Iran where women played active roles during the revolutionary period, however, lost their voice and ability to participate in the public sphere when the new regimes established strict Sharia Law.[38]

Ennahda and women

The Ennahda Movement is Tunisia's most popular Islamic party and the party with the largest amount of seats in the Constituent Assembly. However, due to its foundation on Islamic thought, the party has gained the largest number of critics nationally and internationally, and specifically regarding women's rights. Since the 2011 revolution, the party stated the following in regards to Tunisian women and what would happen if they were to get elected:

  • The party would not legalize polygamy. In fact, the party leader stated that "polygamy has been determined to be illegal" in (their interpretation) of the shariah law.[39]
  • Hijab will become legal in all areas of life in Tunisia, and will be a personal choice.[39]
  • Women will retain their right to wear whatever they want, "including bikinis".[40]
  • They will not amend the Status Code.[41]

In addition, the party voted in favor of full gender equality in the October Elections,[42] and they were the most effective of all parties in mobilizing women in rural areas .[43] Rural areas are commonly dominated by males in the Arab world.

See also


  1. ^ a b U.S. Population Reference Bureau. "Tunisia: Demographic Highlights". Retrieved 8 April 2011. 
  2. ^ U.S. Population Reference Bureau. "Tunisia: Demographic Highlights". Retrieved 8 April 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Salem Name, Lilia Ben. "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Tunisia". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  4. ^ Beardsley Name, Eleanor. "In Tunisia, Women Play Equal Role in Revolution". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  5. ^ Mashhour Name, Amira. "Islamic Law and Gender Equality--Could There be a Common Ground?: A Study of Divorce and Polygamy in Sharia Law and Contemporary Legislation in Tunisia and Egypt". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Organisation des Nations unies, Traités multilatéraux déposés auprès du Secrétaire général, éd. United Nations Publications, New York, 2004, p. 246 ISBN 92-1-233390-7
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Sophie Bessis, « Le féminisme institutionnel en Tunisie : Ben Ali et la question féminine », CLIO HFS, n°9/1999, 22 mai 2006
  8. ^ a b « La Tunisie va adhérer au protocole additionnel de la convention de l’ONU », Agence France-Presse, 8 mars 2008
  9. ^ a b c d e Olivia Marsaud, « Cinquante ans d’indépendance féminine », Radio France internationale, August 13, 2006
  10. ^ Samir Amin, L’économie du Maghreb, éd. de Minuit, Paris, 1966
  11. ^ Ridha Boukraa, « Notes sur le planning familial et pouvoir politique au Maghreb », Revue tunisienne de sciences sociales, n°46, 1976
  12. ^ Monique Pontault [sous la dir. de], Femmes en francophonie, coll. Les Cahiers de la Francophonie, n°8, éd. L’Harmattan, Paris, 2000, p. 207 ISBN 2-7384-8789-0
  13. ^ Michel Camau et Vincent Geisser, Habib Bourguiba. La trace et l’héritage, éd. Karthala, Paris, 2004, p. 108 ISBN 2-84586-506-6
  14. ^ Colette Juillard-Beaudan, « La Tunisie : le voile ou le fusil ? », Les Cahiers de l'Orient, avril-juin 2002, n°66, pp. 113-120
  15. ^ Franck Frégosi et Malika Zeghal, Religion et politique au Maghreb : les exemples tunisien et marocain, éd. Institut français de relations internationales, Paris, mars 2005, p. 7
  16. ^ Paola Gandolfi et Moncef Djaziri, Libia oggi, éd. Casa editrice il Ponte, Bologne, 2005, p. 37 ISBN 88-89465-02-6
  17. ^ a b « Tunisie : une ONG féminine dénonce des « entraves asphyxiantes » », Le Nouvel Observateur, 9 mars 2010
  18. ^ « Traînée dans la boue » selon les propos de Sophie Bessis, « Le féminisme institutionnel en Tunisie », CLIO HFS, n°9/1999, 22 mai 2006
  19. ^ Bernard Génin, Télérama, 1995
  20. ^ Françoise Lorcerie, La politisation du voile. L’affaire en France, en Europe et dans le monde arabe, éd. L’Harmattan, Paris, 2005, p. 181 ISBN 2-7475-7887-9
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b
  25. ^ Jamie Dettmer, Tunisia’s Dark Turn, The Daily Beast, 17 March 2013.
  26. ^ U.S. Population Reference Bureau Name. "Tunisia". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  27. ^ « L’enseignement supérieur et la recherche scientifique en chiffres. Année universitaire 2008/2009 », éd. Bureau des études de la planification et de la programmation, Tunis, p. 4 PDF (719 KB)
  28. ^ Caractéristiques éducationnelles de la population (Institut national de la statistique)
  29. ^ Stephen Ellis, L’Afrique maintenant, éd. Karthala, Paris, 1995, p. 154 ISBN 2-86537-602-8
  30. ^ a b c d Office of the Chief Economist and MNSED, The World Bank. "Middle East & North Africa Region: Bridging the Gap, Improving the capabilities and Expanding Opportunities for Women in the Middle East and North Africa.". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  31. ^ U.S. Population Reference Bureau Name. "Tunisia". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  32. ^ a b c d Office of the Chief Economist and MNSED, The World Bank. "Middle East & North Africa Region: Bridging the Gap, Improving the capabilities and Expanding Opportunities for Women in the Middle East and North Africa.". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  33. ^ a b c Renforcement des acquis de la femme (50e anniversaire de l’indépendance)
  34. ^ United States Department of Labor. "Family and Medical Leave Act". Retrieved 8 April 2011. 
  35. ^ Tunisie on the Website of the International Labour Organization
  36. ^ Report on the 2009 parliamentary elections (IPU)
  37. ^ Caroline Fourest, parity-tunisienne_1511532_3232.html "Gender Tunisian",the World, April 22, 2011
  38. ^ Lichter, Ida (28 January 2011). "Jasmine Revolt Must not Fail Feminism.". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  39. ^ a b
  40. ^ "Beer and bikinis 'not under threat' in Tunisia". 15 July 2011. 
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^ Hearst, David (23 June 2011). "Tunisia politician warns against delaying elections". The Guardian (London). 


  • Mounira Charrad, "States and Women's Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco" University of California Press, 2001 ISBN 978-0-520-22576-3
  • Paula Holmes-Eber, "Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City", Westview Press, 2001 ISBN 0-8133-3944-8
  • (French) Sophie Bessis et Souhayr Belhassen, Femmes du Maghreb. L’enjeu, éd. Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 1992 ISBN 2-7096-1121-X
  • (French) Aziza Darghouth Medimegh, Droits et vécu de la femme en Tunisie, éd. L’Hermès, Lyon, 1992 ISBN 2-85934-339-3
  • (French) Pierre-Noël Denieuil, Femmes et entreprises en Tunisie. Essai sur les cultures du travail féminin, éd. L’Harmattan, coll. Socio-anthropologie, Paris, 2005 ISBN 2-7475-8284-1
  • (French) Andrée Doré-Audibert et Sophie Bessis, Femmes de Méditerranée, éd. Karthala, Paris, 1995 ISBN 2-86537-597-8


  • (French) Tunisie. Histoire de femmes, film de Feriel Ben Mahmoud, Alif Productions, Paris, 2005

External links

  • (French) Site du Centre de recherche, de documentation et d’information sur la femme (CREDIF)
  • (French) , ORTF, 8 janvier 1968Les femmes aussi« Témoignage de Tunisiens et de leur président Habib Bourguiba »,
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