Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Tunisia at the Forefront of the Arab World: Two Waves of Gender Legislation

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Tunisia at the Forefront of the Arab World: Two Waves of Gender Legislation

Article excerpt

Table of Contents

I. Introduction..............................................................................................1514

II. How Tunisia Compares with Other Arab Countries.............................1515

III. The Initial Step: Code of Personal Status of 1956...............................1518

IV. The second Major Wave: Reforms of 1993.........................................1522

V. Conclusion................................................................................................1526

I. Introduction

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing thereafter, Tunisia has implemented gender legislation expanding women's rights in several areas, especially in family law. A steady stream of reforms has followed the first and ground breaking phase, which occurred in the mid-1950s, at the time of the formation of a national state in the aftermath of independence from French colonial rule. The promulgation of the Tunisian Code of Personal Status1 in 1956 constituted a radical shift in the interpretation of Islamic laws with regard to the family and set a stage for further developments. Anothermajorphase occurred in the 1990s with reforms ofcitizenship law as embodied in the Tunisian Code ofNationaUty.2 As a result of these two major phases, Tunisia has been at the forefront of "woman friendly" legislative changes in the Arab-Muslim world and is widely recognized as such.3

When we consider reforms of family law, three key questions come to mind. What is the substance of the new laws, and what rights do tiiey confer to women? What are the socio-political conditions that make the reforms possible or encourage policy makers to make them? Once new laws are promulgated, how are the provisions put into practice, and what effects do they have on the Uves of individual women? At a time when issues of women's rights are not only highly debated, but also sometimes violently contested in Muslim countries, the Tunisian case requires examination. The consistency in gender legislation over half a century is itself a remarkable development This Article documents the two major phases of reforms in favor of women's rights in Tunisia and outlines the conditions that perrrdtted or encouraged me continuity over the last half century. While the third question is beyond the scope of this Article, the discussion focuses on the first two questions.

The first wave of reforms transformed the legal construction of gender roles within the family.4 The second wave redefined the conditions for the transmission of Tunisian citizenship.5 The evidence suggests that different political configurations were conducive to reform in different periods and that a careful analysis of the political forces at work is necessary to develop an understanding of each particular reformist phase. In painting social change in broad strokes, I see the initial and pioneering phase of the 1950s as a reform from above resulting from the actions of a newly formed national state interested in building a new society at the end of colonial rule.6 By contrast, the role of women's agency came into play in Tunisia starting in the 1980s and became more robust in the 1990s.7 From the 1980s to today, women's rights advocates have contributed to the making of gender legislation either through direct involvement in the committees preparing the laws or by indirectiy putting pressure on the power holders, neither of which was present in the 1950s.8

II. How Tunisia Compares with Other Arab Countries

Scholars and activists have agreed on the extent to which the Tunisian Code of Personal Status has expanded women's rights when compared to the situation ante and to developments in other parts of the Arab-felamic world. For example, in November 2006 the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. organized a symposium to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary ofthe promulgation of the Code of Personal Status.9 During the symposium, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor described Tunisia as a model for other countries in the Islamic world regarding gender legislation. …

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