"WHAT INCREDIBLE foresight!" exclaimed Etta Tadesse, representing the African Union at the final session of a two-day conference on "Modernity, Development and Human Rights" held in Tunis Dec. 12 and 13. She was referring to Tunisia's Personal Status Code, enacted 50 years ago as the first law of newly independent Tunisia, preceding Tunisia's Constitution by three years. The first of its kind in the Arab world, the Code guarantees that women are full citizens with full rights.
Mohamed Habib Cherif, minister of justice and human rights, observed that the Personal Status Code is deeply anchored in Tunisian society, where women have been an important presence since Queen Dido founded Carthage. The godfather of the Personal Status Code was Tunisian reformist scholar Tahar Haddad, who in 1930 published Our Women in Religion and Society. Elements of the code were promulgated in a 1939 draft based on Islamic canon law under the Ottoman Bey, when Tunisia was still under French control. The 1956 Code, Cherif said, erased discriminatory traditions, such as customary marriage and secret divorce, and reformed the judiciary by replacing the Islamic, Christian and Jewish courts with a uniform, secular system.
The code also bans polygamy and women wearing the hijab (headscarf with or without a veil), issues that remain controversial in the Muslim world. Islam allows a man up to four wives, provided there is absolute equality among them and their children. According to Cherif, a modern reading of the Qur'an based on ijtihad (interpretive reasoning) assumes that such equality is impossible.
Judge Jaouida Guiga explained that it is permissible to cover the hair as long as it is in a traditional, Tunisian style. What is banned, she said, is imported head covering with political, sectarian implications. She further clarified that non-traditional head covering is illegal only in public places. When asked about the penalty for violating the law, however, the judge replied, "Oh, there is no penalty."
Tunisia's Personal Status Code continues to evolve. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali became president in 1987, he established a committee to review the code. In 1992 amendments went into effect that extended the notion of women's rights beyond family issues, and changed the goals for women from equality to full partnership with men. Today women are present in all aspects of public life: females outnumber males in both secondary (53 percent) and higher (58 percent) education; more than 18,000 women are entrepreneurs; 27 percent of judges, 42 percent of the medical profession and 34 percent of journalists are women. Further measures have been enacted to make it easier to balance work and family. As of 2006, for example, women with small children can work part-time for two-thirds of their salary, while retaining their social security and retirement benefits.
Two official positions established to strengthen the connection between Tunisians and their government, and to further promote women's status, are a national ombudsman and the minister of the affairs of women, family, children, and the elderly, whose office sponsored the symposium. The purpose of the ombudsman is to hear complaints from citizens against the government at any level. Today this position is held by Alifa Farouk, who explained that her office handles over 3,000 cases a year. Nearly all of them are resolved, she noted, with almost 80 percent decided in favor of the citizen.
In response to a question about whether Tunisia has gone too far in imposing modernity, Minister Saloua Ayachi Labbene replied that people have rallied behind the Personal Status Code and subsequent measures because they see them as being in line with Islamic values based on the dignity of the individual and equality of opportunity for all. Tunisia, she added, has chosen to work on changing mentalities, especially through education, to promote a critical spirit toward demagogical discourse-something she hopes will inspire other Arab countries. …