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Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

In Conversation with Lilia Khazri: The State of Gender Equality in Tunisia 13 Years After the Arab Spring.

Written and interview conducted by: Ana Torres

This article is part of a collaboration with. CIVICUS, the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 15,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. This article is based on an interview with Lilia Khazri, a Tunisian women’s rights activist, co-founder of SPEAK UP Tunisia and former member of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team.

Andrew Firmin is the CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society ReportCIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 12,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. A version of this article was originally published in the CIVICUS Lens.

From Success Story to Challenges

Tunisia stands as the sole nation in the Arab world to have ousted an authoritarian leader in the aftermath of the early-2010/11 Arab Spring. The Jasmine revolution not only inspired a wave of anti-government protests across the region, but ended Tunisia’s twenty-three-year long rule by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The movement subsequently catalysed the initiation of a democratic system that allowed for a peaceful transfer of power in 2019. However, no more than a decade following the revolution, thousands protested ‘the seizure of near total power by the Tunisian president, Kais Saied’, calling into question the stable advancement of democracy due to lingering ‘corruption and economic downturn.’ Research conducted by Sarah Yerkes and Nesrine Mbarek investigates the flaws within this fragile democracy. They highlight how the 2011 revolution achieved three main outcomes: the rewriting of the constitution, free speech and laying the foundation for peaceful and democratic transitions. Based on an interview with Lilia Khazri, this article discusses the trajectory of women’s rights in Tunisian socio-political life. Khazri, who recently joined UN Women Tunisia as a Gender Youth Advocate, is the co-founder of SPEAK UP Tunisia and former member of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team.

A Timeline of Gender Legislation

Following Tunisia’s independence from France, the Personal Status Code (CPS) was established in January 1957, paving the way towards women’s liberation, specifically regarding education and marriage. Family law was no longer based on an arguably restrictive, Islamic interpretation, as the CPS “eliminated polygamy, introduced a legal age for women to marry, granted women guardianship of their children in the event of the father’s death, and created an institution where women could initiate divorce.” Moreover, sociologist Mounira Charrad’s research details a second wave of gender legislation that began in the 1990s, redefining “the conditions for the transmission of Tunisian citizenship”; allowing children to have the same citizenship as their mothers rather than their non-Tunisian fathers. The third wave began during the Arab Spring uprisings and subsequently, in 2014, Tunisia became one of few Arab nations to introduce a gender-parity law in its voting system. By 2018, women secured a full quota in local elections and, according to Maro Youssef, achieved “an average of 30 percent of parliamentarians across four election cycles and 42 percent of the municipal councils.” This period also ushered in legislation on violence against women in 2017, most notably by criminalising marital rape. The legal definition of “violence” was also reconceptualised to include political, sexual, economic as well as psychological abuse, allowing victims and survivors to gain access to support services and legal assistance.

Implementation Issues: Constitutionally secular, but socially religious?

In our conversation, Khazri echoed concerns about the disparity between the legal code and its practical application: “The main issue is the applicability of these laws.” Khazri expanded by detailing the context of Tunisia as a secular state. The 2022 constitution created ambiguity surrounding the state’s secularism as the country became “characterised as part of the Islamic Ummah (nation/community)”. Saied, however, insisted that Islam was not the religion of the state: “The umma and the state are two different things.” It is this ambiguity that has perhaps caused Tunisian society, in the words of Khazri, “to continue to not accept marriage between Tunisian women and non-Muslims”, despite this restriction being lifted in 2017. This particular societal portrait reflects the beliefs of Islamic political groups who argue that inter-religious marriages clash with the Quran and the principles of Islamic Shari’a law. Yet Khazri highlighted the distinct paradox of this belief; how it had already been legal for Tunisian Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women. Furthermore, while some Islamic thinkers often envision democracy without secularism, Khazri underlined the significance of separation of religion and state regarding Tunisia’s democratic future. According to Khazri, this is crucial not just regarding the advancement of women’s rights, but for the stable co-existence of different religious communities. For example, Khazri pointed to the Tunisian island of Djerba where Jews and Muslims live peacefully together. Considering the current Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East, the harmonious existence of these communities projects a particularly poignant dialogue of interfaith to the rest of the world. Notably, a 2017 article by The Independent reported the words of a young Amal who stated: “The most important thing for us is to show that in Djerba, in Tunis, in Tunisia, in the whole world, Muslims and Jews can live together.”

Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

Women’s empowerment and participation in socio-political life has come a long way since 1956. However, in 2022, Saied’s new constitution, which drew significant international criticism, was approved in a referendum with only 30% voter turnout. The new constitution introduced an electoral law that eliminates the principle of gender parity, undoing the balance established in 2014. This emerged after a series of steps taken to centralise executive, legislative and judicial powers back into the hands of Saied; sparking the aforementioned 2021 protests and a planned boycott to the referendum. Saied’s new political system gave the president the power to unilaterally appoint the prime minister and cabinet, and crucially, he can no longer be impeached. In October 2021, Najla Bouden became the first female prime minister of Tunisia – a first for the Arab world – with 10 women appointed to the cabinet. Yet, according to women’s rights activist Hafiza Choucair, Bouden’s position as prime minister is merely “‘honourary’ as she lacks the power to implement decisions”. Following Saied’s arguably autocratic new constitution, these women in cabinet serve as “tools for implementing the will and policies of the president.” In August 2023, Bouden was sacked “without explanation” and replaced by Ahmed Hachani who previously served as human resources director at Tunisia’s central bank.

The Need for Youth Participation

Youth participation is essential to the advancement of women empowerment in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Via SPEAK UP Tunisia, Khazri has addressed social issues such as feminism, cultural exchange and International Youth Week in partnership with Ra’edat; the Arab Women Network For Equality. Khazri’s activism is an example of how NGOs can learn from feminists on the ground in order to amplify the voices of young women who have a deep understanding of specific cultural contexts and limitations. Khazri concluded by highlighting the importance of like-minded NGOs who, born in the wake of Tunisia’s Arab Spring, remain the initiators of conversations concerning women’s empowerment and continue to present policies to the Tunisian authorities.

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