October 11, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1314

Tunisian Feminist Fawzia Zouari on 50th Anniversary of Tunis's Personal Status Code: ‘In Tunisia, Women Have Become Just Like Any Other Man’

October 11, 2006
Tunisia, North Africa | Special Dispatch No. 1314

Fawzia Zouari, Tunisian feminist, author, and journalist residing in France, wrote an article marking the 50th anniversary of Tunis's progressive personal status code, which was enacted in 1956 following independence.

The following are excerpts from her article: [1]

"I am Proud to Be a Tunisian, Proud of Having Turned my Back on Centuries of Dark Harems"

"... I feel far away from my Arab 'sisters.' I say this frankly and without evasion. I am proud to be a Tunisian. Proud of having turned my back on centuries of dark harems and oppressive cousins. Proud of not traveling with a passport stamped with the expressions 'First wife,' 'Nth wife.' Proud of no longer expending my energy on trying to evade the vigilance of the men and on trying to steal a few crumbs of liberty. Proud, above all, of having the law on my side.

"This is indeed the great achievement of the Tunisian woman: a law that protects her against male arbitrariness and recognizes her as a full-fledged person.

"While it is true that other women in the Arab world have many rights, they lack laws [that allow them] to say it. While it is incontestable that they have made their entrance into the public arena, one fears that this presence is a mere façade. I, as a Tunisian, am wary of attenuated liberties and window-dressing."

"Faced With... Arguments [that Gulf Women Are Liberated], I Always Take Out my Tunisian Weapon: the Law, Legal Recourse"

"Still, sometimes people say to me: 'Make no mistake, women in the Gulf may perhaps be veiled, but they are liberated as soon as they leave their countries. They are minors before the law, but they do whatever they like.'

"Faced with these arguments, I always take out my Tunisian weapon: the law, legal recourse.

"How am I to believe in the emancipation of Middle Eastern women singers, even if they wiggle around half-naked, when I know that nothing protects them from polygamy? How am I to let myself be convinced when one speaks of the freedom of a woman who is stripped of all public initiative, from the right to vote up to the right to drive a car?

"Such a woman might be the landlord of buildings on the largest avenues in the world. She might frolic with impunity behind her closed balcony [moucharabieh]. [2] Nonetheless, she remains a minor.

"To this ruse that some people have found, by which they give their 'second halves' false passports of liberty, I say 'no,' a thousand times 'no.' For the law, there can no longer be any question of relegating a wife to a second rank, nor of preventing a woman from marrying the man of her choice, nor of repudiating her, not to mention throwing her to the street, in the case of divorce."

"Tunisia's Modernity is... In This Legal Arsenal That... Gives Every Woman... Citizenship"

"Tunisia's modernity is precisely in this: in this legal arsenal that preserves achievements, blocks the phantasm of turning back, and gives every woman a certificate of... citizenship.

"Indeed, the true Tunisian revolution, that which knew how to put an end to the current 'great strife' in the Muslim world concerning the status of women, was to have instituted an incomparable personal status code, in women's favor, half a century ahead of its time! In these times of fundamentalism, it is important to salute this silent revolution and this avant-garde Tunisia.

"Of course, people will tell me that in my country masculine mentalities have not always followed suit. They will point to the resurgence of the veil in the streets and boulevards of Tunis, together with the appearance of a new race of courtesans, who do not care at all about their condition. But I will not stop believing that reconsidering past achievements is out of the question."

"In Tunisia, Women Have Become Just Like Any Other Man"

"In Tunisia, women have become just like any other man. They have conquered every sector and every occupation. They wear pants inside [their houses, but also] outside. They keep their homes and care for their children [in addition to their careers.]

"As a proof of this point, I was at my hairdresser the other day. A veiled Libyan woman came in. She advised the Tunisian employee, who complained of being tired: 'Do as I do.' [She answered] 'Meaning?...' 'Don't work. Find a husband who will provide for you, and live the good life.' The indignant Tunisian responded, 'What life? Not the real life, that's for sure!'

"Or take the female director of the Telecom office in Hammamet, who controls her employees with an iron fist, without anyone being able to reproach her. She says that her holding this senior position no longer surprises anyone. She shot off, contemplatively: 'There is a civilization's distance between us and other women in the Arab world.' Civilizations do not just come from the past; they also must be built!"

"Tunisian Women, Who Are Accustomed to Freedom, Will Not Go Back to the House"

"Indeed, what Tunisian woman would accept in the future to give up her dreams of a career and of liberty? What Tunisian father would think of not sending his little girl to school? What wife could see herself secluded in her house eating Turkish delight?

"The game is up. Men, my dear friends, it is too late. Tunisian women, who are accustomed to freedom, will not go back to the house. They, who have learned to hitch their own destiny to the future of their country, will not let themselves be intimidated by the sirens of puritanism, even if it triumphs elsewhere in the lands of Islam. Those who showed the way half a century ago no longer have the right to disappoint. At the head of the procession, the guides do not have the right to turn back, nor to have any doubts about their destination, lest they go backwards in history."

[1] Afrique Magazine (France), August-September 2006.

[2] A moucharabieh is a latticed balcony from which an observer can watch the street without being seen.

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