Women, free speech, and the Tunisian constitution
August 16th, 2012
10:10 AM ET

Women, free speech, and the Tunisian constitution

By Isobel Coleman, CFR

Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Democracy in Development originally appeared here. The views expressed are her own.

The path to democracy hardly begins and ends with elections. There is necessarily a lot of heavy lifting along the way to ensure that a full set of human rights are protected. In the reconstituted Arab states of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, balancing conservative religious beliefs and social mores with minority rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech is already proving to be a tough challenge.

In Tunisia, arguably the most secular and progressive of the transitioning countries, worryingly violent protests have marked the deep tensions that exist between religious and secular elements in society. Unsurprisingly, these tensions are playing out not only in the streets, but also in cultural spaces such as art galleries, in the media, and in the courts. Last fall, protests erupted after a Tunisian television station showed the acclaimed movie Persepolis– a coming-of-age story set in Iran that depicts God in a human form, something that Islam forbids. The head of the station’s home was ransacked by demonstrators in the ensuing demonstrations. What really alarms secularists is that the court fined the executive $1,600 for “disturbing public order” and “threatening public morals.”

Another flare-up occurred in June, when in reaction to an art exhibition that included pieces some thought to be offensive to Islam, protestors blocked streets, threw petrol bombs, and set tires on fire; 65 policemen were injured and 165 protestors were arrested.

A bill recently proposed in parliament sparks further concern. Filed by Ennahda, the country’s leading Islamist party that positions itself as a champion of democracy, the bill defines certain topics as sacred and proposes putting offenders behind bars. According to AFP, topics off limits include “subjects held sacred in the three Abrahamic religions, including God and the Prophet Mohammed, the earlier prophets, the holy books, mosques, churches and synagogues.” Human Rights Watch has already condemned the measure.

New language in the draft constitution, and negative reactions to it, also highlight Tunisians’ conflicting views about the role of women. The language describes a woman as a “complement with the man in the family and an associate to the man in the development of the country.” Out of the 20-person committee overseeing the drafting of this language, twelve members voted for it, nine of them from Ennahda. This week, thousands of Tunisians protested against the language, some of them demanding that the language from the 1956 constitution be used instead, as it holds men and women equal (among other progressive measures).

In many ways, the protests and vehement debates over issues like free speech and the role of women in Tunisia aren’t surprising. Tunisia is a fledgling democracy with a long history of friction over the role of religion in society. In a short time, it has gone from having just nine permitted political parties during former President Ben Ali’s rule to more than 110. In March, Ennahda’s leadership took a courageous stance in announcing that Sharia won’t be the basis of Tunisia’s new constitution, a decision that drew criticism from more conservative Islamic groups such as the Salafis. Without a doubt, Ennahda faces a complicated and high-stakes balancing act, and its proposed blasphemy bill might be a calculated effort to defuse this increasingly tense issue. But if it hopes to hold the center, it must take an unambiguous stance against the violent tactics increasingly being used by religious extremists to silence their secular opposition.

As for the other Arab Spring democracies, Libya has also confronted the freedom of expression issue head on. This year, a new law criminalized speech that praised Gaddafi or “harm[ed] the February 17 revolution,” among other offenses, but ultimately, the Supreme Court nullified it as unconstitutional. But in Egypt, the future of free press under the new government remains worryingly uncertain.

Libya and Egypt also face pressing questions about the role of women in society. Indeed, as constitution writing goes forward in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the discussion about free expression and women’s legal rights is far from over.

Tunisia’s constitution drafting committee just announced that its constitution won’t be ready in October as scheduled, and that the committee will need until at least February to complete its work. In the coming months, expect to see more disruptions as competing sides harden their incompatible visions for the country.

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Topics: Africa • Arab Spring

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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Lyndsie Graham

    I wouldn't be at all surprised if the C.I.A. interfered with these elections over there in order to get another right-wing, pro-Western stooge elected so he can continue to take orders from Washington D.C. just as Ben Ali did. The MO of the C.I.A. never changes!

    August 16, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
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      August 16, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  2. deep blue

    Enforcing rights from the top down is often a futile effort. The values have to be instilled in the people from the bottom up. Changing the views and values of the people takes time. Self-representation will likely help. Education of women and religious minorities to make them economic assets to the country can also help. In the west, we need to have patience. Transitions are painful processes. People will die. Women and religious minorities will be oppressed, but strong handing these countries by installing dictators to protect them only prolongs the problem and reverses the progress in the values of the people.

    August 17, 2012 at 8:51 am | Reply
  3. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:18 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    There were many women among the protesters in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. They were good when it came to bear the burden of their revolutions. Now they are excluded from shaping their countries' future and sharing power. They must feel betrayed and disappointed. How obnoxious can their male compatriots be?

    August 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
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    August 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Reply

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