Is Tunisia Ready for Gender Equality?

Demonstrators on National Women’s Day, Tunis, August 13, 2018
Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Demonstrators on National Women’s Day, Tunis, August 13, 2018. Earlier that day President Beji Caid Essebsi had announced that an inheritance equality bill would be submitted to parliament.

On January 14, the eighth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, I joined the crowds passing through metal detectors to gather in Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba. A few people carried pictures of protesters killed in 2011. Children waved little Tunisian flags. At one end of the avenue, a concert was taking place. Most political parties had set up stands, and there were speeches about how much the revolution had accomplished so far (from parties in the government) and how little (from the opposition). Strangers in the street engaged in polite but animated political arguments, and small groups leaned in to listen. Eight years after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, this is the only country in the region where such scenes of spontaneous public debate can still be witnessed.

And yet to many Tunisians that accomplishment feels scant. Since 2011, Tunisia has held several free elections. It has weathered terrorist attacks, deep polarization between Islamists and secularists, and the evident desire of elements of the old regime to turn back the clock. But its leaders have been unable or unwilling to enact economic reforms that would deliver the greater growth and equality that were among the people’s fundamental demands. “In the last four years, we achieved stability, we protected the state,” Abdelhamid Jelassi, a senior member of the Islamist Ennahda party, which is part of the governing coalition, told me. “But we didn’t turn stability into wealth. People don’t eat stability.”

Three days after the anniversary celebrations, there was a national strike. As many as 700,000 public sector workers stayed home, closing schools, ministries, train stations, and the national airport. The UGTT, the national labor union, is calling for higher wages and an end to austerity measures imposed as a condition of an IMF loan. Partly because of those measures, the Tunisian dinar has been losing value, and inflation is at nearly 8 percent. People complain that corruption is worse than ever, and the country has witnessed a wave of protests demanding access to jobs, water, and schools; there were more than 11,000 of them in 2017.

“There haven’t been any reforms,” a former senior member of a secular party that is also part of the government told me. “The only thing we’ve done is gotten into debt. The country is adrift. We’re playing it day by day.”

The political unrest and economic crisis I found in Tunisia seemed to overshadow the subject I had come to report on: a proposal to make Tunisia the first Arab country in which inheritances would be divided equally among male and female relatives. The law caused a furor when it was…

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