Thousands of Tunisians have been celebrating the anniversary of their national Personal Status Code.
On Monday evening in Tunis they demanded that the Islamist-led government change Article 27 in a proposed new national charter which categorises women as “complementary” to men, rather than their equals.
One woman taking part in a march said: “We are here to show that Tunisian women are equal to men. You can see how many are here, and it’s because we have a place in society and will never accept being counted as second to men.”
A male participant said: “This really humongous number of people, be it men or women, are here to stress the fact that for the last 50 years Tunisia has really stressed the equality between men and women and today they are afraid that they are slipping backwards.”
The Personal Status Code established in 1956 by then President Habib Bourguiba decreed male-female parity in several domains, and was seen by many progressives as a model for the Arab World to follow.
It banned polygamy, civil marriage and divorce was to be by mutual consent and through the courts, there were to be equal social rights also applied in the workplace and education.
Today, women in universities in Tunisia make up nearly 60 percent of the students, and women are present in almost all sectors of society, including politics.
However, moves to eliminate discrimination against women have come up against resistance from traditionalists where modern reforms might conflict with Islam.
The National Constituent Assembly, elected after the downfall last year of the dictator Ben Ali, is currently drafting a new national charter.
Critics argue that the proposed article 27 adopted last week in committee would compromise rights. The article must still be ratified at a plenary session of the interim parliament. Activists fear that its language represents a step back into the past.
Maya Jeribi, Secretary-General of the Republican Party and a member of the National Constituent Assembly, said: “Some people want to get rid of the Personal Status Code and to change the traditions of this society. Our message is that we are celebrating our anniversary to preserve our rights and to defy those who are against us having rights.”
The gatherings in Tunis were the biggest by the opposition movement since a banned march was violently broken up in April.
Before the Arab Spring Tunisia was one of the most liberal of the Arab nations.
Now women are marching to make sure it stays that way for them.
Some 6,000 gathered in Tunis to protest at what they say are constitutional changes being made by the Islamist-led government, notably a proposed phrase saying women are “complementary “ to men.
“Our goal is to show that women are not complementary to men because they are independent and equal to men. We’re here to show that we’re also hard-working citizens and we’ll never accept being considered complementary to men,” said one of the marchers.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has expressed his support for reaffirming in the new constitution a male-female equality principle as enshrined in a 1956 law.
“I was looking for the word ‘total equality’ in the constitutional project that was submitted to me and which I consider as necessary. I found ‘equal’ but not ‘totally equal’ and I would prefer to add the word ‘totally’ to avoid any ambiguity,” he said on Monday.
The strength of feeling was visible in the Tunisian capital, but women are just one of a host of issues facing a nation that is engaged in a political redrawing of the map pitting moderates against hardliners, the secular against the religious, and all to a steady drumbeat of rising unemployment and regional poverty.