Thursday, October 19, 2017

Critics Question Essebsi’s Motives on Women’s Rights

By: William Edwards
Produced & Edited by: Lindsey Curnutte

Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, photo via PressTV

“The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men,” Tunisia's president, 90-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, proclaimed in an August speech leading up to the repeal of a 1973 law that forbid Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.

The new legislation was celebrated by women's rights groups as another illustration of why many in the West consider Tunisia one of the most free and secular countries in the North Africa and Middle East regions.

Pro-women's rights legislation or distraction?
But the timing of the law's passage has drawn criticism. It came a day after a new law granting amnesty to corrupt government officials in the pre-revolution Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime was introduced, and four days after some of those same former ministers under Ben Ali were put back into positions of power. Groups like Human Rights Watch and journalists, diplomats and academics say Essebsi and his administration are using women's rights advances as a means to distract from policies that are unpopular both domestically and internationally.

"I think it’s great that Tunisian women can marry non-Muslim men... But at the same time it’s also very dangerous that it came at a time when a very dangerous law was passed," said Tunisian author Samar Samir Mezghanni, who is also a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and was listed among the top 100 most powerful Arab women by Arabian Business in 2013. 

"So I don’t think it’s a time of celebration, I think it’s a time of further pressure on political representatives, and a larger and stronger fight against patriarchal and oppressive not just systems but also mindsets and societal norms."

Essebsi’s push to pass the marriage equality law received wide attention in the international media and on social networks. Fadil Aliriza, a Tunis-based journalist and researcher who has written about Tunisian politics for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post, said the level of attention was not warranted if thought of in terms of the range of affect the law will have on the Tunisian public, which is 99 percent Muslim, compared to the reconciliation law and the reinstatement of old regime figures into positions of power.

“When you look at the numbers, how many Tunisian women are going to be marrying foreigners? That’s something that’s reserved for people who have really good foreign language skills, who are in circles where they meet a lot of foreigners, who might travel a lot--essentially people who have made it to the upper class, not to say that there isn’t social mobility and everyone shouldn’t have the right to marry foreigners,” Aliriza said. 

“It just practically isn’t going to affect that many people, whereas this anti-democratic reconciliation law, which was passed against the wishes of so many Tunisians, was a huge step back for democracy for an entire country.”

Tunisian women participating in a rally, photo via Idea.Net

Aliriza and those skeptical of Essebsi’s motives see the recent marriage equality law as an attempt to stay in the good graces of foreign governments and international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, who provide developmental funding to Tunisia. Aliriza also said the move serves Essebsi’s domestic interests as well, as his secular Nidaa Tounes party tries to retain its majority in parliament from the more Islamist Ennahda Party.

“One theory I’ve seen from Tunisian analysts is that actually this is a way of signaling by the president that ‘Hey, if you really want to remember what our party is about, it’s anti-Islamist discourse.’ And so when we talk about women’s rights, that’s something that can really be one of those culture war issues, just sort of like a buzzword that brings people back into the fold,” Aliriza said. “So there’s sort of a nuanced domestic angle to this as well.”

Others say the marriage equality law is both Essebsi’s way of repaying women who voted for him, and an attempt to secure their votes in future elections.

“Almost 1 million women voted for Caid Essebsi in the presidential elections. Certainly, Caid Essebsi is not known for his feminist positions,” said Samir Ben Romdhane, an editor at Agence Tunis Afrique Presse. “But he needs first to reward these women and second not to lose them in case he, or anyone else he supports, will stand candidate in the next presidential elections.”

The repeal of the marriage ban has been a controversial topic in Tunisia, as it goes against Islamic law. It has been denounced in public statements by several Muslim leaders worldwide. People critical of the timing of the repeal, like Max Gallien, a PhD student focusing on international development at the London School of Economics, have said that this is part of the reason it has been effective in moving public discussion away from the unpopular reconciliation legislation.

But while the strategy of using women’s rights often works to change public discourse, Gallien said, its effectiveness isn’t always as clear at the intergovernmental level and among those familiar with political strategy.

“It's not entirely new, I don't think it's entirely surprising. That doesn't make it any less concerning,” Gallien said. “A lot of people I've talked to in the last couple of days, including in the U.K. foreign office, I think they're very clued in as to what's going on, they have some very good analysis on Tunisia and they're not, I don't think, that easily fooled.”

**Global Spotlight is a nonprofit educational production, constituting a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.

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