Foreign Policy Blogs

You Can Tell a Lot About a Government by How It Treats Women…Sometimes

If a country’s government is democratic and classically liberal, men and women are generally treated as equals. However, if men and women are treated equally, does this mean a government is democratic? No. Example: Tunisia.

Under Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, women were, broadly speaking, given equal treatment. They were entitled to receive an education, pursue a career, dress as they pleased, smoke and consume alcohol. While Tunisian women who are less educated and financially well-off tend to be more conservative, many middle-class women make an important contribution to the country’s professional elite. Despite the rights afforded to women, Tunisia’s government was plagued by rampant cronyism, widespread corruption, and a president who looked only to tighten his grip on power. We saw how that turned out.

Now that Tunisia, the initiator of the “Arab Spring,” is in a governmental transition, many women are nervous that their freedom will be usurped by the new government. The constituent assembly elections held in October resulted in the success of al-Nahda, Tunisia’s Islamist party. Claiming 89 out of 217 seats, al-Nahda was the clear winner. However, as al-Nahda did not receive enough seats for an absolute majority, it formed a coalition government with the secular Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol parties.

You Can Tell a Lot About a Government by How It Treats Women…Sometimes

A Tunisian casts her vote in la Marsa near Tunis, Sunday Oct. 23, 2011 (Credit: AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Under the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia was a secular state and political Islam was suppressed, often brutally. Following the regime’s demise, many welcomed a moderately Islamist government. In a poll conducted last May by the International Republican Institute, 54 percent of respondents approved of a secular government whereas 40 percent disapproved. Given the valued role religion plays in the lives of Tunisians, the election results are hardly surprising.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the Secretary General of al-Nahda, has pledged that his party will not restrict the rights of women and will pursue a moderately Islamist system of governance, much like that of Turkey. However, in a region where pledges of democracy and freedom often go unfulfilled, skepticism is warranted.

Following the collapse of the regime, Tunisians welcomed the political activity. Out of this rose the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia (AST). Founded last April, AST promotes a radical interpretation of Islam without explicitly endorsing violence. AST has refused to engage in the democratic process, which it characterized as a violation of God’s primacy.

In the past few months, hardliners have taken their purist interpretation of Islam to universities. A few weeks ago, Salafists stormed a university in Tunis demanding that women wear the niqab (a full face veil) and that classes be segregated. Additional reports indicate that Tunisia’s new openness has encouraged radical Islamists to become more vocal in their ideology.

As one oppressive regime is ousted, Tunisians are free to be more politically active. A vibrant civil society is one of the main characteristics of a democracy, and Tunisians have rightfully taken advantage of opportunities for political engagement. However, the embrace of new liberties should not come at the limitations of others. Tunisia’s new government must ensure that for democracy to thrive, all Tunisians must be treated equally under the law.



Morgan Roach

Morgan Roach is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. She currently works on transatlantic relations, Middle Eastern and African affairs. She received her MSc. in European Studies from the London School of Economics and her B.A. in Government from Sweet Briar College.