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Tunisia Feature: What is the Future for Women's Rights? (Ryan)

Yasmine Ryan writes for Al Jazeera English:

For 55 years, Tunisia celebrated Women's Day every August 13, representing the push for gender equality that has been one of the hallmarks of the North African nation's post-colonial era. 

Women were active players in the uprising that ended the rule of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, and many hope that event will translate into a more visible role in the country’s soon-to-be democratic political life.

Yet some are worried that the rights women have enjoyed for the past five decades might soon be swept away by the tide of social conservatism that has emerged in the wake of the uprising. 

See also Tunisia Photo Essay: Rally for Equality Between Men and Women

"We know that the former regime took advantage of women's rights," says Faiza Skandrani, who founded an organisation called Equality and Parity shortly after the uprising.

Despite the legal rights, women suffered from the same climate of fear and oppression as men, she says.

Now that the old regime is out, activists are hoping that this will mean women will become politically empowered and active members of the new democracy.

Not everyone shares the same vision of what the new Tunisia should look like, and Skandrani says that women's rights activists are facing a conservative backlash that is drowning out other perspectives in the media. 

"It is very difficult for us to have our voices heard, whether on the TV or the radio," she says. For women and men alike, everything hinges on the election of the constituent assembly on October 23.

'Rights' in the balance

That assembly will be tasked with writing a new constitution and choosing what form of political system the country will have in the future, rewriting the ground rules that have piloted political life in the years immediately after Tunisia won full independence from the French.

Al-Nahda, the Islamist party led by Rachid Ghannouchi that was outlawed under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is one of the most well-organised political movements. It enjoys strong support, particularly in rural areas.

Ghannouchi has long called for a moderate, pro-democratic brand of political Islam, and has given many interviews promising that fundamental humanism of the previous regime is not up for debate.

"I think some values which were values since independence are accepted by all parties … [including] Arab-Muslim identity [which] is accepted even by the Communists. And women's rights are accepted by all sides, among them Islamists," he told me in an interview in Doha, a few weeks after the revolution.

But some secularist critics say that Al-Nahda is sending mixed messages, playing to more conservative segments of the population even as the party seeks to win over more progressive voters. 

Cherifa Abdelhafidh, a mother of three and a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, says she is scared of how Al-Nahda, the country's most influential Islamist party, might leverage its newly found political might.

The 41-year-old, who lives with her husband and daughters in the industrial coastal city of Sfax, does not agree with the conservative agenda that she believes Al-Nahda will pursue if they are given the chance.

"I think they are aggressive. Islam doesn't say that a woman must stay at home, that she shouldn't work," she says.

She feels that politicians from Al-Nahda are not being clear about what they represent, and that they are using Islam for political aims.

"That's why I'm uneasy. They are taking two [conflicting] stances, to build their popularity," she says.

Abdelhafidh battled with conservatism in her own family. She married her husband when she was 16, and her father-in-law forced her to quit school.

He forbade her from working, and it was only after he passed away did she begin her job as an administrator at a local high school. Abdelhafidh's husband, who has very different values from his father, has no problem with her working.

To the contrary, the couple struggled to make ends meet on a single income.

"It's bad for women, and for men too," she says. She supports religious freedoms, and thinks the state should allow polygamy.

But the Sfaxian says she plans to cast her vote for one of the country's two most well-known centre-left, secular parties - either Ettajdid or the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

New freedoms?

Other women, meanwhile, see in Al-Nahda the potential to gain new freedoms they have never had before.

Manel Sekmani, a 24-year-old who is studying for a masters in genetics in Tunis, says the most significant barrier to entering the workforce is discrimination against devoted Muslims such as herself.

Al-Nahda is the party, she says, that will challenge the prejudices encouraged by previous governments and allow women more, rather than less, liberty. 

"Al-Nahda will protect women's rights," she says. "I was derided during the time of Ben Ali and I don't want another government like that."

Like Abdelhafidh, the student rejects conservative interpretations of Islam. In her view, however, Al-Nahda is clear on its progressive values and is not calling for women to stay at home.

"Women who don't wear headscarves already have freedoms, and those freedoms cannot be taken away from them." Sekmani does not want to see strict Islamic law introduced, but rather a hybrid legal system that reflects the diversity of Tunisian society.

"We live in an Islamic country, but it is also a modern society," she says. 

The young woman's desire to see a fusion of secular and Islamic law, leaving existing rights intact, is similar to what some of Al-Nahda's most vocal critics are calling for.

She rejects the idea that voters like her are being misled about what Al-Nahda really stands for.

Indeed, many of Al-Nahda's most active members are female, and, Farida Laabidi, a member of the party's executive branch, says they have some clout within the movement. 

"Many thousands of Al-Nahda activists were imprisoned [during the previous regime] and it was their wives who worked to support their families," she says.

Laabidi denies that her party is encouraging women to quit their jobs. 

"Women must participate in the economic, social and political life of the country," she says.

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