Life after the Revolution: Tunisian Women’s Economic EmpowermentJanuary 14, 2015
When it comes to revolutionizing the Arab world, Tunisian women have been in a league of their own for decades.
Under the auspices of a Virginia-based nonprofit, Hands along the Nile Development Services (HANDS), I’m currently participating in a reverse exchange program to Tunisia. HANDS (which is funded by the U.S. Department of State) brought professional fellows from Tunisia and Egypt to the United States last fall, and AAUW hosted a fellow from Egypt as part of their women’s economic empowerment program. Now it’s my turn connect with Tunisian women for a small glimpse into their lives.
Tunisia’s revolution (referred to by Tunisians as the Revolution of Dignity) was the spark that ignited the revolutions of 2011. Tunisia has long led the Arab world in gender equality: Nearly 60 years ago, the Personal Status Code transformed married and family life in Tunisia. It allowed women to acquire rights they had lacked for centuries — choice of husband, legal divorce, a ban on polygamy, and a minimum legal marriage age. Today, thanks to the country’s constitutional protections, women are legally equal to men regarding inheritance, property ownership, and child custody.
Last month, Tunisia held its first free and fair presidential election since gaining independence in 1956, as well as the first regular presidential election since the 2011 revolution and the adoption of the constitution in January 2014. The new constitution strongly protects women’s rights, including Article 46, which provides that “the state commits to protect women’s established rights and works to strengthen and develop those rights” and guarantees “equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all domains.” The updated law makes Tunisia a rare country in the Middle East and North Africa region, with a constitutional requirement to work toward gender parity in elected assemblies. As a result of legislatively mandated quotas, more than 30 percent of Tunisia’s newly elected Parliament is women.
During the HANDS exchange program, I’ve had the opportunity to meet the Tunisian fellows and learn about their amazing work. They returned home from their fellowship program eager to share their knowledge and implement new ideas. Site visits have taken us from a metropolitan tech and business incubator to a rural women’s community development enterprise based on the extraction of essential oils, and from dynamic exchanges with the National Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs to the Tunisian League of Women Voters.
All of the legislatively mandated equality has translated into some real gains for Tunisian women in recent years. There are more women in college; more women graduating with doctorate degrees; and 43 percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates are women. That’s pretty impressive.
But through my conversations with Tunisians I have learned that having laws in place ensuring women’s rights and access to education has not translated into women’s economic empowerment in Tunisia, as women’s participation in formal economic and business life remains low. While strong Tunisian women may chuckle that society “often feels sorry for men” because the women have so many constitutional rights, the Arab world is indeed governed by a male-oriented culture, and culture plays a huge role in everyday life. Only 27 percent of Tunisian women are in the labor force and, as in the United States, traditional expectations of women as caretakers persist. This has created unrealistic demands on women who want both a family and a career. Women in rural areas are often not even aware of their rights, so inclusion and empowerment of all women in society remains a problem.
It is critical to promote women’s entrepreneurship in Tunisia and provide women with the tools to create new economic pathways that support both career and family. Only then can the existing laws preventing gender-based discrimination be leveraged fully to empower more women.
From what I can see, this generation of Tunisian women leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators are getting those tools.
And they’re not afraid to use them.