Arab Women's Spring


Written by admin - 13 august 2013 -

On 17 December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire triggering protests throughout the country against corruption, unemployment and police repression. Within a month demonstrations led to President Ben Ali's resignation after 23 years in power. The Tunisian revolution set off the Arab Spring with repercussions throughout the region.

The transitional period saw victories for women: the adoption of a law establishing parity on electoral lists and the announcement of the withdrawal of reservations to CEDAW. Women represent 27% of the Constituent Assembly elected in October 2011. As of March 2012, in the 41-member government there were 3 women.

Source : AFP

Women's participation in protests

Tunisian women participated massively in protests demanding democratic change. Bloggers, journalists, activists, trade unionists, students, mothers mobilised and took to the streets to call for Ben Ali's resignation, freedom and dignity.

"Throughout the Tunisian revolution, women and men were equal. Women of all ages, from all backgrounds and all walks of life, participated in strikes and demonstrations". 
Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President


Time-line of key events


17 Dec: Mohammed Bouazizi sets himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, provoking the first demonstrations. 

24-27 Dec: Despite severe repression by authorities, protests spread throughout the country and reach the capital. 


4 Jan: Mohammed Bouazizi dies. 

12 Jan: A general strike begins in Sfax. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announces the dismissal of Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem. The next day, Ben Ali announces that he will not run for re-election in the 2014 elections. 

14 Jan: Ben Ali announces the dismissal of the government, early parliamentary elections and declares a state of emergency. He flees to Saudi Arabia. 

17 Jan: Ghannouchi forms a transitional government and announces the release of all prisoners of conscience, the  withdrawal of the ban on the activities of the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'Homme (LTDH) and the lifting of restrictions on freedom of information. Demonstrations continue, calling for more comprehensive change including the dissolution of Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). The RCD is eventually dissolved on 9 March. 

29 Jan:  A march for equality and freedom is organised in Tunis by civil society organisations, during which a dozen women are assaulted. 

27 Feb: Ghannouchi resigns. 

11 Apr: A new electoral code is adopted by the High Commission for the fulfilment of the goals of the revolution, containing a requirement for parity between women and men candidates on electoral lists. 

13 Aug: Women’s rights organisations demand the withdrawal of reservations to CEDAW and call for women's rights to be a priority in the programmes of political parties. 

16 Aug: The interim government announces the withdrawal of reservations to CEDAW.

23 Oct: The first free democratic elections are held to elect the Constituent Assembly. Ennahda wins 89 of the 217 seats;  59 seats are won by women. 

21 Dec: The new government is announced. 

Women were at times subjected to specific forms of police violence, including sexual harassment and rape. The Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD), documented cases of rape by members of Ben Ali's special forces in Kasserine and Thela during the repression of protests. In Tunis, from 14 - 15 January, women protesters were raped while held in detention in the Interior Ministry.

Immediately after the fall of Ben Ali, while women were demonstrating to demand full participation in the process of political transition, groups of men shouted abuse and called for protesters "to return to their kitchens". Several protesters were assaulted.

Women’s participation in the political transition

The transition generated opportunities for increasing protections of women's rights and the representation of women in political bodies and several victories were achieved as a result of the mobilisation of women's rights organisations and other civil society actors.

"Within the High Commission, women mobilised to achieve parity on electoral lists and the mandatory alternation of male and female candidates. It was necessary to counter the arguments that claimed: ‘there are no competent women’, ‘women do not want these responsibilities’, 'victory should outweigh considerations of gender’". 
Khadija Cherif, FIDH Secretary General, Member of the High Commission, October 2011

In October 2011, in the first free and democratic elections, women participated as voters, candidates and observers. Ennadha, an Islamist party, won the most seats in the Constituent Assembly, responsible for drafting the new constitution. Although parties were obliged to respect the rules requiring parity between male and female candidates on electoral lists, few placed women at the top of lists, limiting the effects of this legislation. Nevertheless, Tunisia retained the highest proportion of women in parliament of all the countries in the region.

Since the adoption of the Personal Status Code (PSC) in 1956 (see below), Tunisian women have acquired rights in within the private sphere, facilitating their participation in public life. The PSC abolished polygamy, required the consent of both spouses to conclude a marriage contract and gave men and women equal access to divorce, pronounced by a court. In 1957, women gained the right to vote and to stand as candidates in elections. In 1958, a law was adopted requiring marriages to be registered and adoption was legalised. Today, women generally have equal access to education, represent the majority in universities and many hold decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors.

Since the elections, the Ennadha party has repeated its commitment to maintaining the rights of Tunisian women, as enshrined in the CSP. Yet several representatives of the party have made worrying statements, calling certain rights in question. In October 2011, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, stated that the law allowing adoption of children could not remain in place and proposed a return to the system of kafala, or tutorship. In November 2011, Souad Abderrahim, member of parliament for the Ennahda party, said that single mothers were a disgrace in an Arab Muslim society. In February 2012, Sihem Badi, Minister for Women, said that customary marriage or orfi was a "personal freedom".

The new government has been slow to react to acts of violence against women perpetrated by Salafi groups, including attacks on brothels in the capital and on women teachers and students in universities. According to ATFD, “individuals have tried to impose religious dress on unveiled students and teachers and, in some cases, used violence and intimidation”. The University of Manouba in Tunis is regularly disturbed by Salafi groups calling for women who wear full veils to be admitted to classes and the establishment of single-sex classrooms and prayer halls.

"It is clear that the women who resisted the dictatorship and who participated in the revolution, will not allow themselves to be stripped of their role in building democracy in Tunisia. There can be no democracy without equality”.
Sophie Bessis, FIDH Deputy Secretary General, Interview FIDH-Egalité, March 2011, 

Representation in Government

Under Ben Ali: At the outset of 2011, there were 4 women in the 45-member government: Minister of Women and the Family, Secretary of State for Social Promotion, Secretary of State for American and Asian Affairs and Secretary of State for Information Technology.

After Ben Ali: In the transitional governments that followed Ben Ali's resignation, women held between 2 and 3 posts. The government established following the October 2011 elections contains 3 women in the 41-member cabinet: Minister of Environment, Minister of Women's Affairs and the Family and Secretary of State for Housing.

Representation in Parliament

Under Ben Ali:

Chamber of Deputies (lower house): The RCD party imposed a quota of 30% women on electoral lists. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, 59 women were elected to the 214-seat house, representing 27.6%.

Chamber of Councillors (upper house): 17 women held seats in the 112-member house, representing 15.2%.

After Ben Ali:

Constituent Assembly: In the October 2011 elections, 59 of the 217 seats went to women, representing 27.2%.

Representation in the judiciary

Women have had the right to become judges since 1968. In 2010, women represented about 27% of judges and 31% of lawyers.

Legislative framework


Tunisia ratified CEDAW in 1985 with reservations to key provisions: article 9 (2) (on transfer of nationality to children), article 15 (4) (on choice of residence) and article 16 (g) (h) (transfer of family name to children and inheritance) would be applied only to the extent that they complied with the Personal Status and Nationality Codes. Article 16 (c) (d) (f) (concerning marriage, divorce, and custody of children) would not be respected. A general declaration (which has no legal value under international law) was also made upon ratification: Chapter 1 of the Constitution, which includes a provision stating that "the religion of Tunisia is Islam" (art. 1), would take precedence over the Convention.

In August 2011, the transitional government announced that these reservations would be lifted. However, as of February 2012, the withdrawal has not yet been formally registered with the United Nations. The general declaration was maintained.

The Constitution

The Tunisian Constitution of 1959, suspended after the fall of Ben Ali, provided that, "All citizens have equal rights and equal duties. They are equal before the law" (art. 6). However, there was no explicit provision prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex.

The Constituent Assembly, formed following the October 2011 elections, is responsible for drafting a new constitution. Women's rights organisations have called for the text to enshrine the principle of equality between men and women, explicitly prohibit all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sex, require parity in political bodies and provide for the supremacy of international treaties over domestic laws.

Discriminatory laws

A series of reforms adopted over the past decade strengthened protection of women's rights. In 2004, the Criminal Code was amended to criminalise sexual harassment (art. 226b). In 2007, the Personal Status Code (PSC) was amended to harmonise the minimum legal age for marriage, now 18 years for both men and women. In March 2008, a law was enacted which strengthens the right to housing for mothers with custody of minor children (Act No. 2008-20). Since 2010, mothers can transfer their nationality to their children.

Nevertheless, discriminatory provisions remain in force.

  • Discriminatory provisions within the Personal Status Code

Marriage: The marriage of minors is authorised in certain cases, with the consent of the guardian and the mother (art. 5, PSC). A dowry is required to conclude a marriage (art 3, 13) but the amount of the dowry must be “reasonable” (section 12). Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslims (Regulation 1973).

Parental authority: Both parents have the right to guardianship and custody of children. However, the man remains the head of the family and bears the responsibility of providing for the family (art. 37-38). Women lose custody of their children if they remarry after divorce, while men can retain custody on the condition that “they have at their disposal a woman who will take responsibility for looking after the children" (art. 58).

Divorce: After a divorce, a woman is not allowed to remarry for a period of 3-4 months (art. 20 and Book III).

Inheritance: In general, women inherit half the amount granted to men. The rights of non-Muslim women to own, manage, inherit and transmit property are limited (Reg.1973).

  • Discriminatory provisions within the Penal Code

Rape is criminalised (art. 227), but the perpetrator can escape criminal prosecution if he marries the victim (art. 227 bis). Domestic violence is also criminalised (art. 218). However, the withdrawal of charges by the victim brings an end to proceedings.

Further reading

FIDH, Tunisia: Dignity, Liberty and Equality: 8 key recommendations for the Constituent Assembly, October 2011

ATFD, Déclaration, Tunisiennes pour les droits des femmes, l’égalité et la citoyenneté, August 2011

ATFD, Mémorandum de l’ATFD sur la participation des femmes au processus électoral, June 2011

FIDH, Tunisie : A quand la levée des réserves à la CEDAW ?, June 2011

ATFD, AFTURD, Collectif 95, LTDH, Manifeste des femmes pour l’égalité et la citoyenneté, avril 2011

CEDAW Committee, Concluding observations: Tunisia, October 2010

ATFD, Alternative report submitted to the CEDAW Committee, 2010

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