Le Bardeau, Tunis, 8th Mars 2012. Sami Ben Gharbia/Nawaat.org

Historian, journalist, researcher at the Institute for Political and Strategic Relations (IRIS), and Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Sophie Bessis gives a multidisciplinary account on the situation in Tunisia. Since the drafting of the Constitution is underway and the situation surrounding women’s rights is uncertain, she accepted to answer Nawaat’s questions about the situation of women in Tunisia.

Nawaat: How would you assess the situation of women in Tunisia today?

Sophie Bassis: I think that today, Tunisian women are at a turning point, insofar that they are in a situation that is rather unique in Arab world: family laws are the most advanced in the Arab world and Tunisian women enjoyed considerable advances and many gains over the course of the first fifty years after independence. Today, we must know then whether, in Tunisia, societal structures will change, whether we will scale back on these gains, whether we will scale back on the Code of Personal Status, or whether, instead, Tunisian women will continue on the path of emancipation.

Nawaat: Tunisian women were just as present as men during the revolution. Has the implementation of the law guaranteeing gender parity on electoral lists helped in continuing this equality?

Sophie Bessis: The institution of proportional parity on the electoral lists that was brought forth by the independent electoral commission was a very interesting innovation. We ended up with a parity requirement which would have annulled lists that did not abide by it. It was a very important step. Unfortunately though, due to old machoism, only 7% of the 1,500 lists had women as their head.

Because of this, the parity requirement did not fulfill the hopes we had placed in it, to the extent that the vote was very fragmented – in most cases, only the head of the list was elected. And with only 7% of women serving as heads of lists, we logically ended up with a Constituent Assembly where women represent only 23% of ANC members. This is a significant figure relative to the global average, but relative to the hopes we had placed in the requirement , it was a big disappointment. Along with other signs, this demonstrates that Tunisia is currently not on a path of progress.

The current government has very few women in it, and as usual, the woman is always the Minister of Women’s Affairs. None of the key ministerial posts were delegated to women – it’s an extremely masculine government and most major institutions in the country are also run by men. In view of the quality and quantity of women’s participation in the revolution, we have not advanced fast enough during the last few months.

Nawaat: Do you think other mechanisms should have been implemented? For example, increased the level of positive discrimination?

Sophie Bessis: We should have perhaps implemented gender parity in the heads of lists. Only the PDM party has instituted this type of parity. No other party has made an effort to move towards parity, even those that label themselves as ‘modernist’ or ‘leftist.’

The quota issue comes up in all domains. For example, many United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) studies show that in the world, and particularly in the Arab world, if we are to leave things as they are, we will only reach gender parity in responsibilities and public affairs management… in some centuries! On their own, quotas may appear to be unfortunate – but I think we need to give it a boost so that women can assume responsibilities equally with men.

Nawaat: You speak of a boost…

Sophie Bessis: A boost in terms of quotas, ‘positive discrimination’ as it is commonly referred to – even though I really don’t like that term. It is an inaccurate adaptation of the American term ‘affirmative action.’ I prefer the literal translation, ‘action affirmative.’ Today, we need to go in this direction. We are living a very uncertain period, a time of economic crisis that takes women as its first victims. Women are in a state of greater vulnerability than men, where the feminization of poverty is a reality, where conservative forces attempt to limit women to the domestic sphere and reduce their professional activity. This situation is very worrying for women.

Nawaat: Do you think that equality laws for example, should precede social realities, or should we wait until society changes itself to pass such laws?

Sophie Bessis: The two are linked. In fact, the ‘waiting’ tactic is the male’s eternal argument. “This is not the time…” First, one must observe how society functions, including at the political and union levels… which often dissuades women from active participation. There has been no change, or almost no change, in the sharing of domestic tasks. If political meetings take place at 8:00pm, who will take care of the children? If there are no babysitting programs, if the state could care less about early childhood programs, will men take care of them? No, it is the women! So when we say that women are not engaged, we should take all this into consideration. Too often we forget that women have a sort of ‘double day’: the professional day, and the domestic day and therefore there is no room left to do anything else. It’s not that women do not want to participate – they simply cannot! The state must make an effort in the field of preschool education and babysitting programs, in the field of nursing homes – since everything that lies within the domestic sphere falls on the shoulders of women. Political parties, unions, and political activism circles must take into account and accommodate the tasks of women. The way society works makes it so that women cannot participate in certain activities, and it disgusts me to hear that women do not want to, when in reality they cannot!

Nawaat: Should women elected to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) be the voice of women in government?

Sophie Bessis: You should know that a women’s intergroup has just been created within the NCA, which is an interesting initiative. Now we must see what comes out of it. We must know that even though there are political differences between women, we can still have joint actions to protect women’s rights. However, women representatives are not an external part of society – there are a part of society and so there are progressive women and conservative women, rightist women and leftist women… And of course they will not defend the same societal goals and programs. Conservative ideas are also present in the feminine sphere. Not all Tunisian women are equal rights advocates. Tunisian society is worked by conservatives, and so Tunisian women are conservative as well.

Despite this, I think that since two generations ago, Tunisian women have enjoyed certain gains. I think that regardless of the influence of conservatism, Tunisian women are not ready to abandon these important gains. The extremist minority today has an audience that goes far beyond their actual societal reach. Even in conservative spaces, I doubt that the majority of women will accept regression on any level.

In drafting the constitution, there will be political and ideological differences regarding, for example, the introduction of religious norms. But there may be several points of convergence between women of various political backgrounds to defend certain gains.

Nawaat: Which associations do you think should be active in voicing the demands of women?

Sophie Bessis: Civil society has an important role with associations. They must push the political class and denounce a number of things. Look at the work done in media monitoring – which demonstrate how misogynist the media remain. This work was done by associations.

There is plenty of incredible advocacy work. Associations have a role to play. Women must invest in the political sphere and work within this sphere to evolve and change it. The political arena remains dominated by men everywhere, and it is difficult for women enter it. Little by little, we must try to go towards parity so that women can access political decision-making, that they don’t remain mere troops.

Nawaat: We see that civil society is mobilized. Recommendations to advance women’s rights were presented to the president of the NCA by EMHRN, ATFD, and Collective 95. Is this type of action important?

Sophie Bessis: I think the role of civil society is to keep the authorities on their feet, among them the president of the NCA, since it is him that presides over the drafting of the constitution. Pressure must be continuously applied so that we do not forget the importance of these rights. We are very far from gender equality in Tunisia, so I believe we must continue our work and remain vigilant over the drafting the constitution.

Nawaat: We tend to speak of women members of the assembly as political alibis. What do you think of this?

Sophie Bessis: Of course there are women political alibis, since we had to have lists with equal parity. So we just packed the lists. But not all women are alibis and I believe what is important is that while they are in the NCA, they will learn the political craft. In my opinion, regardless of political party, it is important that women can access political roles, even if they are alibis. They will not always be. After all, they are not only “useful idiots,” as many say!

Nawaat: You have described the current situation in Tunisia as facing a turning point. What do you think is the next move that will determine which direction Tunisia will go in?

Sophie Bessis: We are at a turning point because we are at the stage of drafting a constitution, which is an important step. The constitution is a country’s fundamental law, the text in which the principles governing a society are inscribed, and in general, a constitution is made for the long term. This is the next move, and that is why civil society organizations, in particular, are demanding the constitutionalization of gender equality. It is a fundamental demand. Gender equality must become a fundamental principle, non-negotiable and not subject to revision.

The second important point is about human rights in general and those of women in particular, from the 1959 co which dictates that international conventions take precedence over national laws. This provision must be renewed in the next constitution. We must not scale back on this.

We must also keep in mind what has been done for economic and social rights – which we often speak too little of as well – whereas the rights of women in particular are often violated.

Interview by Frida Fado
Translated from french by Wafa Ben Hassine