Today, on International Women’s Day, the world will commend Tunisia, a reputed pioneer forging gender equity in the Arab world. But does its reputation stand up to scrutiny?
Years of instability have ravaged the country but January marked five years since Tunisians ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, demanding an agenda for the country’s 5.5 million women. Tunisia is the alleged sole success story that came of the cataclysm that was the Arab Spring, having witnessed both a democracy and a secular constitution.
It wasn’t the first time Tunisia blazed trails across the Middle East. The country adopted the Code of Personal Status in 1956, which abolished polygamy, recognized civil marriage that requires the consent of both spouses and instituted judicial proceedings for divorce; it introduced abortion on demand in the first three months of pregnancy in 1973—two years before France, as well as free contraception in the same year. Abortion in the first trimester for women with five or more children had been available since ’65. And Tunisia later abolished the law requiring women to obey their husbands in ’93.
By 2010, 33 percent of judges and almost 43 percent of lawyers in Tunisia were women, paving the way for a new constitution in 2014 that guaranteed gender equality and allowed free and fair elections, which have been held twice in the last five years. Women won 30 percent of parliamentary seats—more than France, the UK and the US Congress. The country officially lifted key reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which allowed Tunisia to opt out of particular provisions—i.e. women’s rights within the family—even though it had ratified the treaty.
As of last year, women no longer need the consent of their husbands to travel internationally with their children. And a fight for legislation against domestic violence is likely to come to fruition in 2016.
But there are still far fewer women than men in the workforce. Daughters are legally denied an equal share of inheritance. One in six Tunisians currently live below the poverty line and unemployment is nearly 29 percent among graduates of higher education. Women hold only three of 30 cabinet positions and, according to Amnesty International, there remain legal loopholes with regard to rape victims who are all too often charged with indecency as rapists escape conviction by marrying their prey. The Penal Code classifies sexual violence as an assault on a person’s decency, emphasizing notions of honor and morality; thus rape is poorly defined and marital rape is not even recognized. According to Tunisia’s Personal Status Code, a man cannot have sex with his wife until he has a paid dowry; once he has paid, the implication is that he can penetrate her when he so chooses and many women have never refused because they weren’t aware that they could.
It seems as though much of the information disseminated to young people in Tunisia is in fact skewed.
According to psychoanalyst Nedra Ben Smail, who authored the book Vierges? La Nouvelle Sexualité des Tunisiennes, only 20 percent of Tunisian women remain virgins until marriage, which indicates that various wedding night traditions surrounding a bride’s virginity, such as newlyweds presenting a bloodied sheet to their families, are fading. Nonetheless, stigmas surrounding pregnancies resultant of premarital sex still exists. A survey by the Pew Research Center from 2013 says that 89 percent of Tunisians say sex outside of marriage is “morally wrong” and research suggests that men often consider their bride’s hymen to be a form of capital they hold.
What does this mean for single mothers in Tunisia?
Despite national gains, there is thus far no impending legislation that would recognize the status of unmarried mothers. In fact, so few Tunisians know single mothers that some struggled to even define them.
“Single mother, according my little knowledge, is mother who had illegal child and are refused by their family. In French we call them ‘les femmes célibataires,” 31-year-old Med Ali Chabchoub of Tunis told Her Report.
In November 2011, 10 months after Ben Ali fled the country, Souad Abderrahim, a female representative of the Islamist party Ennahda, called single mothers a “disgrace.” Her statement stirred significant uproar across social media and articles were published in response on the award-winning collective blog Nawaat. Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, called Abderrahim’s declaration “outrageous.”
“Extramarital relationships are highly forbidden by Islam. Getting involved in such kind of relationship especially for a woman makes her despised and not of good bearing. It’s a matter of honor for the family. Society especially when it is small tends to ostracize these women,” explained 29-year-old Olfa Slimane of Gabes. “If it is from extramarital relations, it is definitely unacceptable.”
At a press conference held in December, Rim Brahmi, a representative of the Tunisian Minister of Social Affairs, said that 862 children were born out of wedlock in 2014. However, Malek Kefif, president of Amal, the only Tunisian association entirely devoted to helping unmarried mothers, has estimated this figure to be closer to 1,500.
Extramarital relationships are highly forbidden by Islam. Getting involved in such kind of relationship especially for a woman makes her despised and not of good bearing. It’s a matter of honor for the family.
He has said that official statistics underestimate the phenomenon because many births are not declared and escape the legal system. Facing the rejection of their families, single mothers often find themselves in a situation of isolation in combination with deep economic insecurity.
Furthermore, while Article 58 of the Personal Status Code permits judges the discretion to grant custody to either parent based on the best interests of the children involved, fathers still remain the legal guardians and mothers are prohibited from remarrying if they want to live with their children. Many women end up reverting back to their marriages.
“I tried the experience of single mom this year in September. I was sparred from my husband and going to divorce but after few months I understood that it’s better to be with him than without, just because of the people’s attitudes. Even if they are highly educated or not, they judge you and look to you like a thing not like a human. The life was hard everywhere and every day. At home with parents, they treat you bad because they don’t understand why are you back home. At work they don’t understand why did you bring your child to doctor—why the dad didn’t do it himself. The neighbors look at you as a bad person because you come back home. You just have to deal with all people and try to make it work with your life. It’s boring, so you go back to your husband because you don’t want to make your child suffer from the people’s judgment,” Ines Fahem Ép Boutaghane or Tunis told Her Report.
According to a recent study by the nongovernmental organization Sante Sud, less than half of single mothers keep their babies. Those who choose to keep their children are mainly taken care of by private associations, such as those of the Amen network, which includes Amal and provides literacy programs, offers some mothers help with financing business projects and promotes mediation for reintegration into their families.
I was sparred from my husband and going to divorce but after few months I understood that it’s better to be with him than without, just because of the people’s attitudes.
“Every month, I take food, milk, diapers to an [places like Amal] where parentless children are kept. There are only three from extramarital relations. Mothers leave their children at the hospital if they don’t have the resources to support their kids. Why they leave their children is because it is a stigma that will follow them till their death. They abandon their children in the hope of getting a normal life afterwards. But society here is very difficult. These women are abandoned by their families and their partners as well. I think it is very rare to find a woman raising her child by herself,” explained Slimane. “As for widowed or divorced women, they are praised highly if they devote their lives for their children instead of getting married again. Though some of them do. In this case, children are generally kept with the grandparents. My aunt lost her husband when her first daughter was a couple of years old. She didn’t get married again. She preferred to raise her daughters by herself and not to bring another man into their lives. Now both her daughters are married and have children. My cousin as well did the same. She has two boys. With my cousin the situation is different. She has three brothers and they are always there to support her financially.”
Many those who don’t have financial support, however, find themselves on the streets.
Amal has also opened an emergency shelter for homeless single mothers in the Tunis suburbs, providing psychological assistance and opportunities to pursue vocational training. The center has 17 beds and accommodates about 50 women every year for four-month stays. Stays can be extended based on the women’s conditions and their progress in taking back control over their lives for themselves and their children.
For children, “getting a normal life [means] having a family in the future and actually getting married,” Slimane said. “The kids in the city where I live, Gabes, are kept until they are three. Then they are sent to the capital, Tunis, where they can be adopted. They can get adopted in my city, but generally people in my city are not that into adopting kids. I know many childless parents who refuse to adopt.”
While the right of all Tunisian children to an identity, regardless of whether their mother is married or single, and the nationality of a child born of a single mother are both guaranteed, the situation of unmarried mothers and their children, faced with a delicate dilemma and deprived of rights, makes a telling allegory for modern Tunisia.