Equality/Women’s Rights

Tunisian Islamists, Women's Rights: Watch and Wait

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The recent victory of the Islamist party in Tunisia leaves Hajer Naili feeling unsettled, as it raises questions about how women's rights, currently backed by the most progressive piece of legislation in the Arab world, may be impacted.

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Religious Practices Banned

There was a surge of the Islamist party after the banning of religious signs and practices under Ben Ali, Tunisia's ruler for 23 years. The more we are forbidden from doing something, the more we feel the need to go toward it.

For years women in Tunisia were not allowed to wear a veil in public because it was viewed as a sign of extremism. Under Ben Ali, women could have it ripped from their heads by anyone on the streets. Men were not allowed to wear beards on their identity cards.

Tunisians who wanted to practice their religion were forced to hide and isolate themselves. They found themselves marginalized and misunderstood by the government. Few secular Tunisians, meanwhile, liked the government's restrictions on religious freedom.

When Ben Ali was ousted in January, many families who had seen their husbands, brothers and sons imprisoned for simply attending prayers at mosques were relieved by the return of Rachid Ghannouchi. The leader of the Islamist party had been living in the United Kingdom since the 1990s, after Ben Ali banned his party.

Ghannouchi's Ennahda Party was chosen by over 40 percent of Tunisians in this election. Some of that popularity can be tied to the restriction of religious freedom that began with Bourguiba.

Many Western critics automatically tie Islamist politics to anti-Western sentiment. But often, Islamists are voting for religious freedom, a formative ideal of the United States.

Ghannouchi may be intent on pushing the country's pendulum in the other direction, but perhaps he will draw lessons from his own exile and remember that heavy-handed leadership sows the seeds of resistance.

Let's hope his Ennahda Party leaves women's rights alone and refrains from dictating other aspects of life to Tunisians. Freedom of choice is the fundamental right of a democracy.

The Jasmine Revolution is on standby, but it's not over!

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Hajer Naili is an editorial intern for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.

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This is one of womensenews' greatest strengths, that a woman from France whose family history is Tunisian can write in an American online news organization and I can read in western Canada, of the situation in Tunisia for women and children in this new government after a major change. I had been worrying about the very issues of which she writes, and I have not found this so clearly and well written anywhere else!

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