Arab Women’s Rights - Lessons from Tunisia and Morocco.
By: Dr. Mounira M. Charrad, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, USA Enabling Environment: Creating a level playing field
The award-winning author has been studying women’s rights and the evolution of family law for the last half century in Morocco. In her research, Dr. Charrad has shown how different patterns of nation-building contributed to divergent interpretations of Islamic law, which led to the expansion of women’s rights in Tunisia, but not in Algeria and Morocco, at the end of French colonial rule. In the Arab world in general, many women are struggling to change family law. A major issue they face is whether they can make decisions about their own personal life, such as in marriage and divorce, or whether the law places the power of decision in the hands of someone else, such as fathers, other relatives and husbands. As we know, there are many interpretations of the Sharia, both historically and today. A simple way to think about the law in our countries is that liberal and contemporary readings of the Sharia give women a degree of autonomy, whereas conservative interpretations deprive them of it. My comments in the statement below are based on my research on Tunisia and Morocco. These two countries have made substantial reforms in family law. They have successfully expanded women’s rights in the family domain and by extension within society at large. We can draw lessons from their experiences. Reforms in Tunisia started in 1956 with the adoption of the Code of Personal Status (CPS) and have continued at a good pace since then with subsequent amendments, all increasing women’s rights in the family. In Morocco, similar reforms did not occur until 2004 with the promulgation of a new Family Code. We should note that the new Code in Morocco came close to the Tunisian CPS but did not go quite as far in terms of being favourable to women. A common temptation is to see the Maghreb as a whole to be more liberal than the Mashreq because of the French influence. Yet, this view is misleading because it overlooks considerable differences within the Maghreb. Algerian women have been living for a long time with conservative family legislation and Moroccan women had to wait until 2004 to see significant changes in the law, half a century longer than women in Tunisia. To understand what prompted the liberal reforms in Tunisia and Morocco, we have to consider the context of the 1950s in Tunisia and that of 2004 in Morocco. Different explanations apply to the two countries, with different implications for what women can or cannot attempt to replicate in other Arab countries today. In Tunisia, the reforms had much to do with the leadership of the nationalist movement and the kind of society that it wanted to create right after independence from French colonial rule in the 1950s. The CPS was part and parcel of the formation of a national state. Once the laws were in place, women’s rights advocates emerged in Tunisian society in large numbers in the 1980s. Nowadays, women are very active in protecting the rights that they have in family law and their personal status. For example, they disseminate information about the CPS, help less educated women with the application of the law, and generally watch over its implementation. They have also participated in national debates on amendments to the CPS from the 1980s to today.
Arab Women Leadership Outlook 2009-2011