There women from all over the world at the Commission on the Status of Women, which is presently taking place in New York. Both governmental and non-governmental delegations are present at this UN sponsored event. We used this opportunity to find out a little more about the situation of women’s rights and women’s rights activists in other countries. The following is an interview with two women’s rights activists from Tunisia, Dr. Khadija Arfaoui and Usra Farwes, who are working with the Feminist Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development.
Q: What is the legal situation of women in your country?
Well Tunisia has one of the most progressive laws when it comes to women, as compared with the rest of the Arab world. Our laws are both secular and also some are based on Sharia law. We have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But, of course that ratification is with reservations on 3 issues, which include articles 8, 9 and 15. For the most part women have equal rights with men. There are a few issues which are problematic. One is the right to pass on nationality. Women are allowed to pass on their nationality to their children, but only with the stated permission of their husbands. And women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims, but marriages that occur outside of Tunisia are recognized in Tunisia, so women who want to marry non-Muslim men do so outside the country. The other issue of concern is one of inheritance, where women inherit less than men and this is problematic.
Q: In Iran too women inherit at half the amount of their brothers (when they are inheriting from their parents) and wives inherit 1/8 of the assets of their husbands, excluding land. Though new legislation has recently been passed in the parliament to allow for women to inherit land from their husbands and we are hoping that this legislation will be approved. Is it the same in Tunisia?
In Tunisia, women inherit land and there are no restrictions in this respect. But our law on inheritance is based on Sharia law and like Iran, when inheriting from their parents, female children inherit half of male children (or 1/3 to the female and 2/3 to male). Women inheriting from their husbands women inherit 1/8th of his assets. Our organization is involved in addressing this inequality and we are seeking equal rights for women to inheritance.
Q: In Iran women are working to change laws that discriminate against women, including equal rights in marriage, right to divorce and right for child custody and guardianship. One of the demands of women’s rights activists is an end to polygamy. How prevalent is the practice of Polygamy in your country? Is it legal?
Polygamy was abolished in 1956, at the same time that Tunisia gained independence. Currently polygamy and temporary marriage are not allowed under the law, and in fact if a man marries a second wife, he faces jail. Women and men have equal rights in marriage as well. In 1993 the law was changed to ensure that both men and women have equal rights in marriage. Before that the law required that women obey their husbands, but with its change in 1993, both men and women are obliged to obey each other. Women also have the right to divorce and custody and guardianship of their children. Also the legal age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls.
Q: Tell us about what you are planning for International Women’s Day Celebrations in your country?
We are planning a conference on women. We are also holding a workshop to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our organization. And we will be launching our website.
Q: Do you plan to hold any public events, like a protest or a march?
No street protests need authorization and even if we request a permit we will not be issued one. The government fears public protests and so they do not allow for it. If we go out in the street without a permit, our protest will end in police violence. We recently held one protest in support of Gaza and to object to the killings that were taking place there. There was a lot of public outcry about the situation of Gaza in our country, so the authorities had no choice but to issue a permit for our protest, but the whole time, the protesters were surrounded by police. At the same time the government sent organizations that are affiliated with the government to our protest and instead of chant our slogan in support of Gaza, they began chanting slogans in support of the president and his bid for re-election. Our President has been in office for 20 years and now he wants to run for office again, despite the fact that when he was elected, he claimed that there should be term limits for Presidents. Anyhow, these government protesters chanted slogans like: “We want to elect our president to office again.”
Q: It sounds like you are working in a difficult security environment. What is the situation in your country with NGOs?
The situation of NGOs in our country is very difficult. There is a lot of pressure on activists and on NGOs and the police can storm the offices of NGOs at any given time. But we believe that our work is important and we continue. Interesting for you may be the fact that we had a meeting with Shirin Ebadi in our NGO when she was in Tunisia.
Q. I told you that women in Iran are fighting for their legal rights. I work with a national campaign that seeks to change all laws that discriminate against women. It’s called the One Million Signatures Campaign. Have you heard of the Campaign?
Yes we have heard of the Campaign. We get all the news related to the Campaign through different international email lists on women. In fact, when your colleague Khadijeh Moghaddam was arrested and we read the news, we took the initiative to translate the news into French and share it with our colleagues in French speaking countries and in Tunisia. We are shocked that women in Iran go to prison for simply asking for their basic rights.
Q. Have you ever had any women’s rights activists imprisoned in your country?
Not for the demand of equal rights, certainly not. But we have had some women in the south of Tunisia who have been engaged in demonstrations for several months. These mothers have protested lack of employment opportunities for their children. One woman’s rights activist who was a supporter of this group was placed in detention for 4 months. Her name is Zakia Dhifaoui. She is free now. We really commend all of you working with the Campaign and for women’s equal rights in Iran and we hope that you know that we will support you in whatever way possible.
Thanks for your time and your support.