Asma Ghribi is an independent journalist and researcher.
The Tunisian president wants you to believe that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. Don’t believe it for a second.
The Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud has swallowed the bait. In a recent commentary in the New York Times, he declared Tunisia’s nonagenarian head of state, Beji Caid Essebsi, a “revolutionary” for ending a practice that has long institutionalized discrimination against women. Daoud doesn’t seem to know much about Essebsi aside from this. The current president, who spent most of his political career serving under two Tunisian dictators, makes for a peculiar revolutionary.
So what did Essebsi do? He has ended a decades-long ban on Tunisian Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. He has also called for a more egalitarian inheritance law to replace the current, sharia-inspired version that gives women half of what men receive. Yet even though my life as a Tunisian woman has been directly affected by those sexist laws, I’m still not ready to give him a pass.
My reasoning is simple: This is the same Essebsi, a stalwart of the old regime, who is currently working to subvert Tunisia’s nascent democracy. Most recently, he has been the driving force behind a notorious law that gives a blanket amnesty to all civil servants guilty of corruption under the old dictatorial regime. As human rights groups have pointed out, this runs entirely counter to the spirit of accountability that should lie at the heart of any democracy. Happily, Tunisian civil society has responded with a vocal protest movement that is pushing back against these measures.
Essebsi’s embrace of faux feminism even as he chips away at the foundations of democracy is part of a larger pattern. He is following the same strategy as the dictators he once worked for: trumpeting progress on women’s rights to hide his anti-democratic practices from the eyes of the West.
Essebsi’s decision to allow Tunisian women to marry non-Muslim men came just one day after parliament passed his so-called “administrative reconciliation” law, which allows his old regime cronies to evade justice for acts of corruption committed before the country’s 2011 uprising. In this respect, Essebsi is keeping up with the Tunisian tradition of state-sponsored feminism. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who was toppled in the uprising, also used the cause of women’s liberation to whitewash his oppression. Even as he passed laws that formally granted Tunisian women more rights, his security forces were reportedly torturing and molesting Islamist and leftist female political prisoners.
Essebsi is not alone. He is drawing on a long tradition of Arab dictators embracing progressive causes that would generate positive headlines in the international press. One need only recall the infamous Vogue profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which praised her modernity and style sense even as her husband was cracking down on dissent. Jordan, Morocco and Egypt have all boasted about their parliamentary quotas for women. Never mind the fact that these parliaments lack the independence and decision-making authority of true democratic institutions.
By giving Essebsi a pass just because he is supporting two feminist measures, Daoud is falling prey to a common mistake. Many in the West persist in reducing the complexities of the Arab world to a simplistic dichotomy between Islamism and secularism. While the Islamists have certainly done little to advance the cause of women’s rights, the secular dictators’ feminist gestures rarely amount to more than window dressing for brutality. In reality, the secular-Islamist divide is merely a tool used by politicians – either to win elections, as is the case in Tunisia, or to convince Western policymakers that they share their goals for the region.
For Tunisian women, Essebsi’s newfound feminism is hardly convincing. After all, this is the same Essebsi who dismissed one of his parliamentary critics with a simple riposte: “What is she but a woman.” Are we to believe that he’s had a change of heart at the ripe old age of 90?
None of this is to defend the retrograde ban on Tunisian Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. I myself am a Tunisian woman whose non-Muslim husband had to withstand the invasive process of public and official conversion. For both of us, religion has always been a private matter in which the state has no business. It is hard for me to stress just how long I have wanted the abolition of this sexist law.
But I refuse to accept the destruction of democracy as a price for this achievement. We should be able to have equal rights as women without having to sacrifice our right to good governance, rule of law and justice for the victims of oppression. We should not have to choose.
If Daoud is still looking for revolutionaries, Tunisia has some excellent candidates. Though the country’s security state continues to harass them, Tunisian civil society groups continue to act as guardians of their threatened democracy. Case in point: the followers of the protest movement Manich Masamah (“I Do Not Forgive”), who are still taking to the streets in vast numbers to protest the government’s actions — and rightly so. The last thing we should do is allow the politicians to change the subject.