Tunisian women shout slogans during a protest calling for the respect of women's rights and other fundemental rights on August 13, 2012 in Tunis, Tunisia. ( Fethibe Laid/AFP/Getty Images)

A row over a proposed constitutional description of women as complementary to men in family life has sharpened divisions in Tunisia between Islamists and a secular opposition that fought for years to make the North African nation a relative bastion of gender equality.

The description falls short of recognizing women and men as equal, say activists, who fear a push by the country’s new Islamist leaders to introduce constitutional changes that could reverse decades of progress in what has traditionally been seen as one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries.

“Women of Tunisia are a woman and a half,” thousands of women chanted this week during a protest march along the capital’s main boulevard, Habib Bourghuiba. The road was named for the Tunisian republic’s first president, known as a champion of women’s rights. “We rebelled together. We will build Tunisia together.”

The draft constitution, formulated by a constituent assembly dominated by Islamists, is due to be ratified in a referendum next year. Talks on the exact wording are continuing between the Ennahda party-led government — elected after the overthrow of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last year — and activists.

Article 28 assigns women “a complementary role inside the family,” which activists describe as gratuitous, humiliating and a threat to women’s rights.

“It is demeaning and unfair to all women in Tunisia,” said Bouchra Belhaj, a lawyer and human rights activist in the capital, Tunis. “They have placed women into a certain category, the category of the wife who is just ‘complementary’ to her husband and nothing more.”

Activists fear the wording could herald a gradual erosion of women’s rights. Tunisia, alone among Arab countries, permits abortion. Women of all classes play a prominent role in public life and the economy, including as bus drivers and police officers. Married women frequently make their own career and lifestyle decisions. Women marched on the front lines during the street protests that ousted Ben Ali last year and ushered in a new era of political liberty and uncertainty. Although Tunisians across the political spectrum rose up against Ben Ali, the Islamist Ennahda party dominated October elections for a parliament and a constituent assembly.

Ennahda officials reject the assertion that they are trying to roll back women’s rights in the name of Islam. The party recently acceded to secularists’ demands to exclude any reference to Islamic law, or sharia, from the constitution’s preamble, and officials note that two other clauses in the constitution refer to equality between men and women.

“Article 28 was never meant to rob women of their rights or freedoms,” said Farida el-Abidi, an Ennahda member of the constituent assembly. “The word ‘complementary’ wasn’t used to substitute for the word ‘equality.’ We as Ennahda, we follow Islam, and Islam is all about equality of men and women.”

At the same time, Ennahda faces pressure from its own socially conservative political base as well as ultra-puritanical Salafist political parties challenging its Islamist credentials. There are other voices clamoring to be heard besides those of secularists. Sixty women serve in the constituent assembly, and “every one of them has different perceptions” of the proper role of women in civic and family life, Ennahda member Benjamina Zghulama noted in the newspaper el-Shorouk.

Still, suspicions between Islamists and activists run high. “Even if the constitutional panel’s intention was good, and God only knows if it is, we still can’t accept the text,” said Sanaa Balhoubsh, of the Association of Women’s Rights in Tunisia. “The fact is, this text demeans women and makes them unequal or incomplete without men.”

Rights activists say they worry that Nahda’s unwillingness to bend on a mere issue of wording bodes ill. “I sat in on a meeting with the Ennahda people, and they absolutely refuse to change the wording,” said Belhaj, the lawyer. “Why? Because they want to dominate the Tunisian people. They want to rob them of the freedom they have been fighting for for so long, and we can’t let that happen.”

Ennahda’s Abidi accused some activists of seeking to tarnish the party’s reputation.

“We encourage people to express themselves, especially after the revolution,” Abidi said. “But what is not acceptable is to make a huge deal about such a minor issue, especially since the intention was never to degrade women.”

— Financial Times

Amina Ashraf contributed to this report.