As the world is celebrating International Women's Day, Tunisian women's rights activists feel they still have a long way to go, despite being recognised as pioneers of gender equality in the Arab world.
TUNIS — Feriel Jradi Charfedine speaks her thoughts on what it is like to be a young woman in Tunisia. Things are slightly better now, however, much remains to be done, the 30-year-old leading activist says.
“In terms of Tunisia’s gains in women’s rights, we managed to secure many, but it’s clear that our society is moving slowly while it can do better,” Feriel who is expert on gender and non-violence issues tells TRT World in an interview.
In Tunisia, today, being a woman means having to work twice as hard and exerting more effort to position herself in society.
Feriel's decision to join the feminist movement first came after her disappointing experience while still a graduate student prior to the revolution. “I was shocked seeing that as a student I wasn’t treated as my fellow male students were, and it was the same for our activism and union work within so-called progressive movements, that’s why I decided to fully get involved and try to make things change,” she explains.
For Feriel, the parochial frame of mind still exists as society continues to resist the idea of accepting women as equal to men.
“We see a strong resistance, also, among this Muslim country where habits and customs are predominating, it is a fact and it’s not easy to bring such ideas [to practice],” she says.
It is a fact, she says, Tunisian civil society has now gained more freedom and is more aware of its rights. But a lot has to be done to grant similar freedoms to the country's feminist movement, she added.
“Before the revolution, it wasn’t the same. We were not allowed and able to speak that freely as a civil society movement,” she says.
Women in Tunisia, a country seen as leading women’s rights in the Arab world, are at the forefront of all the struggles.
Feriel is one of the founders of the newly formed Coexistence with Alternative Language and Action Movement, also known as Calam. This movement, fighting against inequalities, harassment and violence in Tunisia, was first created in 2015 and now is composed of 20 other activists of both genders.
“Women played roles at various occasions such as protesters, activists, journalists, academics, military, bloggers and politicians no matter their social class in urban and rural areas,” the young activist argues.
Within Tunisian society, many still refuse to consider women equal to men. Feriel says the attitude largely prevails because of a generation gap.
“There are many people inside progressive movement of the civil society represented by both genders who do not accept us with our values that we attempt to impose to explain feminism,” she says.
No women have ministerial portfolio
Monia Ben Jamia is the chair of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), which is an independent feminist and human rights organisation legally existing since 1989.
For her, Tunisian family code as it currently exists requires a serious review.
“The personal status code, within the family space, remains discriminatory for women as the husband is the head of the family in charge of the parental authority,” she says.
“This aspect of the law has to be tackled and reviewed urgently.”
In terms of labour law, Monia explains, women have equal rights, but it’s not applied in practice. Tunisian women continue to suffer from wage inequality. They are treated differently at workplaces when it comes to maternity leave, which is two months for the public sector and only one month for the private sector.
Women working in rural areas of the country are also facing such daily discriminations. According to Monia, female farmers are paid half the wages compared to men.
That’s why, she adds, there is a need to have more sufficient and effective public policies in the economic and social area.
In Tunisia, Prime minister Youssef Chahed’s government is composed of 28 ministers and 15 state secretaries. No woman has a ministerial portfolio.
There are only three women appointed as state secretaries in the latest cabinet shuffle in September 2017.
“We only have three state secretaries, this is a proof that women in Tunisia don’t reach the power as ministers yet,” she regrets, adding, “It’s the same for union movements, we don’t have women as leaders too.”
The ATFD lobbied among civil society and the political sphere to grant women their rights at all levels of society.
Inequality in such an issue, the organization argued in a statement, is a factor of "feminization" of poverty and the idea 'a woman is worth half a man' perpetuates patriarchal domination. Such kinds of perceptions affect women's mental and physical health as they are not only taking care of their families but also contributing to the country's economic and social development.
The struggle for women’s rights isn’t only expressed on the streets; it’s also conducted online.
Lina Ben Mhenni is a young Tunisian Award-winning journalist, blogger and activist. She is one of the country’s most followed bloggers. She is the author of the popular blog “ATunisianGirl”.
Lina’s positions as a human rights defender, following the day after the fall of Zine Eddine Ben Ali’s regime in 2011, have earned her not only global awards but also threats, particularly from the country’s extremists.
In a post she published on social media on March 8, Lina points out that on International Women's Day women "do not want gifts."
"We want rights, guarantees and protections, we want equality,” she says.