Interview of Sophie Bessis, deputy secretary general of FIDH: “Tunisian women are fighting for full participation in the transition”

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Published March 8th, 2011 on the Égalité

Sophie Bessis is deputy secretary general of FIDH. Born in Tunisia, she holds a degree in history with an emphasis in North/South relations, Geopoltics of the developing world, and issues relating to Africa. She is an associate researcher at the Institut des relations internationales et stratégiques (Iris, Paris).

We caught up with her at the FIDH offices on March 3rd between trips to Tunisa and Geneva.

Tunisia was the first country to rise up. How did women take part in the uprising? How can they serve as role models for the Arab world?

Women’s groups have been and are very active in the Tunisian transition process. They took to the streets, they protested. Throughout the dictatorship there were many women in community-based organizations. Currently, the major and some of the most respected figures in civil society are women. That illustrates the important role women played in the resistance to the dictatorship, in resistance to repression. Obviously, these women are not now going to allow themselves to be stripped of their role in the construction of Tunisian democracy, which will be fully egalitarian or will not be democracy at all.

In fact, women are doing a lot throughout the Arab world. One example is Coalition Equality without Reservation, which has been working for four years to encourage Arab States to lift their reservations from the Cedaw convention. The Coalition is made up of several dozen women’s organizations from the Arab world, from Morroco to Saudi Arabia, who are fighting for their rights
It is true that Tunisian women have more rights than other women in the Arab world. The Personal Statute Code of 1956 and subsequent laws are much less unequitable than laws in the rest of the Arab world, albeit not fully equal. So, Tunisian women could certainly serve as a model for the emancipation of women from other parts of the Arab world. Be that as it may, this does not mean that they do not need to keep up their fight, because it will not be over until they’ve achieved full equality.

What are the demands of Women’s associations in Tunisia?

First and foremost, that the new Tunisian democracy and the institutions that embody it fully protect women’s rights and gender equality. We take the stance that democracy that does not fully guarantee equality is a truncated form of democracy.

The demands from women’s associations- specifically Tunisian Association of Women Democrats (ATFD), Tunisian Women’s Association for Research and Development, and the Collectif Maghreb Egalité 1995- are clear. These Associations were active in the resistance under the dictatorship. Since they didn’t support the dictatorship they are considered a part of the opposition. Today, it is clear that their efforts over the years served a purpose: they are at the forefront of the transition. They are currently drafting a list of demands for the protection of gender equality and women’s rights in the democratic Tunisia that we hope will emerge from the uprising.

Last week FIDH was on mission to support those very demands of the Women’s organizations and to support their advocacy efforts with the commissions and the political parties. We want to make sure that there are women on the electoral lists and amongst the candidates.

We, along with the women’s associations, are demanding equality with the knowledge that we won’t achieve it immediately. Perhaps at first a system of quotas will be established. The electoral code that is currently being drafted, but which has yet to be adopted, sets a quota for the electoral lists of around 30% women. We would also like to see a quota set for the number of women on elected bodies. Political parties that consider themselves democratic cannot accept anything less than what the former hegemonic ruling RCD party had in place: 30% of women amongst their ranks.

What future role for Tunisian women?

At this point, no one would dare say that they are not pro-women’s rights. That is already a step in the right direction.

Obviously, not all the parties are on the same wavelength on the issue of full legal equality. Women’s organizations are demanding, amongst other things, that equality in inheritance be written into the new laws and some political parties have stated that they don’t support this.

Clearly, women are going to have to fight again, like always. Women always have to fight, but at least today the Tunisian revolution is taking place with the women. They are going to have to fight because Tunisian society, like all other societies in the world we must admit, remains patriarchial despite everything –the laws are unequal and the practices are too. And as always, women have to fight two- three- times as hard to ensure their place in society. But one thing is clear: they are keeping up the fight to ensure their full participation in the transition process.

Interview by Catherine Capdeville – EGALITE

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