Progress on Women’s Rights in Tunisia: One Step Forward, One Step Back

 


Tunisia - On September 14, Tunisia took a step forward by abolishing a 1973 Ministry of Justice directive prohibiting marriage between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man. But the news wasn’t all good this week – a day earlier parliament adopted a law that provides amnesties for certain serious acts of corruption – a move guaranteed to encourage such practices.

 

One step forward, one step back: Welcome to the inconsistent politics of Tunisia’s post-dictatorship transition.

 

Parliament adopted Law 49 on “reconciliation in the administrative field” by a vote of 117 votes to nine, with one abstention. The law offers blanket impunity for those civil servants implicated in corruption and embezzlement of public funds but who did not benefit personally. The law terminates any ongoing prosecutions and trials against these accused, and preempts any future trials for such acts.

 

A much more sweeping draft law to amnesty crimes of corruption, promoted by President Beji Caid Essebsi, was first introduced in Parliament in July 2015. Public uproar stalled the law, until this month when parties in the governing coalition pushed forward a new version that removed as candidates for amnesty business people accused of corruption. The law would undermine all accountability efforts initiated by the judiciary and a truth commission to investigate and prosecute systematic plunder of state funds under the former regime.

 

The following day, the Ministry of Justice announced that it had rescinded the 1973 directive prohibiting the marriage of a Tunisian woman to a non-Muslim man unless the man provides a certificate of conversion to Islam. If a Tunisian woman married a non-Muslim abroad, who lacked this certificate, Tunisian authorities would refuse to register their marriage. Essebsi, in an August 13 speech, called for reforming this discriminatory legislation. Women’s rights groups had long advocated for its repeal.

 

The convergence between the good news about women’s rights and the bad news about the fight against corruption is less incongruous than it may appear.

 

For a long time, the old regime used progress on women’s rights as a fig leaf to distract from its repressive policies. By championing women’s rights while at the same time expanding impunity for acts of corruption, the Tunisian government is reminding us of how these two contrasted realities worked in the past and how women’s rights were used to whitewash a system riddled with corruption and systematic human rights violations.

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