Tunisia: 'Tunisia is Leading the Way on Women's Rights in the Middle East'


Last December, Tunisians rose up against their dictator, triggering a political earthquake that has sent shockwaves through most of the Middle East and north Africa. Now, Tunisia is leading the way once again – this time on the vexed issue of gender equality. It has become the first country in the region to withdraw all its specific reservations regarding CEDAW – the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

This may sound a rather obscure and technical matter but it's actually a very important step. It reverses a long-standing abuse of human rights treaties – especially in the Middle East – where repressive regimes sign up to these treaties for purposes of international respectability but then excuse themselves from some or all of their obligations.

Saudi Arabia, for example, operates the world's most blatant and institutionalised system of discrimination against women – and yet, along with 17 other Arab states, it is also a party to Cedaw. It attempts to reconcile this position through reservations saying it does not consider itself bound by any part of the treaty which conflicts "with the norms of Islamic law".

In effect, the Saudi government claims the right to ignore any part of Cedaw it doesn't like. The "norms of Islamic law" is a meaningless phrase because the Sharia has never been formally codified. There are various methods of interpreting it and scholars often disagree in their interpretations. The "norms of Islamic law" thus means whatever the Saudis choose it to mean.

Saudi Arabia is probably the most extreme case of using "Islamic law" to negate the effects of human rights treaties but, among the other Arab countries, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Syria and the UAE have also lodged Sharia-based reservations to Cedaw.

Although the ousted Tunisian regime deprived citizens of many political rights, the country's record on women's rights has been relatively good – at least in comparison with other parts of the region. It was one of the first countries to sign up to CEDAW – way back in 1980 – and women accounted for more than 20% of its members of parliament.

Despite that, Tunisia had lodged a series of reservations to clauses in Cedaw which grant equal rights to men and women in family matters, including:

  • Equal rights to pass on nationality to their children.
  • Equal rights and responsibilities in marriage and divorce.
  • Equal rights in the guardianship and adoption of children.
  • Equal personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation.
  • Equal property rights.

Tunisia had objected to these on the grounds that they conflicted with its nationality code and its personal status code. The point of international conventions such as Cedaw, though, is that they take precedence over local laws. Countries that sign up to them are expected to amend their local laws in order to comply with international standards, not exempt themselves from selected parts of the convention.

The decision by Tunisia's temporary government to withdraw these reservations is thus seen as a first step towards amending the laws once a new parliament has been elected.

One possible hiccup is that the government has retained one general reservation which says Tunisia will not take any legislative action which conflicts with Chapter 1 of the constitution. Chapter 1 includes a statement that the country's religion is Islam – which could lead to some Sharia-based arguments for keeping the law unchanged – but Human Rights Watch suggests this is unlikely. Until now, Tunisia has not used Chapter 1 as an excuse for maintaining laws or practices that violate Cedaw.

So there is a fair chance that within a few months Tunisia will be making a serious effort to meet its obligations under Cedaw and again setting an example for others in the region to follow.