Istanbul (Special to Informed Comment) – To many foreign onlookers, Tunisia and Iran share many common qualities; Both countries are mostly Muslims and both are considered third world countries that have been influenced by western powers, Tunisia with the French colonization and Iran with the British Empire influence. Yet, when it comes to women rights, Tunisia has always been considered a leader in Women rights among Muslim countries, especially when compared to countries like Iran. This statement might be true in the first look but a deeper analysis of women rights in both countries demonstrate that this has not always been the case.
If we had to trace back the start of women rights in Tunisia, many would guide you back to the historic promulgation of progressive family law in Tunisia in 1956 right after the independence from France. This law made Tunisia a pioneer of women rights in the Arab world. Many Tunisian women give credit to the 1956 civil rights code (Code of Personal Status) to all the suffrage Tunisian women gained thereafter, alongside a focus on an accessible and an egalitarian education system that began to flourish after Tunisia’s independence. Since the unveiling of this code in 1956 by former President Habib Bourguiba, this day has become a celebration for Tunisian women every 13th of August as the women’s National day.
Despite critics of former President Bourguiba who argue that this code was nothing more than a facade used by the previous president, the effects were undoubtedly a big gain for Tunisian women. Although the country soon moved into a repressive authoritarian regime for more than 20 years led by former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the political and societal gains in women rights were safeguarded and even pushed forward. Yet, while these rights may appear to be modern and progressive, they were used by this regime to pander to the west and to hide the ugly realities of Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime that all came to collapse in 2011.
Political and economic instability and corruption in Tunisia were the catalyst for the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. However, Tunisian women took the chance provided by the revolution to push women’s rights into the central stage. Women were as essential as men in the protests leading to the success of the Revolution, and according to Lawyer Bilel Larbi, women from all walks of life were present in the protests; from veiled women to women in mini-skirts. Thanks to the Jasmine Revolution, women protected their already established rights, and gained even more political rights such as the 2014 gender-parity law in the parliament, the passing of the 2017 legislation concerning violence against women, or the fact that in 2018, women secured 47 percent of seats in local elections.
Since the 2011 revolution, women have truly established themselves in the political scene and fought hard to maintain and improve their rights. However, the fight for equality and representation is still an ongoing issue in the country especially with the new government. According to Ahlam Boursal, general secretary of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, women in Tunisia still suffer from systematic violence and hate speech along with other major issues that still plague the Tunisian scene. Hence, Tunisian women do have major gains when it comes to women rights but it’s not enough. It was and still is an ongoing fight to protect these rights and push them even forward.
On the other hand, if we want to talk about women rights in Iran, we need to start with pre-revolutionary Iran. The Pahlavi era provided major gains in terms of women rights; Education was free and equal for boys and girls, in 1963, women gained the right to vote and run for parliament, the legal marriage age for women was raised from 13 to 18, and women were protected from unilateral divorce. However, many of these advancements came to a halt after the 1979 Revolution under Khomeini. The new government undid most of the progress in women rights as they were seen as a rejection of Islamic rules and as an imposition of western values.
Since the 1979 Revolution, compulsory hijab laws and the removal of Pahlavi era reforms in Iran have penetrated and restricted almost all aspects of women’s life in the country. For instance, The compulsory hijab laws in modern day Iran restrict Iranian women’s access to employment, education, social benefits and proper health care. Also, due to the removal of the 1967 Family Protection Act, Iranian women can lawfully wed at the age of 13 and even younger than that through judicial and parental consent. Hence, instead of pushing women rights forward, the revolution provided the contrary effects and brought them back years behind.
Throughout this era of regression in women rights in Iran, women activists were unable to sustain any strong political support to champion their case but they are hailed with social support all over the world. A major example of their situation is the many names of socially influential activists who were faced with harassment, intimidation, detention, and smear campaigns in the pursuit of their rights such as Narges Mohammadi, who received an 11 years sentence for leading a human rights organization on charges of “colluding against national security,” and “generating propaganda against the state.”.
A simple comparison of Iran and Tunisia’s cases would undoubtedly lead to the conclusion that Tunisia’s revolutions — first against France and then against Ben Ali’s regime — led to the improvement of women’s rights and their solidification. As for Iran’s case, the Khomeini revolution irreversibly led to the regression of women’s rights in Iran. However, a deeper analysis would provide a better explanation and a closer look at both countries.
For starters, the Khomeini revolution of 1979 deployed women in their protests against the Pahlavi rule but in contrast to the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution, women were used as instruments for the revolution, not as agents of change championing their own cause like in the Tunisian revolution. Hence, the main difference was that women rights were an essential cause in Tunisia’s case, and a hindrance and a liability for the Iranian’s revolution’s goals.
Furthermore, deeper down in history, women rights in Tunisia starting from the rule of Habib Bourguiba became an integral part in Tunisians’ lives and norms, starting with the Code of Personal Status, which is celebrated and hailed to this day by Tunisian women. Yet, these progressive changes in Iran at the hands of the Pahlavi rulers were seen by the masses as western norms imposed on the people and were massively rejected and seen as a rejection of Iran’s culture.
In the end, while many women in Tunisia do still face numerous challenges in Tunisian society, the core concepts of women’s rights “were considered important to Tunisians from the creation of their sovereign national identity” which led them to survive multiple revolutions and stay on the forefront of the country’s social issues. On the other hand, these same concepts were imposed on the public and favored by the pre-revolution government in Iran making them feel unauthentic and a tool to please the west which rendered them in the end ineffective and detrimental in the long run to the women’s cause.