Sana Ajmi - Tunisia Live - Hizb Ettahrir, a legally unrecognized Islamist party, condemns Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status (CPS), and calls for its abolition. Conversely, the Democratic Women’s association calls for developing the code and further reinforcing it. Finally, Constituent Assembly member Jawhara Ettiss defends the CPS for the gains it has imparted on all Tunisian women.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, Tunisia Live spoke with three women with three divergent perspectives on the future of the landmark legal framework that first guaranteed women’s rights.
Established in the aftermath of French colonial rule, the CPS was the first law passed following Tunisia’s independence – preceding the Tunisian Constitution by three years. The code redefined relationships within Tunisian families by guaranteeing that women would enjoy the full rights afforded to citizens of Tunisia.
In spite of the longstanding presence of the code, the legal status of Tunisian women remains a controversial issue, especially given the broad range of opinions concerning the role of the CPS in Tunisian society.
Nesrine Bouthafi, a member of Hizb Ettahrir, considers CPS to be representative of western ideals and not derived from Islamic Sharia’a. “We condemn CPS. Women in Tunisia are suffering because of this code – it is the source of their pain now,” she stated.
Referring to the increased legal accessibility Tunisian women are afforded in the CPS to the process of filing for divorce, she added that, “Women do not need divorce, but they are rather looking for comfort and peace of mind.”
Bouthafi argued that the code does not provide any gains for women because it is based on principles that were created by man and are not derived from the Quran. “The code’s principles are not derived from Islamic ones, and are only harming Tunisian women. Only the Islamic system can effectively guarantee the rights of women,” she asserted.
The code also bans polygamy and wearing of the hijab (a headscarf with or without a veil), issues that remain in dispute across the Muslim world. Technically, Islam allows for a man to marry up to four wives, provided there is absolute equality among them and their children – which many modern Islamic scholars argue is near impossible.
Zeinb Farhat on the other hand, from the Democratic Women’s association, stated that the rights imparted by the CPS are deeply anchored in Tunisian society. “The CPS is an important gain for Tunisian women,” she stated
However, she affirmed that the code is in need of continual review to ensure that the contemporary concerns of Tunisia’s women are addressed. “It was enacted 50 years ago. Thus, we need to develop it and improve it according to each generation’s needs,” she explained.
Tunisia is the only Arab-Islamic country to render a second marriage null and void, as well as to make any attempt to take a second wife, while already married, punishable with a fine and imprisonment.
Ahlem Belhaj, president of the Democratic Women’s association, stated that while it is undeniable that women have made immense progress thanks to the CPS, the limitations of the new family law cannot be overlooked.
“The CPS granted women considerable autonomy from husbands and male kin. At the same time, however, it maintained gender inequality by leaving a woman’s share of inheritance as half of a man’s, by granting fathers greater rights regarding guardianship of children, and by requiring that a wife should obey her husband,” she said.
“We call for common custody,” Belhaj concluded.
While some contend that Tunisia has gone too far in imposing modernity, and others insist that further progress must continue to be made, Jawhara Ettiss – member of the Constituent Assembly – maintains a perspective on the issue somewhere between the peripheries of the debate.
Ettiss stated that, though the importance of the CPS for Tunisian women cannot be overstated, the current legal framework is sufficient for now. “The CPS is an important gain for Tunisian women that guarantees women’s rights. What we have now is enough. Development could be enacted by the coming generations,” she explained.
Ettiss also added that although she does not agree with Hizb Ettahrir’s view about the CPS, she respects it. “Even though I don’t agree with their opinion, each person has the right to express their point of view and for it to be respected. We are here at the Constituent Assembly to represent all women and defend their rights – this is our role,” she concluded.