Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Tunisia

  • Author: Valentine M. Moghadam
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    14 October 2005

Population: 9,900,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $6,760
Economy: Mixed capitalist
Ranking on UN HDI: 92 out of 177
Polity: Presidential (dominant party)
Literacy: Male 83.1% / Female 63.1%
Percent Women Economically Active: 37.5%
Date of Women's Suffrage: 1959
Women's Fertility Rate: 2.1
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 63% / Rural 37%


Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 3.6
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 3.4
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 3.1
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 2.8
Social and Cultural Rights: 3.3

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)


Tunisia is a republic dominated by a strong presidential system and a single political party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). After the country gained independence from France in 1956, Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, implemented substantial social and economic reforms and invested heavily in education. Tunisia's 1956 personal status code, the Code du Statut Personnel (CSP), afforded women full and equal legal rights and remains one of the most progressive family laws in the Arab world today. In 1987, Bourguiba was deposed in a bloodless coup by current President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. While President Ben Ali maintained some of Bourguiba's positive initiatives, he also continued restrictions on political rights and civil liberties, falling short on his promises for greater political openness. A constitutional referendum was passed in 2003 to allow Ben Ali to seek an unprecedented fourth five-year term in the elections of 2004.

Tunisia's 1959 constitution provides authority to the president to appoint the prime minister and the executive Council of Ministers, as well as the country's 24 governors. The legislative Chamber of Deputies, a popularly elected unicameral body, is mostly dominated by the RCD, which holds 148 of the 182 seats; members of the seven legal opposition parties fill the remaining seats. Freedoms of the press, association, and expression are extremely restricted; the authorities often cite security concerns as a pretext for repression of political dissent and critical discourse across the political spectrum. Political prisoners and journalists are often subjected to arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, torture, unfair trials, and harsh prison conditions.

Tunisia has a per capita GDP of $6,760 and a diverse economy, with significant agricultural, energy, mining, tourism, and manufacturing sectors. The country's population of an estimated 9,900,000 is predominantly Muslim, with a small percentage of Christians and Jews who are free to practice their religions as long as they do not disturb public order. The urban population comprises 63 percent of Tunisian inhabitants.

While Tunisia's legal reforms and the 1956 CSP helped to expand women's rights in matters of marriage, divorce, custody, education, and employment, setbacks to women's progress occurred in the 1970s, when reduced public investment in education resulted in lower school enrollment for girls. The 1970s also witnessed a decline in women's political participation, as well as the Islamization (strengthening of Islamic content) of the educational curriculum. The growing influence of the Islamic revival movement was curbed in the late 1980s by a regime change that also worked to further improve women's legal status. Amendments to the CSP in 1993, as well as legal reforms to the nationality code, the penal code, and the labor law, helped to increase women's rights. However, general human rights were circumscribed in the 1990s as a result of a strengthened police state apparatus.

The Tunisian government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, and the state has taken significant strides to implement the standards of CEDAW and to ensure that Tunisian laws are in compliance with international standards on women's rights. Nevertheless, the Tunisian government places restrictions on women's organizations and their ability to advocate for their rights, particularly groups that call for greater democratic freedoms and civil liberties. The work of most NGOs is closely monitored by state security agencies, and a 1959 law stipulates that all associations must apply for permission from the Ministry of Interior to hold meetings, conferences, or debates.

Women's progress is evident in their increased educational attainment at the tertiary level, access to paid employment, and diversity in professional career options. The government has stressed the education of girls, and today more than 50 percent of university students are women. However, women continue to face daunting unemployment rates, while inequalities persist between rural and urban women and between men and women in the political sphere.


Tunisia's legal system is based on the French civil law system and to a lesser degree Islamic law; the country has both civil and criminal courts. However, the judiciary is not completely independent from executive influence.

Tunisia's legal frameworks – including its constitution, the CSP, the labor law, social welfare policies, and the penal code – provide protections for women from gender-based discrimination. Following the amendments introduced pursuant to Constitutional Act No. 97-65 of October 27, 1997, the constitution strengthened the principle of the equality of citizens by explicitly decreeing, through amendments to Articles 8 and 21, the inadmissibility of discrimination between genders. The labor law was also amended in 1993 to refer explicitly to the principle of nondiscrimination. Additionally, some gender-specific benefits exist for women in the labor force, particularly in the form of maternal protections.

While Tunisia's constitution provides for the equality of all citizens, women do not share the same rights as men under the nationality law (Code de Nationalité). A Tunisian woman is not permitted to transfer her nationality to her foreign-born husband, while a Tunisian man, on the other hand, can pass his nationality to both his foreign-born wife and the children of this union. However, the Code de Nationalité was amended in 1993 to allow mothers more rights to transfer their citizenship to their children. The law now allows a child born abroad to a Tunisian mother and a foreign father to become Tunisian if the child makes the request one year before reaching the age of majority, or with joint declaration by the father and mother.

Most women have equal access to justice, due in large part to Tunisia's long history of women in the judiciary and the state's executive-level commitment to women's rights. The first woman judge was appointed in 1968, and by the 1990s an estimated 24 percent of magistrates were women. An adult woman is recognized as a full person before the court, and a woman's testimony is considered equal to that of a man.

Following the 1993 amendments to the CSP, the penal code was also amended to criminalize domestic violence and remove gender-discriminatory language that had allowed for a reduction in sentencing for a man who committed acts of violence against his spouse. Article 207 of the penal code had permitted the reduction of a sentence to a simple misdemeanor for a man convicted of an "honor crime" – a crime in which a man murders or injures his wife and/or her partner who are caught in flagrante delicto in the act of adultery. The amended law now treats this crime as subject to the penalty applicable for manslaughter, namely life imprisonment. Additional amendments to the penal code now treat domestic violence as more serious than typical assault and battery; one amendment provides that the person who commits the assault is actually liable for a heavier punishment if the victim is his spouse. The impact of this amendment, however, is often weakened by the proviso, "withdrawal of the complaint by a victim who is an ascendant or spouse shall terminate any proceedings, trial or enforcement of penalty."

The penal code stipulates serious penalties for rape, which is subject to the heaviest penalty if accompanied by violence or armed threat or if the victim is under 10 years of age. Yet the law does not recognize marital rape or consider it a crime, despite the existence of Tunisia's other laws and policies that emphasize women's rights to dignity and bodily integrity.

The Tunisian government ratified CEDAW in 1985, albeit with reservations to Article 9(2), which covers equal nationality rights, Article 16(c), (d), (f), (g), and (h), which deal with the granting of family names to children and the acquisition of property through inheritance, and Article 15(4) which addresses the right of women to choose their place of residence. The Tunisian government found these articles to contravene the CSP. While the government seems committed to implementing CEDAW and prepares lengthy evaluative reports to the CEDAW committee, it has yet to sign the Optional Protocol to CEDAW. The Optional Protocol would allow a woman to file a complaint of gender discrimination directly with a CEDAW committee if she had exhausted all possible domestic remedies.

Women's governmental and nongovernmental organizations appear to be working freely and effectively to promote the status of women's rights within the family and the economic sphere. The 1990s witnessed increases both in the number of active women's organizations and in women's rights. However, women's NGOs, like most Tunisian NGOs, are seriously constrained by governmental restrictions on their associational rights and their freedom of expression. Women's rights activists and advocacy groups must tread carefully when approaching issues of political rights or governmental shortcomings.

The Tunisian national machinery for women – the Ministère des Affaires de la Femme, de la Famille, et de l'Enfant (MAFFE) (Ministry of Women, Family, and Children's Affairs), and la Commission Nationale "Femme et Développement" (CFD) (The National Commission on "Women and Development"), along with the research institute Centre de Recherche, d' Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme (CREDIF) (The Center for Research, Studies, Documentation, and Information on Women), and l'Union Nationale de la Femme Tunisienne (UNFT) (National Union of Tunisian Women) – continues to work in conjunction with independent Tunisian women's NGOs to implement the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, a global agreement on women's rights.


  1. The government should amend the Tunisian Nationality Law to ensure Tunisian women the right to transfer their nationality to their foreign-born husbands.
  2. The government should revise its laws and practices to ensure that women feel free to report violations of their rights without fear of harassment by state agents.
  3. The government should lift all restrictions on civil liberties to enable women's groups and civil society members to work freely and openly for women's rights.
  4. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally by bringing national laws in conformity with CEDAW.


While Tunisia is a de facto secular state, Article 1 of the constitution declares Islam as the state religion, and Islam continues to play some part in Tunisian laws and the country's social life. Nevertheless, the constitution guarantees the free exercise of religions that do not disturb the public order, and Tunisia's non-Muslim populations are generally free to practice their religions. Socially, women are generally discouraged from marrying non-Muslims. The non-Muslim husband of a Tunisian woman can acquire citizenship through his wife only if he converts to Islam.

Consistent with the nature of Tunisian family law, an adult Tunisian woman is not legally required to obtain the permission of her father or husband in order to travel. However, in Tunisia both men and women may be subject to severe state control on their freedom of movement and their abilities to travel in and out of the country, particularly if they are Islamists or are involved in opposition politics. Family members and spouses of dissidents may also face restrictions on their movement. In August 2003, a female citizen was reportedly refused permission to travel outside the country because she was the sister of a critic of the government who was living in France.

Tunisia's 1956 code of personal status, also known as the Majalla, afforded women rights and legal protections that were significantly progressive in relation to the rest of the Arab/Muslim world at the time. The CSP abolished polygamy and repudiation, required that both parties to marriage be consenting, provided women with the right to divorce and child custody, and established a minimum marriage age for both girls (17) and boys (20). A 1981 amendment granted a woman lifelong alimony after divorce, instead of the previous rule that afforded a lump sum, and also provided a mother with automatic guardianship (legal control) over her child in the event of the father's death – in effect, ending patrilineal privilege.

The amended 1993 CSP dropped the clause requiring a wife to obey her husband, stipulated joint authority of parents, and established support for divorced mothers in need. Amendments to the CSP also created mechanisms to sanction the joint authority of the parents, the continued expenditure on children until the end of their education, and the compatibility of divorce proceedings with the children's interests. The amended CSP now allows a divorced mother to petition the court for guardianship if she feels the father was derelict or abusive. The amendments also established a Fund for the Guarantee of Alimony in favor of women divorcees and their children in order to provide financial support to divorced custodial mothers not receiving adequate child support from the fathers of their children. Two principles guided the reforms: the principle of symmetry and equality between the married couple and the principle of protection of the family and of the woman.

Tunisian law prohibits slavery and bonded labor but does not specifically address trafficking of persons. There is no evidence of slavery or slavery-like practices, however, and available reports do not indicate that trafficking of women is a significant problem.

There is no evidence that women are subject to discriminatory arbitrary arrest, detention, and exile as a result of their gender, yet reports of the arbitrary arrest of family members of Islamist activists and human rights activists charged with "association with criminal elements" demonstrate that no one is immune from harassment. State security forces have been accused of torture, which is prohibited by Tunisia's penal code, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment of men and women alike. Women appear to have more often fallen victim to these practices during the early 1990s, when a number of women were interrogated concerning the political activities and whereabouts of their husbands and politically involved family members. However, violence and harassment continue to be used to repress dissidents, Islamists, and activists today. Prison conditions do not meet international standards, yet prison conditions in women's jails are reportedly better than those of men.

Addressing the issue of domestic violence in Tunisia has been an important focus among women's rights activists, NGOs, and governmental women's affairs groups in Tunisia since the early 1990s, when it also became a matter of international concern. In 1991, for example, the UNFT conducted a study including lawyers, doctors, social workers, and a national representative sample of 1,000 people to analyze marital violence. The Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates (ATFD) (Tunisian Association of Democratic Women), an NGO also known as les Femmes Democrates, has operated the Centre d'Écoute, a support center for victims of violence located in their main office in Tunis since 1993. This group also disseminated the results of a study conducted in 1998 of reported cases of spousal abuse and family violence.

The extent to which gender-based violence by non-state actors occurs outside the home is not fully known. Data on rapes and assaults on women are not available, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the Tunisian police are vigilant, an atmosphere of law and order prevails, and streets are relatively safe.

Tunisian women's groups, as well as human rights organizations, are generally able to work freely to expand women's rights within the family and eradicate violence against women. A significant amount of credit is attributed to these groups for instigating changes in Tunisian law and society. One Tunisian scholar-activist writes that the criminalization of "honor crimes" and domestic violence was in large measure the result of the research and advocacy of the Femmes Democrates. The 1993 reforms of the CSP were also in large measure a response to the advocacy efforts of Tunisia's women's movement, including the roughly 12 member-groups of the Rihana Network. However, the ability of women's rights groups to work freely is often hindered by the possibilities of restrictions, monitoring, and harassment that Tunisian NGOs may face if they criticize state policies or the state's failure to ensure the rights of its citizens.


  1. The government and women's NGOs should initiate a national public awareness campaign to inform the public of women's rights under amended domestic violence laws, as well as new protections against all forms of violence under the country's penal code.
  2. The government should criminalize all forms of violence against women, including marital rape, and provide gender-sensitive training to its police and court officers to ensure that victims receive state services.
  3. The government should facilitate the efforts of women's rights groups to establish documentation centers in police stations to record incidences of gender-based violence.


The Tunisian constitution, family law, and labor law provide for women's rights to own and control land, property, and income. Adult women do not need the permission of their fathers, husbands, or any male guardian to pursue education, seek employment, take out a loan, or set up a business.

Inheritance of family wealth is governed by Tunisia's interpretation of Shari'a law, which grants a larger share of inheritance to sons than to daughters. Muslim men and non-Muslim women who are married may not inherit from each other. Given women's advancements in the labor field and state efforts to enhance women's economic participation, such a policy seems anachronistic. As a fairly large proportion of Tunisian women draw on personal savings to start a business, the reform of inheritance laws could help to spur women's entrepreneurship.

In 1993, schooling was made compulsory for all children until the age of 16, and since then, illiteracy rates have declined, school enrollment has increased, and social statistics suggest that gender-based gaps in secondary schooling and at the tertiary level are rapidly disappearing. In 2002, the female literacy rate was 63.1 percent, compared with 83.1 percent for men. Figures were better for the age group of 15 to 24 year olds, with 90.6 percent female literacy, and school enrollments of males and females were almost equal. However, older women and those in rural communities remain at a disadvantage in literacy and educational attainment, mainly due to the deployment of their labor in household economic activities. In the higher education sector, the country has had more women than men students since 2000. Women, at present, account for 56.4 percent of all students. Women are free to choose their field of study, although they tend to be concentrated in the humanities and social sciences.

The right of women to work is guaranteed by Tunisia's labor law, by all texts regulating the civil service, and by the Collective Labor Agreement. Following the 1993 amendments to the CSP, a new article was added to the labor code that expressly proscribes discrimination between men and women. Furthermore, the principle of "equal skills, equal pay" is in force in the civil service.

The proportion of economically active women is currently 37.5 percent. Tunisian women have significant representation in the professions of dentistry and pharmacology and have made impressive inroads into the civil service, the banking sector, and the field of law. Nevertheless, women's unemployment rates remain high – about 15.3 percent in 2001. In large measure, high unemployment has caused many women to move toward the informal sector and micro-enterprises; it is estimated that about one-fifth of jobs in the informal sector are held by women. About 15 percent of the Tunisian female labor force is self-employed.

Indeed, the private students at the Advanced Institute of Management (ISG) and the Institute of Advanced Business Studies (IHEC). However, women remain underrepresented in supervisory and management posts in the educational system, and Tunisian men continue to hold most executive and senior-level decision-making posts in the labor field.

A recent study sponsored by CREDIF and the UNDP on women's entrepreneurship showed that in Tunisia, women have difficulty obtaining financing and loans for new enterprises. Women are also less likely than men to request bank financing and are less willing to carry debt. Of the women questioned in the study, 70 percent said they drew on personal savings to begin their business, although those at the level of micro-enterprise had frequently received credit from an NGO. Despite the obstacles, however, women-owned businesses appear to thrive; the survival rate after five years for women-owned businesses was almost twice as high as for businesses started and owned by men. An estimated 54 percent of women entrepreneurs have secondary or higher education, as opposed to 40 percent of men.

Tunisia has instituted forward-looking labor policies to enable working mothers to balance employment and family life. Article 66 of the labor law conforms to ILO conventions 41 and 49 regulating night work, underground work, and other hazardous work for women, especially those who are pregnant or lactating. But maternity leaves are not very generous. In the public sector, women receive two months at full pay, which may be taken along with annual leave. In the private sector, only 30 days at 2/3 pay are provided, with a medical extension for an additional 15 days, but no longer than 12 weeks (the ILO-recommended minimum).

Additional labor policies allow new mothers the option to take time off to nurse their babies for up to six months and require enterprises with at least 50 women to provide a special nursing room. Since 1983, state employees can request four months of leave at half-pay to raise minors, with no loss of seniority; however, in 1988, this benefit was limited to the first three children only. Mothers may also take up to two years of leave to raise children younger than six years or a disabled child; they also have the right to work part-time at their request – a measure that has no effect on periods of leave, promotion, allowances, and retirement schemes. As CREDIF argues, the law tends to favor the gender division of labor in the household at the risk of compromising the equal opportunities of men and women in the labor market.

As yet, Tunisia has no law or policy to protect women from sexual harassment in the public or private workplace. However, in 2002, at the initiative of the Femmes Democrates, a group of NGOs met with the Chamber of Deputies to submit a proposal for such a law.

Tunisia has a strong welfare system and programs to promote women's employment, welfare, and citizenship rights. Reforms to the social security system in the 1990s further improved funding and coverage. Among policies to encourage women's labor-force participation is the social security law, which provides for a full pension to a working mother of three children at 50 years of age after 180 months (15 years) of contribution. Other public sector employees may retire at age 55 with 35 years of service. Moreover, Tunisia has enacted policies to help working mothers. National social security funds help to finance child-care centers for children whose mothers work outside the home.

Tunisian women's participation in the country's main trade union is not commensurate with their labor force participation, although more than half of women in the textiles and garments industry, and 23 percent in the field of education, are unionized. Women make up 25 percent of the labor force, but just 12 percent of the membership of the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) (General Union of Tunisian Workers) and constitute only 1.1 percent of its management. Women have also made some inroads, though still limited, in unions such as l'Union Tunisienne de l'Industrie, du Commerce, et de l'Artisanat (UTICA) (Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Artisans), and l'Union Tunisienne pour l'Agriculture et la Peche (UTAP) (Tunisian Union for Agriculture and Fisheries). The Chambre Nationale des Femmes Chefs d'Entreprise (CNFCE) (National Chamber of Women Heads of Businesses) was formed in 1990 and in 2001 had about 1,200 members.


  1. The government should apply its new principle of "the inadmissibility of discrimination" to the revision of inheritance and property laws to ensure that Tunisian women have equal rights.
  2. The government should enact a law to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace and ensure its implementation in both the public and private sector.
  3. The government should ensure that women are well represented in high-level decision-making posts in the public and private sector.
  4. The government should target the urban-rural gaps in girls' schooling and women's educational attainment so that the adult illiteracy rate, a largely rural phenomenon, is finally eliminated.


Tunisians cannot change their government democratically. The country has been ruled since 1987 by one president, and one party, the RCD. Since the 1990s, women's political rights and participation in Tunisia's formal political sphere have expanded, along with a growth in women's rights organizations. Nevertheless, the authoritarian Tunisian state circumscribes the political rights of all Tunisians, thus reducing the overall impact of women's advancement and their freedom to exercise their rights. Global human rights monitors have released numerous reports on Tunisia over the past 15 years, criticizing the state's record of violations of freedom of speech, due process, and civil liberties. Human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and independent women activists face great difficulties in their efforts to work openly for democratic freedoms in Tunisia.

Freedoms of speech and of the press are severely restricted. Both male and female members of opposition political parties and critics of government policy, including human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists, may be subjected to arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, and imprisonment. Dissidents are frequently subjected to heavy police surveillance, travel bans, dismissals from work, interruptions in phone service, and harassment of family members. Although the constitution provides for press freedom, Tunisia's press freedoms are among the most restricted in the Arab world. The government controls domestic broadcasting as well as the circulation of both domestic and foreign publications. Internet access is tightly monitored, and the regime occasionally censors and blocks access to opposition Web sites.

The rights of Tunisians to associate and assemble freely are also sharply curtailed. Under the country's strict laws of association, persons wishing to form an association must submit an application to the Ministry of Interior that includes: a declaration mentioning the name, objectives, and the physical location of the association; a list of founding members and any directors or administrative staff, along with an address, date of birth, and profession for each; and the statutes of the association. Some types of organizations repeatedly face obstructions in trying to become legally established; the government refuses to legalize most independent human rights organizations. Even when an association is approved, such as the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), members may face harassment and surveillance. The government claims that there were more than 7,000 NGOs in the country in 2003; however, the number of human rights NGOs is closer to 10, of which five were authorized and five were unauthorized.

Tunisian women gained the right to vote and to stand for elections in 1959, in the same year that the first woman was elected to parliament. However, Tunisian women, like men, have not been fully able to exercise their rights to free and democratic political processes due to repressive electoral practices in the country.

In 1999, 11.5 percent of the parliament was female, 21 out of 182 members, representing significant progress since the 1970s. In 2001, two of 29 cabinet ministers were female. Nonetheless, the relatively limited participation of women in government bodies, particularly in executive roles (9.25 percent were female in 2001) remains an area of concern for Tunisian women's rights advocates.

The state has established mechanisms to increase women's participation and representation in decision making. The formation of the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs in 1992 was one measure taken by the government to bring women into senior level politics. In addition, at the instigation of President Ben Ali, a resolution was adopted by the ruling party, the RCD, to guarantee a 20 percent minimum of women's representation in their committees. However, women's participation in decision making is generally limited to state agencies that work on women's issues and to the ministries that deal with social affairs, such as health, environment, and labor, albeit in sub-ministerial positions.

Tunisian women have made more notable progress in other areas of the political sphere, such as local elections and municipal bodies. In 2000, more than 20 percent of municipal councilors were women – compared to just 1.7 percent in 1975. The proportion of women who currently fill executive positions within the civil service staff is 22 percent, compared to 14 percent in 1999.

The state has taken additional measures to increase women's participation in the judiciary, with the appointment of more women magistrates to various courts, and the appointment of women to the positions of chief justice of the Tunis Court of Appeals, director-general of the Center for Legal Studies, and director of civil affairs and director of criminal affairs in the Ministry of Justice. Women fill about 25 percent of Tunisia's judicial magistrate positions. The family magistrate and the children's magistrate are judicial offices created in 1993 and 1996, respectively, with the aim of instilling greater respect for the rights of women and children. Tunisian women lawyers also play an active part in all aspects of the political process and have been at the forefront of the democracy struggle. However, lawyers who are critical of government policies or those who call for greater government accountability for women's rights, whether they are women or men, face equally severe restrictions on their work.

After one opposition party, the Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom, was legalized last year – eight years after its formation – the number of political parties in the country grew to seven. However, several parties continue to be denied authorization. Increasing numbers of women are joining and starting political parties and civil society groups to advocate for civil liberties issues. Women members of the ruling party are allowed to take part in politics at all levels; women currently account for 26 percent of the Central Committee of the RCD. While the Tunisian government often emphasizes women's participation in political life as symbolic of its commitment to women's rights, women members of opposition parties are not freely able to represent themselves in national platforms, state-controlled media, or international conferences and events.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Tunisian state was fighting the "Islamist wave" (or the tendance Islamique), a term commonly used to denote Islamic extremist groups seeking changes in laws, particularly family laws, and seeking political power for themselves. The Islamist wave in Tunisia, called the an-Nahda movement, emerged in the 1980s, challenged the government in the late 1980s, and was suppressed and banned by the Ben Ali government. The state encouraged the formation of women's organizations during this time, partly because such organizations were invariably anti-extremists. However, women's groups and the state authorities diverged sharply on the issue of political rights and civil liberties. The government used the issue of Islamist extremism to conveniently curtail overall political freedoms and civil liberties throughout the country.

Despite state constraints, women's groups and Tunisian feminists continue to press for greater civil and political rights. The number of women's organizations increased from 1 in 1956 to 21 in 2001, with many groups exerting influence at the national level; the studies of CREDIF and the CFD have been commissioned as background research for national development plans. On March 8, 2002, the Femmes Democrates issued a paper declaring gender equality, secularism, and full and complete citizenship for women to be fundamental to a just legal system and a democratic society.


  1. The government should commit to a democratic system that allows for free, fair, and competitive elections, including those for the head of state, and guarantees Tunisian men and women full and equal political rights and civil liberties.
  2. The government should abolish all restrictive laws and procedures that hinder the work of women's groups and civil society organizations.
  3. The government should lift all restrictive laws and practices against the media.
  4. The government should ensure adequate representation of women in political parties and high-level government posts.


Tunisian women have legally had the freedom to make independent decisions about their health and reproductive rights since the country's independence; yet the realization of these rights has been limited among poor, illiterate, under-educated, and rural women. In addition to inequalities between women and men, inequalities between social classes and between rural and urban women persist. Nevertheless, the combination of proactive government policies and increasing literacy and schooling rates over the past 20 years has worked to lower fertility rates and to encourage better health outcomes for Tunisian women.

The government's rather successful family planning program has maintained a population growth rate at just over 1 percent per year. Health-related social policies have included the legalization of the import and sale of contraception; the limitation of family allowances to the first three children to encourage smaller families; the legalization of regulated abortion in 1973; the creation of an agency for the protection of mother and child by the ministry of public health; and the creation of the National Office for the Family and Population. The fertility rate is 2.1 per woman, among the lowest in the developing world. While fertility rates are higher in rural areas, women's health has improved such that in the late 1990s, the maternal mortality rate was 70 per 100,000 women. The proportion of women covered by family planning services is currently 66 percent.

There is no documentation of gender-based harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) in Tunisia. The average age at first marriage for Tunisian women is high – around 27.

Tunisian women are free to participate in and influence community life, policies, and social development at local levels. This is evident in women's roles as councilors at local decision-making levels (currently 20 percent of councilors are women); through the activities of local pro-establishment, nonpolitical NGOs, including women's NGOs; and through their research and advocacy work in pro-government national-level organizations.

The Tunis Institute of Press and Information Sciences, an academic institution providing basic training to Tunisian journalists, has increasingly admitted women to its student body. Women journalists comprise an estimated 34 percent of the total number of journalist cardholders in the country. Efforts to combat the negative stereotypes of women portrayed by the media have been organized by MAFFE, the Ministry of Women's, Family, and Children's Affairs, through awareness-raising campaigns for youth and for those who work in the media to help promote a positive image of women.

Women in Tunisia are vulnerable to poverty due to the gender gaps and the existing disparities in populations, particularly among older age groups and in rural areas. However, overall poverty for men and women in Tunisia has declined significantly over the past few decades; the poverty rate in the 1960s was 40 percent; this fell to 7 percent by the mid-1990s and to 4.2 percent in 2000. Poverty-alleviation programs include the work of government-sponsored agencies; local NGOs like the Tunisian Mothers' Association (ATM), which operates mainly in rural areas; international NGOs, such as Enda-Arab, which provides targeted transfers to poor households; public works programs; microcredit/microfinance programs; and social development funds. Some of these programs are specifically geared to alleviate unemployment among women and to raise the economic status of rural women and girls – necessary steps for the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms afforded them by Tunisia's legal frameworks.

Despite some progress, the needs of rural women are still pressing, and their integration in development continues to lag behind. The results of government-commissioned studies by CREDIF were incorporated into the country's Ninth Development Plan, which encompassed a national plan of action for rural women. Nevertheless, overall studies on Tunisia demonstrate that there has been a noticeable reduction in poverty and discrimination against women, as well as a general increase in well-being.


  1. The government of Tunisia should allow women of all political affiliations to take part in the processes of local political bodies and to use government funds for the development of their local communities.
  2. The government should prioritize the problems of rural women by expanding micro-credit programs to help reduce their poverty and isolation, and to enhance their economic and cultural participation.
  3. The government and civil society organizations should initiate community development programs that include literacy programs for rural women.

AUTHOR: Valentine M. Moghadam is Chief of Section in the Gender Equality and Development Section of the Division of Human Rights and Fight against Discrimination at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She is on leave from her position as Director of the Women's Studies Program and Professor of Sociology at Illinois State University. She received a Ph.D. in Sociology from the American University, Washington D.C. Her publications include Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, and Women, Work, and Economic Reform in the Middle East and North Africa.


[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

1. Les Femmes en Tunisie 2000 (Tunis: Centre de Recherche, d' Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme [CREDIF], 2002), 212.

2. Mounira Charrad, "Becoming a Citizen: Lineage Versus Individual in Tunisia and Morocco," in Suad Joseph, ed., Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East (Syracuse University Press), 74-76.

3. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF, 2002), 190-192.

4. "Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Combined third and fourth periodic reports of States Parties. Tunisia." (New York: UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW], CEDAW/C/TUN/1-2, 2 August 2000), 14.

5. Laurie Brand, Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 213. See also "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 14.

6. "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 13.

7. Abdullahi An-Naim, ed., Islamic Family Law in a Changing World: A Global Resource Book (London: Zed Books, 2002), 184.

8. Charrad, 79.

9. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2003 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 25 February 2004).

10. Charrad, 83.

11. Tunisia News 357, 15 January 2000.

12. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF, 2002).

13. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

14. See, for example, reports of the (Paris: Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme [FIDH], 2 June 1994); Tunisia: Women Victims of Harassment, Torture, and Imprisonment (London: Amnesty International, 3 June 1993); Fadia Faqir, "Engendering Democracy and Islam in the Arab World," Third World Quarterly 18, 1 (1997): 172.

15. For details, see "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 58.

16. Lilia Labidi, "Women, Politics and Islam: The Case of Tunisia" (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, paper presented April 2002), 24.

17. Table 26, "Gender inequality in education," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 226. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.

18. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 159.

19. "Reply of Tunisia to the Questionnaire to Governments on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome of the 23rd Special Session of the General Assembly (2000)" (Tunis: Ministry of Women, Family, and Children's Affairs [MAFFE], May 2004).

20. Although this has often been projected as a source of women's disadvantage, particularly in terms of status and income, it is also arguably the reason why educated Middle Eastern and North African women are less averse to modernity and change than are MENA men.

21. "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 118.

22. Table 27, "Gender inequality in economic activity," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 229-232. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.

23. "Reply of Tunisia to the Questionnaire to Governments on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome of the 23rd Special Session of the General Assembly (2000)" (Tunis: Ministry of Women, Family, and Children's Affairs [MAFFE], May 2004).

24. Globalization and Gender: Economic Participation of Arab Women (Tunis: Center of Arab Women for Training and Research [CAWTAR] and UNDP, 2001).

25. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 178-79.

26. Pierre-Noel Deneuil, Les Femmes Entrepreneurs en Tunisie: Paroles et Portraits (Tunis: CREDIF, UNDP, and Tunisian State Secretariat for Technology and Scientific Research, 2001).

27. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 249-51.

28. Ibid., 213-14.

29. Many countries have a policy limiting child allowances as part of their family planning and population programs.

30. "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 37.

31. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 214, author's translation.

32. Others were representatives of the Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Developpement (AFTURD), the Tunisian section of Amnesty International, la Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme (LTDH), l'Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), and l'Union Syndicale des Travailleurs du Maghreb Arabe (USTMA).

33. See Valentine M. Moghdam, Women, Work, and Economic Reform in the Middle East and North Africa (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), ch. 3; Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, "Social Policy and Development in Tunisia: A Political Analysis" (Geneva: UN Research Institute for Social Development [UNRISD] project on Social Policy in the Middle East, paper, 2004); Iyabode Fahm, "Institutional and Regulatory Issues in Pension System Reforms: Country Experiences and Policy Options," in Belkacem Laabas, ed., Building and Sustaining the Capacity for Social Policy Reforms (Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000).

34. Fahm, "Institutional and Regulatory Issues."

35. "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 67.

36. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 194-95.

37. Ibid., 196.

38. Freedom in the World (New York and Washington, D.C.: Freedom House, 2004) and Freedom House staff interviews with Tunisian women activists in Rabat, Morocco, 2004.

39. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

40. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 184.

41. "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 64.

42. "Reply of Tunisia ..." (MAFFE), 9.

43. Ibid., 64.

44. Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 185.

45. Freedom in the World and Freedom House staff interviews with Tunisian women lawyers in Rabat, Morocco, 2004.

46. "Reply of Tunisia ..." (MAFFE).

47. Freedom House staff interviews with Tunisian women lawyers in Rabat, Morocco, 2004.

48. See, for example, the discussion in Les Femmes ... (CREDIF), 202-203.

49. "Pour les droits des femmes: Quelle Constitution?" (Tunis: Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates [ATFD], Commission pour le 8 mars, 8 March 2002). I am grateful to Pamela Pelletreau for bringing the document to my attention.

50. See Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi and Valentine M. Moghadam, "Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa" (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, MENA Policy Brief, October 2003), Table 1, with data from UNESCO, UNDP, and UN Statistics Division.

51. Human Development Report 2002 (New York: UNDP and Oxford University Press), Table 8.

52. "Reply of Tunisia ..." (MAFFE).

53. Ibid.

54. "Tunisia" (CEDAW), 198.

55. Ibid., 199.

56. Moghadam, Women, Work, and Economic Reform; Mahmoud Ben Rhomdane, "Social Policy and Development in Tunisia," (UNRISD).

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.