A JULY MEETING IN the Netherlands, organised by the International Academy of Law of the Hague and hosted by the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, discussing the civil rights of Tunisian women, turned many preconceived and entirely erroneous ideas on their heads and drew an enthusiasm from the international media that is all too rarely associated with the position of women in the Middle East.
Indeed, Judge Roslyn Higgins, the first woman to be elected president of the International Court of Justice, announced her pleasure at being part of an event that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Tunisia's Code of Personal Status, which, half a century ago, was an inspirational piece of pioneering legislation that abolished polygamy, forced marriages and repudiation.
"This innovative and ambitious piece of legislation has played a major role in achieving recognition of women's rights in Tunisia," Judge Higgins commented.
Although appreciative of their special status, Tunisian women are not complacent and, currently, some groups are taking on the authorities over the fact that the country's laws of inheritance remain inequitable, favouring sons over daughters. The issues are under examination by legal and religious scholars. But it says much about the status of Tunisian women that the case has received an airing.
The Code of Personal Status was adopted on 13 August 1956, just a few months after Tunisia achieved independence. The term of office of Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba (1956-87), was largely a time of advance and modernisation. Early in his 31-year rule the president realised that if Tunisians were to build and enjoy the forward-looking society they had been promised, both men and women would be required to play a part in its construction. To further facilitate this process, less than a year after the introduction of the Personal Status Code, women were given the right to vote on 14 March 1957.
President Bourguiba drew inspiration for this groundbreaking legislation from the work of Tahar Haddad, who in 1930 published his book Tunisian Women in Shari'a and Society. Haddad, born in the south of Tunisia in 1899, was a modernist who wrote about the importance of women in a modern and flourishing society.
Haddad holds an important position in Tunisian history as the inspiration for a vital new structure of social and political ideas that would influence the development and success of Tunisia through those early decades...