Tunisia's parliament approved legislation on Wednesday that protects women from all forms of violence. The country's Family Minister Naziha Laabidi called it a "historic project."
"It's a very important law," said Abir Alhaj Mawas, a sociologist who works for Terre des Femmes, a women's rights nongovernmental organization. The law addresses women who are isolated, she said, so that they can enjoy rights already common for women elsewhere, such as in Europe.
The centerpiece of the law is, for Mawas, the paragraph dealing with punishing domestic violence. "Rape within the family has long been handled as a private matter easy to cover up, rather than a crime," she said. "This has now changed."
No safety in marriage
The new law changes how violence against women is prosecuted. Authorities must investigate a matter even if the woman herself rescinds her claim, regardless of cause for the claim's withdrawal. The law sees to the legal and psychological support for women who have been victims of violence in a way that aims to "support human rights and gender equality," Minister Laabidi said. Shelters and information centers are to be established where women can receive immediate assistance.
Tunisia's parliament also addressed a long-time demand of women's rights activists by striking down the paragraph protecting adult men from prosecution for having sex with a minor if he married her.
Violence by the numbers
Many women in Tunisia suffer from violence and harassment. A recently published study found that 64 percent of the 4,000 women surveyed would seek the permission of a male family member before leaving home. Nearly 70 percent reported being insulted on public transport, and 76 percent of married women reported physical and psychological violence at home.
Such violence has a number of sources, Mawas said, including ideology and false interpretations of the Quran. The 2011 wave of uprisings across the Arab world, dubbed the Arab Spring, made matters for women worse, Mawas said. Protests often took an authoritarian turn, and women received the brunt of the violence, she said.
Social conditions are also cause for violence against women. Poorly educated women have limited employment opportunities and can easily become victims of violence. "These women lack the means to make good on their rights," Mawas said.
There was broad support across Tunisian society for the new law, with calls for a cultural reform that compels men to accept women as equals. But by conservatives' religious standards, a person is a consenting adult from the age of 13, Islamic politician Noureddine Bhiri told the newspaper Jeune Afrique. Lawmaker Salem Labiadh told Tunisia's Business News newspaper that the new law "can lead to a radical feminism, destroy the foundation of the family and legalize homosexuality."
Some readers reacted with disdain and mockery in the newspaper's letters to the editor section.
There are also men who deny their wives rights without religious cause, due to external pressure, Mawas said. "They would be heavily criticized for giving their wives their freedom," she said, adding "even secular men are influenced by a religious climate."
Women in the Arab world continue to suffer under conservative dogma, wrote the Tunisian newspaper, Le Temps. "This must change if we really want equality and dignity to become a reality."Kersten Knipp