Tunisia has the reputation of being an exception in the region where women’s rights are concerned and has always stood out from other countries and contexts of the Middle East and North Africa due to its progressive Code of Personal Status (CPS) laws, promulgated in 1957 under President Habib Bourguiba.

The pioneer in protecting women’s rights in the Arab world:

Since the first decade of independence , Tunisia has also implemented a family planning program, enabling women to access contraceptive techniques and thus putting them in charge of their fertility. The Tunisian Nationality Code was a pioneering document in recognizing a matrilineal right to Tunisian nationality for children born to a foreign or unknown father.

And Aiming to change the Tunisian society by changing its first cell: the family. The Code made major changes in the field of marriage and, by extension, the field of the family, one of its main contributions being the prohibition of polygamy in a Muslim society. This even applied to Muslim foreigners wanting to marry Tunisian women, who henceforth had to provide a certificate of celibacy from their national country authorities for a wedding in Tunisia.

The code also introduced a minimum age for marriage and a requirement of clear consent by the wife. Moreover, the code abolished all existing forms of marriage by exclusively recognizing civil marriage.

In matters of divorce, the code introduced several novelties, granting Tunisian women more rights than elsewhere in the Muslim world. First, the code instituted judicial divorce as the only method of dissolution of marriage. Thus, the Tunisian husband was deprived of the discretion granted to him by repudiation in Islamic law, a privilege he continues to enjoy in most Muslim countries.

In addition to divorce by mutual consent and for damage, the Code also recognized the right of Tunisian women to divorce unilaterally. Known as caprice divorce, this allows women to divorce without special justification while keeping the right to alimony (if she maintains custody over her children) as well as a divorce rent (i.e. the financial support a husband must provide to his former wife after divorce). The CPS also introduced new rules in matters of succession, allowing a daughter to be the sole heir of her parents contrary to Islamic law, which only allows her to get a part of the inheritance and give the rest to the male relatives of her father.

Advances in women‘s rights are not restricted to the favorable provisions of the Code of Personal Status; other legal provisions have built a corpus favorable to women, their empowerment and mastery of their bodies. Law No. 65-24, passed on 1 July 1965, first authorized abortion under specific conditions (such as a maximum pregnancy length of three months and a minimum number of surviving children, the latter condition was lifted in 1973).Tunisia issued The Famous Constitution in 2014, which is elaborate on women’s rights: it guarantees equality between the sexes, and obliges the State to “protect and reinforce women’s rights” and to take measures to combat gender-based violence and it was supported In 2017 by the law on violence against women which adopts a wide understanding of violence, including economic and psychological violence, as well as discrimination on the basis of sex (Gender).

The Tunisian Parliament was in favor of the law and adopted it with unanimity. This development challenges the literature on regime change and women’s rights, and provokes the following questions: Are all these laws really effective, are they enforced and respected? Is it possible today to talk about a healthy society of any act of gender-based violence ?

The Reality of Tunisian Women:

Despite images abroad of Tunisia as a champion of women’s rights, especially since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the reality for women in rural regions can be brutal. They face physical and economic violence, illiteracy is high and they have been nearly completely absent from politics.
But increasingly, rural women are working to break out of poverty, fight oppression and make their voices heard in Tunisia’s political sphere.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, about 32 per cent of Tunisian women, 1.8 million, live in rural areas. Forty per cent of women in rural areas are illiterate and 60 per cent say they suffer from health problems, 93 per cent of which are work-related.
The state’s National Health Insurance Fund is mandated to cover all Tunisians. But only 10 per cent of rural women have access to free health care.

We can notice For instance a discrimination relating to the body of a married woman. Her body seems to “belong” to the husband, since unlike in many other countries, Tunisian law does not recognize marital rape. Article 13 of the CPS provides that “The husband cannot, if he has not paid the dowry, force the woman to the consummation of marriage;” this would mean that once the dowry is paid, the husband may force his wife to sexual intercourse. The criminalization of marital rape seems difficult to integrate into a legal and social system conditioned not to recognize the possibility of such violence within marriage.

Meanwhile, The reality is quite the opposite, The number of cases of violence against women of all types has increased alarmingly Especially, since the total sanitary containment of COVID-19 over the past year. As of May 3, 2020, more than 7,000 cases of violence had been reported to the toll-free number set up by the Tunisian Ministry of Women, This increase in the rate of violence against women coincided with the decision of the Superior Judicial Council, taken on March 23, 2020, to postpone all hearings in civil cases, including conciliation hearings.


In spite of all these favorable laws, Tunisian women still suffer from several gender-based inequalities. These inequalities are visible on the levels of civil rights and the right to physical safety. => ” We must fight two parallel battles — those of laws, and those of attitudes”, said Frawes.

Noting that much work still needs to be done in training the police, judges, lawyers and doctors in appropriate responses.


Images by the author.

By Dhoha Ayed

Dhoha is a law graduate from the Faculty Of Law and Political Sciences Tunis Manar. Presently she is a Trainee at the Tunisian Parliament.

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