Yasmine Ergas discusses struggles of establishing women's rights in Tunisia with Yadh Ben Achour.

Yasmine Ergas discusses struggles of establishing women’s rights in Tunisia with Yadh Ben Achour.

Columbia hosted a lecture featuring Yadh Ben Achour, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee that focused on women’s rights in Tunisia and the making of a new constitution that ensures equality under law. Gender equality is only the beginning for Tunisia and other countries that are taking steps towards social modernization.

In the aftermath of the revolution, Tunisia adopted a new constitution that enshrined equality between men and women in law. Guest speaker Yadh Ben Achour was a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, which was the lead author of the recent Tunisian constitution. He spoke at the law school yesterday about the struggles of gender justice reform in Tunisia. Before Prof. Ben Achour started his short lecture, professor Yasmine Ergas, lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) gave him an introduction.

Yadh Ben Achour is one of the world’s most prominent human rights lawyers, humanist and advocate for women’s rights and human rights in Tunisia and around the globe. He was involved in the resistance against Ben Ali and resigned from his role in the constitutional council in 1992 due to Ben Ali’s attempt to control the constitutional process. He is the former president of the High Authority of the Tunisian Revolution and a professor at the University of Catharge. His most recent work includes the publication of Tunisia: a Revolution in an Islamic Country.

Ben Achour started by giving an overview of the history of women’s rights in Tunisia. From the inclusion of girls in schools in the 1920s to the most recent political equality provisions in the constitution, Tunisia has made large steps in enshrining women’s rights in the law. Ben Achour pointed out that Tunisia faced multiple obstacles in its path to gender equality. How does a country with Islam as its official state religion reconcile the Sharia Law with modern values of equality? In Ben Achour’s opinion, the Sharia must be re-interpreted in a way that includes gender equality. In cases when the Sharia enshrines gender inequality (for example in the case of inheritance), it must be overruled by modern values.

Following his short presentation, professor Yasmine Ergas and some students asked Yadh Ben Achour pointed questions:

  • Does enshrining gender equality in the constitution really provoke change in civil society?As an answer to this question, Ben Achour pointed out that adding gender equality in the constitution is a symbol gesture that constitutes a starting point of spreading the discourse around women’s rights. According to him, what most matters is that the words and idea of parity and equality are introduced clearly in the very high text of Tunisia’s legal system.
  • Did the Tunisian revolution have a gendered nature? Here, Ben Achour pointed out that the spark of the revolution was started by Tunisian men who felt that their masculinity and ability to provide for themselves and their families was being threatened. However, after this initial point the gendered aspect of the revolution faded away to include men and women alike.
  • Is it difficult for religious and non-religious women to compromise on women’s rights in Tunisia? Compromise between women is necessary to achieve women’s rights. The two sides of the women’s movement (secular and religious) have compromised to support a specific minimum of rights.

Although Ben Achour said that Tunisia should be a model for other societies in the world that are democratizing and modernizing, he also pointed out that much progress still needed to be made, specifically in the sphere of LGBT rights.