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Culture & Society | Global Arab Network
Tahar Haddad - The Precursor of Women's Rights in Tunisia
Global Arab Network - - Maha Karim
Tunisian Embassy in London is organizing a lecture about Taher Haddad (the Precursor of Women's Rights in Tunisia) by Dr Ronak Husni, Senior Lecturer in Arabic, Heriot-Watt University, School of Management and Languages and Professor Daniel Lawrence Newman

The talk will discuss the salient aspects of Tahar Haddad’s life and milieu, focusing on his views on women in Muslim society, and how this unrelenting campaigner for social change and women’s rights paved the way for the progress of women in present-day Tunisia.

About Tahar Haddad
Born  in the medina (old quarter) of Tunis, Tahar Haddad (1899-1935) grew up in a family that lived in dire poverty. Very early on, he was called upon to contribute to the family income and spent many a day toiling away in the souk, where his father also worked.

The hardships Haddad experienced and which afflicted all of the capital’s dispossessed would leave an indelible mark on him, even though he, himself, was able to improve his circumstances through education, which came in the shape of religious studies at the famous Zaytuna mosque, where he would graduate in 1920 with a licence to practice as a notary-public.

Politically, these were momentous times in Tunisia with the emergence of a nationalist movement that became increasingly vocal in its calls for the end of the French colonial yoke. During his studies Haddad would fall under the spell of this reformist nationalist mood, which shaped his social and political thought.  Initially, his reformist spirit was directed towards the educational field. As a result of his disenchantment with the traditional methods of learning at the Zaytuna, he stressed the need for education to meet the needs of modern society, to spread a scientific spirit and encourage the creation of an intellectual movement, underpinned by freedom of thought.

Together with an interest in workers’ and women’s rights, education would remain a leitmotiv in Haddad’s thought, as expressed in his writings. This is nowhere more visible than in his seminal work, Our Women in Muslim Law and Society, which is arguably the first Muslim feminist treatise in history. The book is a powerful, and often moving, indictment of the condition of woman in traditional society, as well as of the injustice suffered by the poor in the Tunisia of the day. The work is unique not merely because of its subject matter, but also that it was written by a Muslim scholar who used religious sources to corroborate his views.

The book was released in October 1930, but Haddad did not have a lot of time to enjoy his new-found celebrity status, with fame quickly turning into infamy, following a flood of vitriolic attacks on his perceived revolutionary, or as some would have it, heretical views. Eventually, infamy gave way to oblivion as he and his work were forgotten until the country gained its independence and its first President, Habib Bourguiba, who was an admirer of Haddad’s set about implementing some of his recommendations.

Tunisian women in present-day
The special status of Tunisian women is the result of a societal choice dating back to 1956, date of the adoption of the Code of Personal Status, a revolutionary legislation in the region. The Code abolished polygamy and repudiation, and made divorce decisions the sole prerogative of courts. Women enjoy the right to vote and to run for elective offices, as well as the right to education, to work, etc...

These gains have been further consolidated through measures taken by Tunisian President Ben Ali who considers the promotion of women one of the tenets of his societal project based on inclusion and non-discrimination. Numerous measures have thus been adopted to guarantee equality of rights among citizens of both genders, and to ensure balanced relations within the family, the basic unit of society.

Since 1993, new provisions have been incorporated into the Code of Personal Status, including the principle of partnership and co-responsibility of the couple within the family. The principle of equality established by the Code has been extended to all fields of social life. 

Today, Tunisian women enjoy equal rights in all fields of public life. Indicators are quite telling: the schooling rate of six-year-old girls is the same as that of boys (99%). In secondary schools, the percentage of girls (53%) exceeds that of boys. The same holds true in higher education institutions where young women represent 59.1% of the total number of students.

In professional life, women stand out with their growing presence in all economic sectors. Certain provisions of the Code of Obligations and Contracts which are no longer compatible with women’s right to work have been repealed. Women currently represent more than a quarter of the total working population, and half of the teaching, medical and paramedical professions. Some 18,000 small and medium-sized businesses in the industrial, commercial and service sectors are currently run by women. 

Tunisian women are also increasingly asserting their presence in political life. Seven women are members of Government. Within the new Parliament elected on October 24, 2004, 43 seats (out of 189) are held by women (22.7%). In the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD - majority party), women represent 26.4% of the members of the Central Committee. In municipal councils, 27.7% of the seats are held by women, in conformity with the amended Electoral Code which guarantees for women at least 20% of the seats in municipal councils. Two women magistrates have, for the first time, been appointed: one in the position of General Prosecutor; the other as Director-General of the Higher Magistracy Institute.

This policy of women’s promotion has benefited society as a whole. It has allowed Tunisia to bring under control its demographic growth, and to keep it much below its economic growth. Standing out in their work, Tunisian women today play a vital role in societal progress, and in offering children a better level of care and education. 

The Tunisian family has become a forum for social dialogue, and a fundamental factor of social cohesion. In 2003, a National Council for Women and the Family was established. It gives its opinion on the projects included in national plans for the promotion of women and the family, submits proposals concerning the general policy adopted in this field, and contributes to identifying the necessary measures for the implementation of this policy.

Since January 1st, 2007, a special system has been brought into effect, allowing mothers, if they wish, to work half-time for two thirds of the salary, while retaining all their rights in terms of retirement and social security protection. This system is designed to help women reconcile between their family life and professional life.

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