Tunisia’s Islamic Party Offers Hope for Women’s Rights

Monday, 31 Oct 2011 10:23 AM

By Tawfik Hamid

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The first free elections after the so-called Arab Spring have been recently conducted in Tunisia.

The Islamist Ennahda Party was declared the winner of the election, which will shape new democratic institutions after a revolution 10 months ago which set in motion the Arab Spring uprisings.

The following are approximate figures for the division of power in the new Tunisia:

• 41 percent to Ennahda Party

• 28 percent to the liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)

• 14 percent to the Popular Petition (led by wealthy business people)

• 6 percent to the parties aligned with Ben Ali's regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara)

• 11% to several smaller parties, mostly secular

There is certainly a legitimate fear that Tunisia can ultimately be an Islamic state that implements Shariah.

However, careful analysis of the results shows that the secular groups, while divided into several political parties, constitute the majority (approximately 58.5 percent) of the total 217-seat assemblies. In other words, in creating the new Tunisian constitution, the Islamic party that has 41.5 percent of the votes (90 seats) is unlikely to be able to implement Shariah since secular parties together control more seats than the Islamic party.

In such a situation it will not be entirely easy for the Islamic party to pass Shariah in contradiction to secular laws. This could be one of the reasons why the Islamic Ennahda Party declared that it accepts secularism, promised to maintain women rights in Tunisia, and declared that it will follow the "Turkish model" stating that they will allow alcohol and bikinis in Tunisia.

On the contrary, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt could not make such claims, and on several occasions, have expressed their desire to prevent alcohol and un-Islamic dress in the country.

Additionally, the Ennahda Party put Suaad Bin Abdel-Rehim, a female candidate of the party who does not wear the Hijab, on one of their election lists. Choosing a female who does not wear the Hijab to represent an Islamic party is virtually unthinkable for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, as many of these groups know very well that wearing the Hijab is vital for proliferating the Islamism ideology.

If we compared the statements of Ennahda Party of Tunisia to the statements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the Tunisian Islamic party represents a mutated form of Islam that may have a better chance of survival with modernity than the form of Islam that is adopted by the Egyptian and Libyan Muslim Brotherhood groups.

What was truly peculiar about the Tunisian elections is that the support for Ennahda Party among the Tunisians who live abroad (mostly in Europe) was 50 percent while the support for the Islamic party among the Tunisians who live in Tunisia was 41.5 percent. This is an indication that Islamism has been probably growing at faster rates in Europe than in some Islamic countries.

And the only Islamic systems that clearly stated that they support secularism and equality of women are Turkey and Tunisia — which are the only Islamic countries that prohibited the Islamic hijab in government institutions.

If we compared Saudi Arabia where most women wear complete body cover (niquab) to Egypt where most women now wear Islamic head scarves (hijab) to Tunisia where the hijab was suppressed for decades, we can clearly see that the most radical understanding of Islam developed in the country where women are most covered while the relatively liberal understanding of the religion developed is in the country that suppressed the hijab.

This does not in any way underestimate the valuable role of education in the Tunisian society that promotes acceptance.

If the Ennahda Party of Tunisia remains true to its promise of secularism, women rights, and Turkish models, its possible success can be used as an antidote to Islamic systems which adopt regressive forms of Islam.

At the moment, we cannot determine for sure if the Ennahda Party will keep its promises; however, secularists — who represent more than 50 percent of the Tunisian parliament — can possibly stop their Islamic political opponent from creating a regressive constitution for their country.

The liberals and seculars in Egypt and in Libya are in a worse situation than their counterparts in Tunisia and thus are less likely to be able to prevent the next Egyptian or Libyan parliaments from adopting an Islamic regressive constitution that may end hopes for modernity in both countries.

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