Why Tunisia's new law that aims to ending 'all violence' against women is exceptional

Among the specific clauses in the law against domestic abuse is a larger point, one that will be keenly watched far beyond North Africa: how far the role of the state can go in creating women’s rights

A Tunisian woman holds a sign reading "Together for Equality" during a protest calling for the respect of women's rights in front of the headquarters of the National Constituent Assembly last year. Fethi Belaid / AFP
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Last week, Tunisia's parliament gave its final approval to a bill aimed at ending “all violence against women”. When it comes into force next year, the law will target “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggression” against women in the North African country.

The details covered by such a broad definition are important. But the law also matters because of how it changes the philosophical relationship between the family and the state, and because of the way the law has sought to use the power of the national state to advance women's rights.

Start with the law itself. The aspect which grabbed the headlines was the removal of a controversial aspect of Tunisian law that allows rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims, leading to some women, especially outside of Tunisia's cities, feeling pressured to do so in order to “spare” the rapist or minimise the familial “shame” of being raped. Financial compensation was sometimes even offered. That clause has now been removed.

(Approximately six other Arab countries still have such a law, with activists continually protesting for their removal. Earlier this year, an eye-catching Lebanese protest against a similar law went viral, with activists stringing up white wedding dresses by nooses across Beirut's Corniche.)

The law also targets domestic violence, the first time that Tunisia has enacted specific legislation against domestic violence. This is important in a country where a survey in 2010 found that 47 per cent of women had experienced domestic violence, against a global average of 35 per cent.

What the new law does is change the way violence against women in the family is viewed by the state, bringing it, in essence, into the societal sphere. Previously violence against women was viewed as a family matter and, as is often the case in conservative countries, was seen as something beyond the remit of the state. By changing the law – the wording of the law makes it clear that the wide-ranging definition that Tunisia's government is using applies to aggression “both in public and private life” – the government is signalling that families will be publicly accountable for what they do within their homes, as well as allowing the state to interfere and ask questions about the conduct of family relations.

That will mean, for example, that doctors and teachers will be empowered to ask about bruises and take action if they suspect violence.

Such a change may not seem so significant in urban centres, but in rural areas the extended family can wield considerable power and influence over the lives of people within it, even to the point where the Tunisian state, already weakened outside the urban centres, doesn't interfere.

This change then is significant philosophically, but also because it brings with it a change in policies, allowing for the training of more specialised police, and for medical staff and teachers to be trained to spot signs of abuse.

The law is especially interesting because it does three things to combat domestic abuse, beyond allowing prosecution. Judges will be able to offer women in danger the option of shelters – here, the opposition have noted that no extra money has been provided to build these shelters – and they will be able to file restraining orders against suspected offenders. But the new law also targets residual conservative elements within the police, making it an offence for anyone investigating a case of abuse to exercise pressure against the woman to make her abandon the complaint or change it. What the law is seeking to do is target the situation where police noting a complaint, especially in rural areas where people are known to each other more easily, seek to persuade women to drop the complaint or to “consider” their family's reputation.

Lastly, the law also opens the possibility of companies being sued for sexual discrimination, by imposing fines on employers who “intentionally discriminate” against women by paying them less.

There’s a tendency to see Tunisia as a beacon for women’s rights in the Middle East, but that view is actually rather limited. Tunisia does better than many European democracies at promoting gender equality. Its electoral law mandates that women should comprise 50 per cent of political party candidates, still a rarity across Europe. And its percentage of female representation in parliament, at 31 per cent, is higher than any Middle Eastern country, but indeed higher than the UK, Canada and the United States (30, 26 and 19 per cent).

With this law, Tunisia is exploring what it is possible for “state feminism” to do in furthering women's rights. State feminism has more in common with Nordic countries than with the laissez faire feminism of Atlantic countries like Britain and the US. Here, the state goes out in front, staking out a position around which different groups can debate. The driver of change, therefore, is not public opinion but the state itself, so the focus of women's activism is not to change the public's mind, which is the usual mechanism in democracies, as it is to change the views of politicians.

In Nordic countries, that model works because the broad goals are commonly agreed. But in Tunisia, historically pulled between two visions of society, the army-backed liberalism and religiously-inspired conservatism, this state feminism appears to work because it allows debates to take place on concrete positions, not abstract, sometimes religious, concepts. That creates an atmosphere that is uniquely Tunisian. Whether the same laws can be recreated elsewhere in North Africa, or further afield, remains to be seen. The “Tunisian exception” still looks lonely.