Islamic State in Tunisia threatens Women’s Freedom.

By Anahita Hossein-Pour, Staff Writer

Extremism in Tunisia is threatening to cripple the country. Following the attack on tourists at the Bardo Museum in March, I experienced first-hand the impact this had on the tourism industry on my holiday there two weeks ago. Getting into conversation with one of our tour drivers, he spoke about the ‘troubles in the South’ and how this is a big problem for the government. He was careful not to mention what these troubles were, but it is publicly well-known of the ISIS training camps and presence in the region.

This weekend witnessed another tragic attack, again on holidaymakers in the Sousse resort area. The current death toll is 38 people and expected to rise. For Tunisia, Islamic State is proving to create the desired effect of wreaking havoc. The quiet streets and sites I visited two weeks ago, are unlikely to pick up as shopkeepers hoped, after a second attack. It is more likely the almost 14% of the population employed through the tourism industry will ever more feel the strain.

But what relevance do these extremist attacks have regarding women’s rights in Tunisia? A UN report released earlier this year estimated 20,000 foreigners have joined IS, over 3000 of them coming from Tunisia- making up the biggest proportion from one country. In a country whose 2011 Jasmine Revolution, called for ‘Democracy, Dignity and Freedom,’ Tunisia must ensure this rising trend towards Islamic extremism does not jeopardise the majority’s progressive, liberal attitudes and continue to hold its title as the most advanced Arab country on the basis of women’s rights.

This title goes back to the establishment of the Code of Personal Conduct established in 1957. Landmark legislation outlawed polygamy (the only Islamic country to do so), and also gave rights to women over abortion, divorce, ability to establish businesses and set up bank accounts. Tunisia’s new democracy has made way for a surge in establishing women’s rights groups and activism, and the new constitution introduced last year reasserts the country’s position on advancing women’s rights. Article 46 outlines the commitment ‘to protect women’s accrued rights and to work to strengthen and develop those rights.’ It goes on to address ensuring equal access to opportunities and positions of responsibility, as well taking necessary measures to eradicate violence against women.

To meaningfully implement these commitments, further Islamic radicalisation of Tunisians must be stopped to ensure the progressive development of women’s rights continues. Islamic State’s manifesto, ‘Women of the Islamic State’ outlines the role of women in points such as; how women’s duty is to stay at home as their only legitimate work, how it is ‘preferable’ for women to remain ‘hidden and veiled’ and also how girls can be married from the age of nine.

I spoke to a Tunisian woman living in the UK about her thoughts on women’s rights in Tunisia, particularly in such a fragile time in the face of extremism. She told me how proud she was to be Tunisian, with all the access to liberties that she has enjoyed from an early age. Tunisia, she praised as similar to being in the UK- dressing freely, and no problems going to school or gaining the same pay in jobs. With that, she also felt ashamed knowing the recent ruthless attacks were carried out by extremists from her country. 

Last being in Tunisia in November 2014, she relayed to me the changes she noticed. Her sister lives in the Southern town of Metlaoui, and one of her three daughters has started to wear the hijab. In a family where no others wear the hijab or are particularly religious, she found this strange…

I asked whether the increased presence of IS in the South will impact women’s rights and lives? She responded sharply that women are already more restricted, claiming women are beginning to cover ‘not by choice’ but ‘so they are left alone’. This was her explanation for her niece’s recent decision to wear the hijab. Here, the issue is less about legislation but more about social norms that are regressing unfavourably for women’s freedom because of increasing extremist views.

In the aftermath of the Bardo attack, President Essebsi has promised ‘democracy will win and it will survive.’ In response to this weekend’s Sousse attack, BBC News reported the Tunisian government has taken the decision to shut down 80 mosques across Tunisia considered out of their control and accused of inciting hatred.

Whilst this is a direct response to the terrorist attacks on tourists, these catastrophes have wider implications for Tunisian society. The Tunisian government’s crackdown is important to prevent further radicalisation of Tunisians joining IS, which is already shifting women’s freedoms in reality. If the extremism continues to escalate, it could seriously impact the liberal society women have been able to enjoy for decades.