The Middle East Channel

"Complementary" status for Tunisian women

The matter of women's rights -- an issue that proved remarkably pivotal in last year's election debates -- has once again surged to the foreground of Tunisian politics. Earlier this week, an estimated 7,000 Tunisians flocked through a broad boulevard in downtown Tunis to protest Article 28 of the recently released draft constitution. Most of the protesters were upper class, unveiled women strongly opposed to the country's governing Islamist party, Ennahda. These critics accuse Ennahda of deliberately engineering Article 28 to erode Tunisian women's rights. Such interpretations, however, have been misconstrued.

Tunisia's main legislative body, the constituent assembly, has been preparing a draft of the new constitution since being elected last October. The full text of the draft was released on August 8, and a constitutional commission is scheduled to begin reviewing the proposed legislation in September. The draft includes the contentious Article 28, which some secularists believe explicitly refers to women as the "associates" and "complements" of men. A recent Reuters report quoted Article 28 as stipulating that women are "complementary to men."

These are subtle but serious mistranslations. The proposed article, directly translated from the Arabic, states in its entirety that:

"The state guarantees the protection of women and supports their achievements, considering them as men's true partners in building the nation, and their [men's and women's] roles fulfill one another within the family. The state guarantees equal opportunity between men and women in carrying out different responsibilities. The state guarantees the elimination of all forms of violence against women."

Nowhere does this article refer to women as "complementary" or "associates." Farida Labidi, an Ennahda representative and chairperson of the rights and liberties committee that drafted this article, has expressed her frustration with secular opponents whom she believes are taking the law out of context and intentionally ignoring Article 22 of the draft constitution, which states that "citizens are equal in rights and duties before the law without discrimination in absolutely any way."

Though many critics have paid insufficient attention to the exact text of the article, there is no question that its language concerning gender equality departs somewhat from the liberal, individualistic template of Western human rights norms. Article 28 defines men and women in relational terms. The Arabic word yetekaamul found in the middle of the text has often been understood to mean "complement one another." Its deeper sense, however, is of enriching or integrating two parts into a unified whole. I have translated it above to mean "fulfill one another."

This relational terminology reflects Ennahda's bedrock philosophy concerning community and human rights. Instead of viewing human rights in atomistic, individualized terms, Ennahda -- like many Islamist movements, and traditional Muslim societies in general -- prefers to see persons as interconnected within an umma, or faithful community, comprised of different but equal components. Male and female representatives of Ennahda generally believe that while the two sexes were created equal under God, they nevertheless remain distinctive in terms of their biological roles and familial obligations. These views echo those of numerous Christian conservatives, many of whom agree that while women can and often should work outside the home, they are naturally oriented toward motherhood and more nurturing responsibilities within the nuclear family unit.

Secularist women are correct in pointing out that a certain amount of tension exists between Articles 22 and 28 of the draft constitution. Article 22 guarantees full equality, while Article 28 implies that women are men's "partners" and thus exist differently in relation to men within the context of the family. This ambiguity could make it more difficult for Tunisian feminists to achieve certain much-coveted women's rights goals, such as the revision of certain inheritance laws which still unequally favor men.

It is unlikely that Article 28 will pass muster with the revisionary committee scheduled to edit and harmonize this draft constitution over the coming months. Sihem Badi, Tunisia's Minister of Women and Families, has already spoken out against the law, and a prominent female representative of Ennahda, Ms. Souad Abderrahim, has also suggested it is in need of revision. Though Ennahda controls a majority of seats on the rights and liberties committee, it will have a difficult time obtaining the necessary 109 out of 217 total votes needed within the constituent assembly to pass the article. Ennahda holds 41 percent of seats in the current constituent assembly -- enough for a plurality, but not enough to bulldoze an absolute majority of parliamentarians into voting for the law.

Even if the article does pass as it is currently formulated, it is unlikely to seriously undermine women's current legal standing in Tunisia. The law does not contradict or negate Tunisia's Personal Status Code -- a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1956 that continues to set Tunisia apart as the most progressive Arab country regarding women's rights. The Personal Status Code prohibited polygamy and gave women the right to divorce.

The challenge of this article, though, lies in its ambiguity. It is important that Tunisians devise a formulation of women's rights that is relevant and acceptable to them. This does not necessarily need to echo Western women's rights legislation word for word. It should not, however, make advancing equality more difficult. The relational wording of Article 28 leaves wide scope for interpretation on the part of future legislators and local judges. It is a stickily phrased formulation that, while unlikely to roll back the clock on existing women's rights, may make it more difficult for Tunisian women to redress unequal inheritance laws and other pieces of discriminatory legislation.

In reality, whether or not relational language is yanked from Article 28 of the constitution, women are unlikely to see progress on Tunisia's inheritance codes anytime soon. Political parties -- even those aligned with explicitly secularist tendencies -- are loath to mention the issue. Existing sharia-based inheritance laws are widely supported by a majority of Tunisians, and any mention of altering the law -- or the Personal Status Code (PSC) in which it is ironically enshrined -- would be a dangerous move for practically any politician.

More importantly, replacing Tunisia's Quranically grounded inheritance law with a more secular formulation might render the Personal Status Code less relevant and less authoritative in the eyes of many Tunisians. Islamists and secularists alike tend to revere the code because it contains something for everybody. At once cleverly wrought and highly unwieldy, the code is a hybrid of French civil law and moderate sharia-based jurisprudence. The inheritance law represents one of the few, and by far the most important, remaining chunks of sharia-derived legislation in the PSC. Excising this element from the code would make it far more difficult for conservatively-minded Tunisians to justify it as sharia-based. Defending the code -- something Ennahda members have done vocally in recent years -- would become a far more difficult task.

Writing "total equality between men and women" into the new constitution would likely catalyze long-awaited reforms of the existing inheritance code. While feminists and some secularists are eager to see the inheritance law changed, Ennahda members privately describe it is a non-negotiable lynchpin that stabilizes and legitimizes Tunisia's PSC in the eyes of most Tunisians.

For now, sharp disagreements concerning the draft constitution remain unresolved. As Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher in Tunisia, has noted, "both the secularist and Islamist poles have notched up some victories in the draft constitution." The negotiation process has been one of give and take, and the upcoming process of revision and harmonization will likely reflect similar elements of back and forth bargaining. Although Ennahda controls a majority of seats inside the various constitutional drafting committees, it will be unable to push the entire draft into law without winning the support of currently skeptical parliamentarians over the coming months.

Tunisian women continue to face a host of cultural, economic, and legal obstacles that stand in the way of total gender equality. While Article 28 in its current form does little to aid their situation, it is also not the Iranian-style blight on women's freedoms that many Tunisian feminists claim.

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony's College in Oxford.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Lebanon's growing Syria crisis

Armed members of the Meqdad family, a powerful Shiite Muslim clan from the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, announced on Wednesday that they had kidnapped at least 40 Syrians and a Turkish national, sparking a wave of similar kidnappings and riots across Lebanon. Although the Meqdads claimed that the Syrians they kidnapped were members of the Free Syrian Army, a spokesman for the FSA denied this, saying that the hostages were ordinary Syrians who had fled to Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria.

In videos aired on Lebanese television and rebroadcast on Al Jazeera English, masked gunmen from the Meqdad family stated that they had taken the hostages in retaliation for the capture of one of their relative, Hassan al-Meqdad, in Syria by a group claiming to be members of the Free Syrian Army. The Saudi-owned television station Al-Arabiya broadcast a video on Wednesday of a bruised Meqdad confessing that he was a Hezbollah sniper sent to Syria to aid the Assad regime.

Both Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have issued statements denying that Hassan al-Meqdad is a member of Hezbollah. His family claims that he was living in Syria for over a year and working for a Lebanese bank. In fact, media reports from June describe the relationship between the Meqdads and Hezbollah to be contentious at best, sometimes erupting into violent clashes. To complicate things even further, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army denied ever kidnapping Hassan al-Meqdad in an interview with Lebanese television station LBCI.

Following threats made by members of the Meqdad family against nationals from Persian Gulf countries, which they see as aiding and abetting the FSA, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates began evacuating their citizens from Lebanon on Thursday. Rumors of another Lebanese civil war brewing have begun to appear in the media, and Sunni-Shiite tensions appear to be at an all-time high in Lebanon.

But who exactly are the Meqdads, and what is their connection to Hezbollah? A former diplomat who prefers to remain anonymous says that they are one of many Shiite clans from the Bekaa who maintain armed wings. The AP reported on Thursday that some of these clans are reputedly involved with the growth and trafficking of narcotics, but the source says the Meqdads are not major players in this trade.

"The Meqdads are basically a large business empire...not all very legal," he said. "Unlike other major clans they are not much involved in hashish production...but they do petty marketing of drugs over which they at times get in trouble with Hezbollah."

So are they Hezbollah or aren't they? Experts differ on this point. Bilal Saab, a fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, claims that despite past flare-ups between the Meqdads and Hezbollah, the two have always worked closely together.

"The Meqdads have fought alongside Hezbollah since its inception," says Saab. "If they clashed in the past, it might be because Hezbollah overstepped their boundaries, but Hezbollah works to maintain a partnership with the Meqdads because they provide them with recruits, territory, and loyalty. In return, Hezbollah provides them with social services and protection."

Saab stresses that Hezbollah exerts iron-fisted control over Dahiye, the southern suburb of Beirut where the Meqdad's hostages are reportedly being held.

"Nobody holds hostages in the Dahiye without the knowledge and consent of Hezbollah," he says. "I believe that this represents Hezbollah's attempt to support the Syrian regime inside Lebanon."

Asked why both Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have denied a relationship with each other, Saab says that Hezbollah doesn't wish to jeopardize fragile alliances with other factions in Lebanon.

"Maintaining plausible deniability is always important," says Saab. "Hezbollah does not want to portray itself as a group that is heavily involved with the Syrian conflict. They're attempting to create a delicate balance between maintaining their political alliances at home and supporting the Syrian regime."

However, Timor Goksel, former spokesman and senior advisor to UNIFIL in Lebanon and professor at the American University of Beirut, says that although they do maintain ties with each other, the Meqdad clan is a separate entity from Hezbollah and the two are frequently at odds.

"Today, you can find many Meqdads in the national army, police...and Hezbollah," says Goksel. "This is how they survive. As far as I know, Hezbollah maintains cordial, working relations with all the clans without interfering in their lives as long as Hezbollah's interests are not threatened. I am sure Hezbollah is not happy with the spate of kidnappings as they know well that they will be accused. I know they are trying to cool it off by discreet contacts but they won't openly declare war on a major clan that can tear apart the Shiite community."

Goksel doesn't believe that Hezbollah would be willing to take its support for Assad far enough to kidnap Syrians, even if they are thought to be members of the FSA.

"In the Bekaa, kidnappings have always been a traditional way of conflict resolution, long before Hezbollah emerged," he says. "Yes, Hezbollah vocally supports the Assad regime because their vital interests would be compromised should Assad be replaced by an unfriendly regime. But how far would Hezbollah go? It does care about the opinions of its own constituency who are not united in supporting the Syrian regime."

When asked for comment, Hezbollah Member of Parliament Ali Fayyad said that everybody affiliated with Hezbollah was under strict instructions not to speak with any members of the media.

Reuters reported on Thursday that the Meqdads had called a halt to their kidnapping operations and denied that they had ever meant to target Gulf nationals. Although they released 20 Syrians that were determined not to be members of the FSA, the Meqdads held on to a remaining 20 Syrians as well as the Turkish national. According to a report by the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, this announcement followed a dispute that occurred when Ali Meqdad, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament who also belongs to the Meqdad clan, visited the family compound.

This makes sense, according to Goksel. "When Arab countries stop their nationals from staying in or visiting Lebanon, economically the biggest losers will be the Shiites who provide most of the tourism services," he says.

However, Goksel warns that the spate of kidnappings could lead to larger conflict.

"If the other major tribes decide to support the Meqdads, we are talking 100,000 armed men," he says. "If that happens, you don't want to be here."

Recent events seem to lend credence to this scenario. Although the Meqdads appear to have slowed their kidnapping spree, other Shiite clans have started to take up their cause. The New York Times reported on Thursday that members of the Zeeiter tribe, another large Shiite clan, announced that they had kidnapped four additional members of the FSA from hospitals in the Bekaa.

In the meantime, according to the Daily Star, Turkey, a regional sponsor of the Free Syrian Army, has indicated to Lebanon that any violence against its citizens will result in consequences for Shiites living in Turkey. This was echoed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. The warning was made in response to threats against the Turkish national by members of the Meqdad family.

"If Hassan (al-Meqdad) is killed, the first hostage we will kill is the Turk," Maher al-Meqdad, the clan's spokesman, told Reuters.

In a separate incident, members of a previously unknown group calling themselves the Mukhtar al-Thaqfi Brigade announced that they had also kidnapped 10 members of the Free Syrian Army on Wednesday.

Sunni Muslims also reportedly rioted in the Bekaa valley on Thursday, protesting the kidnappings and expressing their support for the Free Syrian Army. Reuters reported that another Turkish national was kidnapped on Friday, and the U.S. Embassy issued a security warning to its citizens in Lebanon the same day. The Meqdads also announced on Friday that they had kidnapped Abdullah al-Homsi, a spokesman for the FSA.

Despite months of effort on the part of Lebanese politicians to keep violence in Syria from spreading across the border, it appears the Syrian conflict has ignited already simmering sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The next few weeks will determine to what extent happenings in Syria influence its war-weary neighbor.

Sulome Anderson is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy and a recent alumna of Columbia University's graduate school of journalism. 

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