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September 15, 2017 4:21PM EDTDispatches
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One Step Forward, One Step Back in Tunisia

Progress on Women’s Rights; Regression on Justice

Amna Guellali
Senior Tunisia and Algeria Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Divisionaguellaa


A Tunisian woman holds up a flag during a march to celebrate International Women's Day in Tunis March 8, 2014.

On September 14, Tunisia took a step forward by abolishing a 1973 Ministry of Justice directive prohibiting marriage between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man. But the news wasn’t all good this week – a day earlier parliament adopted a law that provides amnesties for certain serious acts of corruption – a move guaranteed to encourage such practices.

One step forward, one step back: Welcome to the inconsistent politics of Tunisia’s post-dictatorship transition.

Parliament adopted Law 49 on “reconciliation in the administrative field” by a vote of 117 votes to nine, with one abstention. The law offers blanket impunity for those civil servants implicated in corruption and embezzlement of public funds but who did not benefit personally. The law terminates any ongoing prosecutions and trials against these accused, and preempts any future trials for such acts.

A much more sweepingdraft law to amnesty crimes of corruption, promoted by President Beji Caid Essebsi, was first introduced in Parliament in July 2015. Public uproar stalled the law, until this month when parties in the governing coalition pushed forward a new version that removed as candidates for amnesty business people accused of corruption. The law would undermine all accountability efforts initiated by the judiciary and a truth commission to investigate and prosecute systematic plunder of state funds under the former regime.

The following day, the Ministry of Justice announced that it had rescinded the 1973 directive prohibiting the marriage of a Tunisian woman to a non-Muslim man unless the man provides a certificate of conversion to Islam. If a Tunisian woman married a non-Muslim abroad, who lacked this certificate, Tunisian authorities would refuse to register their marriage. Essebsi, in an August 13 speech, called for reforming this discriminatory legislation. Women’s rights groups had long advocated for its repeal.

The convergence between the good news about women’s rights and the bad news about the fight against corruption is less incongruous than it may appear.

For a long time, the old regime used progress on women’s rights as a fig leaf to distract from its repressive policies. By championing women’s rights while at the same time expanding impunity for acts of corruption, the Tunisian government is reminding us of how these two contrasted realities worked in the past and how women’s rights were used to whitewash a system riddled with corruption and systematic human rights violations.


Nov 10, 2014
I guess so many people from all walks of life were and are involved in it, that virtually everyone would have been prosecuting each other.

It's a shame the criteria is only about those who profit financially. What about all those who profited through unfair advantage? By being given a job they were least qualified for because they were family? Nepotism is alive and well there. Indeed to not give a relative a job over a stranger would be frowned upon, leading to long family rifts. I guess true equality comes in small steps.

As someone here said this week the change in the law for women will have little impact for many fundamentally Muslim families because it would be viewed as non -Islamic and so not welcomed by many, it may most benefit those educated woman who have worked outside Tunisia and found a partner there. Perhaps more acceptance by family now the law has changed.

I guess also rarely when they meet a foreign man who is working in Tunisia and want to marry, although old family/ religious values will be hard to change.
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