On 13 August, 6,000 people took to the Tunisian streets to protest Article 28 of the draft constitution. Protestors say that the Article is a way of controlling women; one protestor was quoted as saying “we are not going to let Islamists transform our spring into a winter”. But is this all just stirred up fear that the democratically elected government are going to pull the country back from its previously liberal culture?

The main controversy is with one word: complement, or at least that’s the word used in a French translation of the Article. The general translation that has been going around blogs and news media has been this: “The state guarantees the protection of women’s rights and the promotion of their gains, as a real partner of men in the mission of the homeland building, and the roles of both should complement each other within the household.”

…the constitution should protect all law abiding citizens…

Farida Abidi, one of the people involved in writing the article and a representative of the leading Ennahda party, doesn’t agree with the protestors and continuously urges people to look at Article 22 of the draft constitution, which states all citizens have equal rights. Another commentator said actually the word complement was wrong and that the real translation was deeper, more like “enriching or integrating two parts into a unified whole”.

These are good arguments, sure, but they seem to ignore a lot of issues that feminists in the Middle East are dealing with. One point, which very few places have picked up on, was perfectly said by one Tunisian blogger, Lilia Weslaty, “If I am a woman and I do not want to get married, do I fit in this article?” People will say it’s a culture thing and yes, across the Arab world women are expected to marry, but that doesn’t mean we should be supporting such ideals, instead the constitution should protect all law abiding citizens no matter their choices.

Wording can be the most important thing in a constitution…

The idea that women get their rights because they complement a man’s is not something you can support. Kamala Chandrakirna, Head of the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice, summed it up nicely “[Women are] entitled to human rights by virtue of the fact that they are human.”

Whether a simple mistranslation or a non-issue being high jacked by those who don’t support the government is irrelevant. Wording can be the most important thing in a constitution, if a law can be taken to mean something else then a judge could argue that it is its real meaning. Strike Article 28, keep Article 22. That, or some basic re-wording, might help.


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Grew up in the Middle East, currently studying Arabic and Linguistics in central London. Write a lot...

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