From Bourguiba to Ben Ali: The failures of state feminism in Tunisia

From Bourguiba to Ben Ali: The failures of state feminism in Tunisia
In light of Tunisia’s national Women’s Day in August, Jyhene Kebsi writes about the history of government policies regarding gender equality, their many limitations and why so much distrust remains towards ‘state feminism’ post-revolution.
5 min read
12 Aug, 2022
On the 13 August Tunisia marks its national Women's Day, but many questions regarding gender equality in the country still remain.

On 13 August Tunisia celebrates its national ‘Women’s Day’ but this takes place against an unequal backdrop for many. Despite the efforts of feminists and human rights activists, Tunisian women are still unable to enjoy equal inheritance rights.

Many Tunisians, including women, refuse the equalisation of inheritance and reject the UN discourse on gender equity in favour of a version of women’s rights that is grounded in religious interpretations of the Quran.

The opposition to changes in inheritance law in post-revolutionary Tunisia, largely stems from the continued importance of religion. This is despite the secularised feminist policies which were introduced under the first two presidents after the country gained its independence from France.

Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia from its independence until 1987, introduced the Family Code in 1956. This Personal Status Code, which secured more rights to women, represents the legislative text that departs the most from the Islamic norms. For this reason, the code was and still is unprecedented in the Arab and Muslim world.

'' The return of many Tunisian women and men to conservative values, and their reclamation of their “authentic” Arabo-Islamic identities in post-revolutionary Tunisia, strongly links Tunisian feminists and grassroots feminist movements with French neo-colonialism.''

While Islamic law makes divorce the exclusive right of the husband, the Family Code made it a civil matter available to wives and husbands alike. While repudiation continues to be a common Muslim tradition practised until today in many Arab Muslim-majority countries, the Code put an end to a husband’s ability to dissolve the marriage by simply telling his wife “you are divorced” three times. Polygamy was also criminalised.

The Code represented an important step in the modernisation and relative secularisation of the country. Bourguiba linked his legal secular innovations to repeated public criticism of Islamic scholars and religious traditions like fasting, veiling and pilgrimage. In line with this, he banned the University of Zeitouna and spoke against the veil, which he described as a “miserable rag” and an “appalling shroud.”

However, Tunisian legislation of this nature was not totally secularised. On the contrary, and unlike what many people in and outside of Tunisia think, the Personal Status Code was and still is rooted in Islamic teachings, as it has been based on the Maliki (Sunni school of thought) family law. As the Tunisian scholar Nouri Gana argues: “Unmatched in the Muslim world except perhaps by the 1924 Turkish Civil Code, the Tunisian Code did not, however, abolish the sharia, or Islamic law, altogether, nor did it proceed to sweepingly mimic the somewhat ‘à la Ataturk’, a European model.”

Despite his attacks on the clergy, Bourguiba presented the Code as a fresh return to the true spirit of Islam through the reform of matters related to women’s status. The first article of the Tunisian Constitution defined the country’s religion as Islam, Bourguiba insisted that the Code did not infringe the laws of the faith and that he consulted some Islamic scholars who affirmed that it conformed to the spirit and proper interpretation of it.  


Admittedly, the legislation that was implemented after 1956 was limited. Despite progressive reforms that diverge from Sharia, Tunisia’s reluctance to sign the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in 1979, indicated the restricted scope of secularised state feminism.

In 1984, the government made reservations on some of the rights in the Copenhagen Convention on the CEDAW, particularly in relation to the issue of inheritance equality. The Tunisian government did not ratify the agreement until 1985 after the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) presented a document in which they demanded full implementation of the treaty.

When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took power in a coup d’état, a similar approach of state feminism continued. Then, in 1993, he abolished a part of the Code related to a wife’s duty of obedience towards her husband.

Ben Ali also revised the Nationality Code, thus allowing Tunisian mothers to pass down their nationality to children born outside Tunisia, regardless of the father’s nationality. This was also unprecedented in Arab-Muslim majority countries at the time.

The 1993 reform also gave automatic guardianship of children to the mother in the case of divorce. However, it did not change the mother’s status in the family institution, as the husband was still considered the ‘head’. Once again, state policies towards women were limited.

Furthermore, due to Ben Ali’s dictatorial rule, any associated policies introduced by his government – including those related to women – were seen as problematic.


This distrust towards (state) feminism has continued until the present today.

Indeed, state feminism historically relied on the secularisation of different aspects of Tunisian society. However, religion has remained an important part of life for the people, including in their approach to gender equality, family and civil liberties. In addition, some of the secular strategies introduced in the last decades, alienated the local population – particularly the ban on the veil.

Opposition to changes regarding the inheritance law in post-revolutionary Tunisia can, thus, be understood within the same framework of both traditionalists’ fear of losing what they perceive as their Muslim roots, and a repressive leadership.

Not to mention, the return of many Tunisian women and men to conservative values, and their reclamation of their “authentic” Arabo-Islamic identities in post-revolutionary Tunisia, strongly links Tunisian feminists and grassroots feminist movements with French neo-colonialism. This was particularly the case following the call for equal inheritance.

Protests were organised against the equalisation of inheritance which indicated  many Tunisian women reject secular and state feminism in favour of an Islamic conception of women’s status in society and the family institution.

All of this ultimately reflects the complexity of gender politics in post-revolutionary Tunisia which despite many changes over the decades, continues to be marked by unequal inheritance laws towards women.

Jyhene Kebsi is a Lecturer in Gender Studies at Macquarie University, Australia and a recipient of multiple prizes and awards, including Fulbright.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.