Women tend to face considerable repression in the Arab world and so it was with some surprise that I read this news report from Tunisia that has just voted to require equal representation for women in its legislative bodies. Noah Feldman writes:
I wouldn’t believe it if I weren’t sitting here in Tunisia’s parliament building. But I just watched the nation’s constituent assembly adopt, 116-40 with 32 abstentions, an amendment to its draft constitution requiring the government to create parity for women in all legislative assemblies in the country, national as well as local. After the vote, the assembly and audience stood up spontaneously and sang the national anthem. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house — including mine.
You may recall that Tunisia is where the wave of reform movements called the Arab Spring began, overthrowing its military dictator. But while that spring has faltered in other countries, it seems to have planted the seeds of democracy there.
This historic moment is embedded in another historic moment of still greater scope. For the first time in the history of an Arabic-speaking country, a freely elected assembly is publicly debating and finalizing a constitution without an occupying army, a king or a dictator anywhere. The Arab Spring has either struggled or failed everywhere else, but in Tunisia, a democratic constitutional victory is in view.
Feldman says that Islamic parties such as Ennahda are still strong in the country but everyone seems to be willing to do the hard work of compromise to get a functioning constitution, and that “Unlike any other Islamist party in the world, Ennahda has agreed to remove any reference to Sharia law from the constitution.”
There are still problems ahead. Establishing democracy in formerly authoritarian states is not easy. But we can hope.