Tunisia

Last Updated 28 October 2020

Tunisia has a population of 11.8 Million, of which approximately 99% are Sunni Muslims. The remaining 1% comprises of small Christian, Jewish, Shiite and Baha’i communities.

In 2011, Tunisia set in motion the transnational pro-democracy uprising known as the ‘Arab Spring’ when a young vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after suffering repeated humiliations by local police officers. After 28 days of mass protests against authoritarianism, corruption, poverty, and political oppression, the Tunisian President Ben Ali officially resigned, putting an end to his 23-year-long rule.1https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2015/12/tunisian-revolution-151215102459580.html Tunisia’s transition to democracy began soon after that, with some notable improvements: a progressive new Constitution was adopted in 2014, legislative and presidential elections were held, and laws were adopted to enshrine greater gender equality.2https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/28/tunisia-unfinished-rights-business

Tunisia is a member of the League of Arab states (LAS), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
 
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

After the Tunisian uprising in 2011, Tunisia undertook to create a new constitution. Continuing disagreement between Islamists and secularists caused delays, but it was finally agreed in January 2014. Key demands of the Islamist lobby were met, while other proposals were dropped. In general the influence of religion on society became more prominent in the first years after the Tunisian uprising than it was under the regime of former president Ben Ali, including episodes of violence and harassment by organised Islamist groups.3https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2013/01/14/ces-ligues-qui-protegent-la-revolution-tunisienne_873949

The 2014 constitution begins with “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate” and ends with “And God is the guarantor of success.” The constitution is considered an expression of “commitment to the teachings of Islam”, recognizing an “Arabo-Islamic identity”, “desirous of consolidating our cultural and civilizational affiliation to the Arab and Muslim nation”. Clearly this language is exclusory of other ethnic and faith groups and flatters pan-Arabic and Islamist ambitions. Article 5 considers Tunisia as “part of the Arab Maghreb”.

Article 1 of the Constitution declares that “Tunisia is a free, independent, sovereign state; its religion is Islam”, and that “This article cannot be amended”, precluding any future secular reforms. Article 6 “guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, [and] the free exercise of religious practices” but stipulates that “The state is the guardian of religion”, which would appear to be a justification for blasphemy laws and the current criminalisation of any criticism of Islam. The state undertakes to disseminate “the protection of the sacred, and the prohibition of all violations thereof. It prohibits calls for Takfir [Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims] and the incitement of violence and hatred.”

As per Article 49, the exercise of all rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, can be restricted in the name of protecting the rights of third parties, national defense, public security, morality, and health.

Atheists and religious minorities are banned from the presidency, which is constitutionally restricted to those who hold “Tunisian nationality since birth” and “whose religion is Islam” (Article 74). In these terms there is little improvement over the 1959 constitution, which made similar stipulations.

The government subsidizes mosques and pays the salaries of imams. Local religious committees and imams must be approved by the regional representative of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.4https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TUNISIA-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf The president appoints the grand mufti of the state. The government allows the Jewish community to worship freely and pays the salary of the grand rabbi. It also provides some security for all synagogues and partially subsidizes some restoration and maintenance costs. The government recognizes all Christian and Jewish religious organizations established after independence in 1956. Christian and Jewish organisations established before 1956 are permitted to function, but lack official recognition.5https://www.meconcern.org/countries/tunisia/ The government permits Christian churches to operate freely, and formally recognizes the Roman Catholic Church through a 1964 concordat with the Holy See.6https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TUNISIA-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf

Education and children’s rights

Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools. The courses on Islam take up roughly one hour per week and non-Muslims are able to request an exemption. The religious curriculum for secondary school students also includes the history of Judaism and Christianity.7https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TUNISIA-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf The state allows other religious groups to educate in private schools.

In public primary schools, textbooks for the Islamic education course emphasize the ethical and moral aspects of Islam. Religious tolerance toward Christians, Jews and nonbelievers is highlighted as a key Islamic value and the importance of pan-human solidarity is stressed.8https://carnegie-mec.org/2012/08/13/religious-education-and-pluralism-in-egypt-and-tunisia-pub-49078

Family, community and society

Gender equality

On paper, Tunisia has a reputation for being one of the most progressive countries for women’s rights in the region. It banned polygamy in the 1950s, it has adopted several electoral gender quotas to ensure the equal representation of women in politics,9https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/10319.pdf and in 2014 the government withdrew its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (leaving, however, a general declaration that it would not take any organizational or legislative decision pursuant to CEDAW where such a decision would conflict with “the provisions of Chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution”, which contains references to Islam).10https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/30/tunisia-landmark-action-womens-rights In 2017, it passed a landmark piece of legislation11https://learningpartnership.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/Tunisia-VAW-Law-2017-French.pdf to combat violence against women, including the removal of a loophole that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims.12https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2017/8/news-tunisia-law-on-ending-violence-against-women

The picture on the ground, however, is slightly more complicated. Significant investment is still needed for the 2017 domestic violence law to be translated into improved safety for women, and many women in rural parts of the country remain unaware of their new rights.13https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2017/8/news-tunisia-law-on-ending-violence-against-women

In 2017, an administrative obstacle preventing Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men (something forbidden under shari’a law) was removed, and now there are no more restrictions in place for this kind of unions.14https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/09/15/la-tunisie-met-fin-a-l-interdiction-du-mariage-avec-des-non-musulmans_5185969_3212.html However, resistance by administrators at the local level to comply with the new regulations still exists.15http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/07/08/mariage-dune-tunisienne-musulmane-a-un-non-musulman-laayouni-continue-a-defier-la-loi/

In addition, a draft law that would grant women equal inheritance rights to men – initially proposed in 2018 by President Essebsi and a first in the world for a country that still derives norms from shari’a law for certain matters of personal status – met fierce opposition from conservative parties in parliament, and since the death of Essebsi it looks unlikely to pass into law.16https://www.la-croix.com/Monde/En-Tunisie-president-enterre-projet-degalite-hommes-femmes-matiere-dheritage-2020-08-18-1201109600 Discriminatory inheritance laws have meant that women in Tunisia are largely excluded in practice from acquiring land rights, and government figures show that less than five percent of women in Tunisia are registered land owners.17https://dai-global-developments.com/articles/strengthening-womens-control-over-land-inheritance-reform-in-tunisia; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-women-landrights-feature/get-land-from-your-husbands-tunisia-divided-over-equal-inheritance-for-women-idUSKCN1QP13F

The wearing of the niqab and hijab in public remains a controversial issue. First, President Bourguiba banned women from wearing the niqab and hijab in schools, referring to the veil as a “miserable rag”.18https://www.aljadid.com/content/women-revolutions-new-faces-arab-feminism Later under Ben Ali, the ban (Article 102 of 1986) became a cause for harassment by security forces on the streets, as well as other visible signs of faith, such as the man’s beard. As a result, university students who did not want to show their hair in public used a hat to hide it instead of the hijab. Since 2011, however, the number of women wearing the niqab and hijab on the streets has increased.19tunisia-live.net/2015/08/26/hijab-essebsi-tunisia/ Following three suicide bombings in the space of a week in Tunis, the government issued an order banning the Niqab in government buildings, citing security reasons.20https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48888144

Adherence to Ramadan

While there is no law in Tunisia explicitly forbidding eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan, there are still strong societal pressures to observe the fasting period. Though technically legal, numerous cafe owners are harassed and intimidated by security forces for keeping their cafes open during fasting time, and citizens may be arrested for eating or drinking in public. Such arrests are usually made under “public indecency” laws, and on the basis of an old administrative act whose current validity is unclear.21https://insidearabia.com/ramadan-tunisia-fast-or-not-to-fast/

Although many Tunisians are deeply religious, the secularist policies of former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali have left traces in Tunisian society, including possibly a higher number of non-religious individuals than previously. The clash between conservative religious and more liberal opinion has led in recent years to public debate about enforcement of religious fasting. In 2018, a protest movement calling itself Mouch Bessif (which translates to “not by force”), started by the Tunisian Freethinkers Movement, publicly campaigned against the closure of restaurants and cafes during Ramadan by drinking water and eating sandwiches in central Tunis in the middle of the day.22https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/world/middleeast/ramadan-fasting-end-protest-tunisia.html

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Legal Restrictions

The right to freedom of expression, including media freedom, was declared a foundational principle for the country at the dawn of the Arab Spring. In practice, this freedom remains restricted, both in law and through l social conventions.

The Constitution provides for freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication (Article 31). As said above, these rights may be restricted for reasons related to public order and public morals, among others (Art. 49).

There are a number of laws governing the defamation of “public morality”.  Article 121ter of the Penal Code makes it an offence to “distribute, offer for sale, display, or possess, with the intent to distribute…propaganda, tracts, bulletins, and fliers… that are liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals”, and stipulates a sentence of 6 months to 5 years in prison. Articles 226 of the Penal Code criminalizes any action tantamount to public indecency, and 226bis criminalizes speech and actions that “cause harm to the public morals”. A prison term of 6 months is provided for both offences.23http://www.legislation.tn/sites/default/files/codes/Penal.pdf

Although religious conversion is legal, some converts express concerns about threats of violence and a significant societal pressure against converting or deconverting from Islam.

Blasphemy

Articles 52 and 53 of the new Tunisian Press Code (Law Decree 115/2011) prohibit defamation against religions or members of a religion. Article 53 provides a fine for libeling a religion “whose practice is permitted,” while Article 52 provides for a maximum prison term of three years, and a fine, for “directly” inciting hatred between races, religions and peoples.24http://www.inric.tn/fr/Decret-loi_relatif_a_la_liberte_de_la_presse.pdf

Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code criminalizes “harming others or disrupting their lives through public communication networks.”25https://www.unodc.org/res/cld/document/tun/2004/code-des-telecommunications_html/Tunisie_-_Code_des_telecommunications_2010.pdf

In 2012, the ruling party, the Islamist party Ennahdha, filed bills both in the constitutional assembly and in secondary legislation which would criminalise blasphemy. During the works for the constitutional drafting, it proposed the insertion of an article which would “criminalize all attacks on that which is sacred”.26https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/49259 In the same year, the party submitted a bill intended to prohibit “curses, insults mockery, and desecration” of numerous religious concepts, including Allah, the Prophets, the three Abrahamic books, the Sunnah (the practices of the Prophet Muhammad), churches, synagogues and the Kaaba (the most sacred building in Islam). The idea and debate spread after the opening of an art exhibit in the capital of Tunis that was deemed offensive to Islam. The bill also banned pictorial representation of God and Prophet Muhammad. The stated reason for the proposal was to protect Tunisia’s Islamic identity. However, the blasphemy bill did not have enough support and was dropped.27Rory McCarthy, “Protecting the Sacred: Tunisia’s Islamist Movement Ennahdha and the Challenge of Free Speech,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 447–64.

State of Emergency

Violence and Islamist attacks have plagued Tunisia’s transition since 2011. In 2013 two secular politicians were shot dead. Islamists have burned several religious (Sufi) shrines since 2011. Islamist attacks in 2015 on the Bardo museum in Tunis and the shooting of western tourists in a beach hotel in Sousse killed dozens. Several deadly attacks on Tunisian security forces in the Western part of the country took place leading to the restriction of freedoms of expression and association on counterterrorism grounds.

The ‘state of emergency’ imposed after the terrorist attack in 2015 is still in force today. It grants the government exceptional powers to ban strikes or demonstrations deemed to threaten public order, and to prohibit gatherings “likely to provoke or sustain disorder.”28https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/28/tunisia-unfinished-rights-business It also grants the government powers to conduct searches of electronic devices and of properties without a warrant. In 2017, Amnesty International documented numerous cases of arbitrary arrests and other due process violations carried out pursuant to the emergency decree.29https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE3049112017ENGLISH.PDF

Highlighted cases

Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji (social media users)

On 28 March, 2012, two atheist friends, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji were sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, and to a large fine, for posting images on Facebook deemed blasphemous. Mejri and Beji were put on trial following a complaint lodged by a group of residents in Mahdia. While Jabeur Mejri was imprisoned, his friend Ghazi Beji sought refuge in Europe.

Mejri and Beji were convicted under Article 121 (3) of the Tunisian Penal Code (see above). After two years of international uproar and media attention, Jabeur Mejri received a presidential pardon in 2014, but was imprisoned again in 2020 for “’insulting a public official’ and ‘violating sacred values’ after an argument with a court official”.30https://www.amnesty.org.uk/jabeur-mejri-imprisoned-facebook-posts-tunisia

Mounir Baatour (lawyer and human rights activist)

In 2019, Mounir Baatour, president of the first openly pro-LGBT organisation (Shams), and president of the Tunisian Liberal Party, was indicted with “incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence” by the counterterrorist prosecutor.  This accusation was in reality a blasphemy charge, based on the fact that Baatour had reposted on his Facebook profile a post “accusing the Prophet Mohamed of being a rapist and a killer, and crudely deriding his sexual life”.31https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/29/tunisia-halt-prosecution-prominent-activist Baatour, who had even tried to run for the 2019 Presidential elections, fled the country and obtained the status of refugee in France in September 2020

Emma Chargui (blogger)

In July 2020, Emna Chargui was sentenced by a First Instance Court to 6 months in prison for “inciting hatred” between religions and “offending authorised religions”, (under articles 52 and 53 of the Press Code), for sharing a Facebook post that imitated the rhyme and format of some verses of the Quran to urge people to follow COVID-19 hygiene rules. She received multiple rape and death threats on social media as a result of her post. She is currently appealing the sentence.32https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/tunisia-blogger-emna-chargui-sentenced-to-six-months-in-prison-for-social-media-post/ ; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53408262

Testimonies

“I will not shout from the rooftops that I am irreligious, but I don’t hide it. I am not obliged to tell it to everybody, because I think it is a personal thing. What would it help to tell it to my university colleagues for instance? It would just cause more problems for me. Anyway, if there are discussion on science, politics, or religion, you can figure out very fast that I am agnostic. Honestly, I don’t have a real problem due to my religious convictions. I have friends that are practising Muslims and female friends that wear the Hijab and they accept me as I am. At high school it was not always easy, but I think this was more linked to the fact that as a teenager we all tend to be a little bit mean.”

— Sarah

“I don’t talk a lot about my atheism. If I tell it to certain people, it is people with a certain intellectual level or very tolerant people, otherwise I would be marginalized and rejected by the most part of society. You shouldn’t tell that you are an atheist if it concerns your work or professional life, because you would risk rejection. My family is very understanding and my mother is an atheist as well, however that is not the case for all atheists and the most of their parents don’t know that their children are atheists. It is like in other developing countries, there is no tolerance and especially none for minorities.”

— Ahmed

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2015/12/tunisian-revolution-151215102459580.html
2, 28. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/28/tunisia-unfinished-rights-business
3. https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2013/01/14/ces-ligues-qui-protegent-la-revolution-tunisienne_873949
4, 6, 7. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TUNISIA-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
5. https://www.meconcern.org/countries/tunisia/
8. https://carnegie-mec.org/2012/08/13/religious-education-and-pluralism-in-egypt-and-tunisia-pub-49078
9. https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/10319.pdf
10. https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/30/tunisia-landmark-action-womens-rights
11. https://learningpartnership.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/Tunisia-VAW-Law-2017-French.pdf
12, 13. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2017/8/news-tunisia-law-on-ending-violence-against-women
14. https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/09/15/la-tunisie-met-fin-a-l-interdiction-du-mariage-avec-des-non-musulmans_5185969_3212.html
15. http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/07/08/mariage-dune-tunisienne-musulmane-a-un-non-musulman-laayouni-continue-a-defier-la-loi/
16. https://www.la-croix.com/Monde/En-Tunisie-president-enterre-projet-degalite-hommes-femmes-matiere-dheritage-2020-08-18-1201109600
17. https://dai-global-developments.com/articles/strengthening-womens-control-over-land-inheritance-reform-in-tunisia; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-women-landrights-feature/get-land-from-your-husbands-tunisia-divided-over-equal-inheritance-for-women-idUSKCN1QP13F
18. https://www.aljadid.com/content/women-revolutions-new-faces-arab-feminism
19. tunisia-live.net/2015/08/26/hijab-essebsi-tunisia/
20. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48888144
21. https://insidearabia.com/ramadan-tunisia-fast-or-not-to-fast/
22. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/world/middleeast/ramadan-fasting-end-protest-tunisia.html
23. http://www.legislation.tn/sites/default/files/codes/Penal.pdf
24. http://www.inric.tn/fr/Decret-loi_relatif_a_la_liberte_de_la_presse.pdf
25. https://www.unodc.org/res/cld/document/tun/2004/code-des-telecommunications_html/Tunisie_-_Code_des_telecommunications_2010.pdf
26. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/49259
27. Rory McCarthy, “Protecting the Sacred: Tunisia’s Islamist Movement Ennahdha and the Challenge of Free Speech,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 447–64.
29. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE3049112017ENGLISH.PDF
30. https://www.amnesty.org.uk/jabeur-mejri-imprisoned-facebook-posts-tunisia
31. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/29/tunisia-halt-prosecution-prominent-activist
32. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/tunisia-blogger-emna-chargui-sentenced-to-six-months-in-prison-for-social-media-post/ ; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53408262

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