Hayet Laouni is a member of Tunisia’s senate and an owner of her own maritime business. She credits her success to the liberal approach to women’s rights that the government has shown since independence.
"I am very grateful to my country," she says. "I was born and grew up in a part of the world where life is supposed to be hard for most people, but harder for women."
She is not alone. While many people outside the region view predominately Muslim North Africa as rigidly hostile to women’s rights they have in fact witnessed a decade of substantial reform and the achievement of some improvement in the status of women.
Reforming family codes
Much of the reform has been in countries’ "family codes," sets of laws guiding the role and status of women in marriage, as well as their rights in divorce and custody matters.
The family code has been an important focus for women’s rights activists because its laws are "absolutely critical and fundamental in Muslim society," says Mounira Charrad, a Tunisian-born university professor, who has researched women’s issues in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Those laws, Ms. Charrad told Africa Renewal, "address issues that are at the core of social life." Successfully reforming them, she says, can improve women’s rights in marriage, access to divorce and ability to get custody of their children.
"When the present Tunisian government allowed a woman to pass on citizenship to her children, this created a seismic cultural change in the society," Ms. Charrad noted at a conference last year. "This law challenged the entire patrilineal concept of the family."
Much of the credit for progress lies with the dynamic women’s movements that came into being in North Africa during the 1980s and 1990s, explains Valentine M. Moghadam, who promotes equality between men and women for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Between law and practice
But progress has been halting and uneven. In 2005 Egypt granted women expanded divorce rights, for example, but efforts to change the law to allow women to travel without the permission of a husband or father were dropped by the government for fear that they were too radical to pass.
Ms. Moghadam notes that North African countries continue to support social practices that discriminate against women and are inconsistent with international treaties.
Importantly, they are also against the laws of those countries. "Egypt’s constitution grants equality to all citizens," she points out but Egypt’s family law contradicts that "by placing women under the guardianship," or legal control, of their fathers.
Ms. Moghadam also notes that many discriminatory laws and practices in North Africa and the Middle East are seen as directly resulting from Islamic injunctions, while they in fact derive from tribal or pre-Islamic cultural practices.
Leila Rhiwi, a former director of a women’s rights group in Morocco, who is currently the women’s rights coordinator for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) observes that in many North African countries, "what we have seen is a change in the law, not a change in society."
However, she told Africa Renewal, "changes in the law make changes in the society possible."
Ms. Charrad agrees. "Legal changes made a difference in countries like Tunisia. The reforms happened in the 1950s.
Women can now file for divorce more easily and custody is easier", but, she told Africa Renewal, "socially, divorce remains very difficult because divorced women find themselves treated as outcasts."
"Despite the challenges," she continued, "we can no longer say that in the Muslim world it is hard to change women’s rights. Women have really gained very significant rights in Tunisia and Morocco.
We need to move away from the generalized statements about that part of the world and come up with a more nuanced way of looking at it. Once we see that some women have gained substantial rights, we can learn from those cases."
Entrenching new rights
Nowhere have women in North Africa made greater progress than in reproductive rights — in fact, notably better than in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
Tunisian law protects the right of a woman to decide whether to practice birth control or have an abortion. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that contraceptive use in Tunisia grew from 24 per cent in 1980 (the current rate in most of sub-Saharan Africa) to 63 per cent in 2007.
Nearly all Tunisian women live within 5 kilometres of a source of family planning and they typically wait until about age 27 to get married, compared to about age 16 in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
In Egypt, 96 per cent of women live near a family planning centre and about 60 per cent use the centres’ services. In Algeria, the government reimburses people for purchasing contraceptives.
And, in Algeria and Tunisia more than 90 per cent of births take place in public health facilities so that many more mothers and babies survive childbirth.
To help women use their rights, advocacy organizations have pressed governments to give better access to the courts. Egypt introduced a new system of child support and alimony and has brought divorce and inheritance issues under one judicial authority.
Rebecca Chiao of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights told Africa Renewal that since the changes were made in Egypt, her group has helped some 6,000 women annually to understand and use the new regulations.
Entrenching these rights requires greater women’s participation in political life, Ms. Rhiwi concludes, and here progress has been slow. It was only in 2002 that Morocco’s political parties agreed to reserve 30 seats out of 325 for women in parliament, while in Egypt women make up a meagre 8 per cent of parliamentarians and occupy few cabinet posts.
Those numbers remain a major hurdle, she acknowledged, and one that must be overcome if women are to continue to make progress. "We have to ensure that the changes will be real, effective and institutionalized."
About the Author: Ms. Mary Kimani is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine. Please e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.