Women's Rights Could Germany Learn from Tunisia?

German Family Minister Kristina Schröder traveled on Wednesday to Tunisia, a country that until last year's revolution had some of the most progressive women's rights policies in the Arab world. But now women there are fighting against the imposition of Shariah law in their next constitution.

German Family Minister Kristina Schröder meets with women in Tunisia's parliament.
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German Family Minister Kristina Schröder meets with women in Tunisia's parliament.

By in Tunis


The plane carrying Kristina Schröder had barely taken off, but questions were already flowing about her position on creating a legally binding quota for women in the workplace. The German family minister, who is also responsible for women's issues, had taken off on a short, seven-hour trip to Tunisia, where she wanted to learn about how women there are fighting for their rights. But even abroad, the embattled minister couldn't get away from the issues back home.

Schröder is opposed to gender-based quotas in the workplace and has instead been pushing for a voluntary system she calls a "flexi-quota" -- a proposal that has been opposed by the center-right government's coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and has drawn criticism from within her own party. The gender quota debate was reignited earlier this week after European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said she is considering pan-European legislation that would mandate the placement of more women in executive positions and on the boards of companies.

Little wonder, then, that the family minister wanted to seek one day of escape in Tunisia.

Schröder has a mixed record back in Germany. A member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, she doesn't have a strong reputation for going on the offensive when it comes to defending women's policies. On the other, she's the first government minister in German history to have had a baby while in office -- a development viewed by many as important progress for the status of women in the workplace. So what did Schröder have to say to women in Tunisia, who were at the forefront a year ago during the fall of Dictator Ben Ali, and who risked their health and livelihoods for the regime's collapse?

Symbolic Support

It was also an encounter that brought together two very different worlds. In Berlin, Schröder has fought against codifed workplace quotas for women. Women in Tunisia, however, are fighting to prevent the Islamist Ennahda Party, which won parliamentary elections last year, from anchoring Shariah law in the country's new constitution.

Schröder's first visit to Tunisia on Wednesday included a meeting with the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. The minister met with a group of confident middle-aged Tunisian women with the group. They grew up under a dictatorship and had decades of experience with the regime's tricks and censorship. "He who spoke to us -- we used to say -- was one with the devil," one of the activists said, describing the ruling class at the time as "rotten thieves."

Schröder told the group she was here because Tunisia is a country that provides reason for hope -- a country with a strong tradition of women's rights, particularly for the Arab world. Tunisia legalized divorce back in the 1950s and at the same time also eliminated the practice of polygamy which exists in some Muslim countries. And during the recent elections to create a constitutional convention, half of the candidates on the political parties' electoral lists had to be women. "If that works here with women's rights, then there is great hope for the rest of the Arab world; but if it fails, then we will have great concern," Schröder told the activists.

Schröder sought during her trip to emphasize her support for that process, sending a message that Germany is interested in what happens in Tunisia. It was also intended as a message for International Women's Day on March 8, which would follow one day later.

'Germany Is Watching Tunisia'

But many remain skeptical that the revolution has helped women in any way. One and a half years after the regime's fall, women in the country fear that their rights might soon be eroded. The activists said that messages from the Islamists had been contradictory. One said it appeared the Islamists don't really know what they want. At times, Schröder seemed astoundingly well-behaved given the vehemence shown by some of the women at the meeting.

But Schröder continued to listen. She was prepared and there was a sense that she was not simply fulfilling the duties of a compulsory state visit. Schröder appeared interested in what Tunisia is doing for women. She asked the group if they would seek to prevent all religious references in the constitution. One of the women responded by saying that an anchoring of Shariah law in the constitution would be a "disaster."

During their discussions on Wednesday, the women Schröder visited often expressed fears that future laws might be influenced or dictated by the Islamists in Tunisia. "I'm afraid of the Islamists, and I fear for myself and my two daughters," one Tunisian woman blogger told the minister. She said she has been fighting for women's rights and against censorship since 2007. Following the revolution, though, she says she now has little hope. "Today we have an entirely new battle," she said. "And it's not going in the right direction."

In the ornate presidential palace in Karthago, Schröder also met with Tunisian transitional President Moncef Marzouki of the center-left Congress for the Republic Party. Afterwards, she said: "The whole world, especially Germany, is watching Tunisia." She added that there was a heartfelt wish that the country continue on a democratic path -- and that she had faith he could fullfil it.

Collective Power

Schröder's visit also included a stop at the Tunisian parliament, a handsome, tiled building with a large inner courtyard. It's the site where the country's politicians are negotiating the new constitution. Most of the female politicians who greeted the German minister there wore a head scarf. Schröder said she was "grateful" to be invited to visit during this "historic hour," a time when the path is being paved for Tunisia's future.

The members of parliament spoke to the minister about the process of creating a new constitution for nearly an hour. As she departed, Schröder said the discussion had shown that women in Tunisia are working across party lines and that they could exploit their collective power at the constitutional convention. "We are very united on this, and I will report on it tomorrow to Germany's parliament," she said.

It sounded as though the German minister was hoping to import a bit of this female solidarity to Germany.

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