Experts on the Middle East often draw a connection between the region’s conflicts and the high rate of violence against women. In the past decade, legal rights for Arab women have slowly improved, offering hope of decreasing violence overall. On July 26, Tunisia set a new standard for the region. The North African country approved a law that recognizes abuse against women in the home as a crime against society.
The new law shifts the blame for violence against women to the perpetrator. It outlaws harassment in public spaces and abolishes the right of rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims. And it calls for practical assistance for victims of domestic violence, such as emergency shelters and restraining orders against abusers.
Compared with other Arab states, Tunisia is already a model of gender equality. Its legislature has the highest rate of female representation. More women than men graduate from its universities. And its women can initiate a divorce and establish a business without spousal consent.
But it still has one of the highest rates of domestic violence. About half of Tunisian women experience violent attacks in their lifetime. Worldwide, according to the United Nations, a third of women have suffered sexual or physical abuse.
The new law is seen by rights activists as representing a “mental revolution” against the notion that violence in the home is a private matter. It still needs to be funded and implemented, an essential step that will be a test of changing cultural attitudes, not only in Tunisia but in many Arab countries.
A poll released in May by the UN Development Fund for Women is telling about gender inequality in the region. It surveyed 10,000 men in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian territories and found a majority expect to control their wives’ personal freedoms. Yet a quarter or more support at least some aspects of women’s equality and empowerment.
Even without changes in laws like Tunisia’s, Arab women are finding ways to express their rights within the system, according to the 2016 Arab Human Development Report. “[S]ome are challenging the laws and codes by proposing alternative religious readings and their own visions of equality,” the report states.
The region has also “moved towards more socially open values in recent years; especially, the support for gender equality has increased, and civic involvement has expanded,” according to the UN-backed report. In Tunisia, that social trend is fast becoming a legal reality.