Tunisia: A Leader Of Women’s Rights, But No Female Leaders?


How is it possible Tunisia is a leader of women’s rights in the Arab world, but there are so few female leaders behind the women’s rights changes? How do female leaders emerge without any female leaders working for change?

Even the most news-naïve Americans know drastic events are currently occurring in Tunisia and Egypt. News of protests and rallies are plastered all over American media. Tunisia, which is in North Africa, holds a special place in my heart. Having spent a significant chunk of time there in the past, I’ve been following news fairly regularly.  Since gaining its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has made significant strides in strengthening their education system, economic standing and revolutionizing social and gender roles. The social progress has indeed made Tunisia a leader among the Arab world in promoting women’s rights.

The Tunisian government requires women be educated alongside men, and women enjoy full legal status, which allows them to own their own businesses and apply for their own passports, among other things. Tunisia is the only Arab nation where abortion is not only legal, but women can obtain a government-subsidized abortion without their husband’s permission. Family planning programs are widely established and have made contraception readily available throughout the country. Tunisia is also the first Arab nation to outlaw polygamy. As of 2004, women constituted over 30 percent of Tunisia’s university professors, 58 percent of university students, more than 25 percent of its judges and 23 percent of members of parliament and police. In 2006, Tunisia’s main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, elected their first female leader. These achievements, at least to me, are very impressive.

But, throughout this history of change, one glaring pattern kept popping out at me; Tunisia’s male leaders precipitated much of this social change. The men in charge were the people who enacted legislature and pushed change. How is this possible? It can’t be. So, I decided to do some research: where were all the women while this change was happening? They had to play an integral role alongside the country’s male leaders. I figured the Women’s Rights Movement in the US was laden with female leaders: Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, Alice Paul, Margaret Sanger, the list could go on for pages, so a similar list of female Tunisian leaders needed to be out there as well, right? After fairly extensive internet-digging, I still came up empty-handed re: female leadership in Tunisia.

How is it possible Tunisia is a leader of women’s rights in the Arab world, but there are so few female leaders behind the women’s rights changes? How do female leaders emerge without any female leaders working for change?

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Recently, hundreds of Tunisian women joined together at the Tunisian Capital to rally against Islamist resurgence. Groups such as the Association of Democratic Women and the Tunisian Women’s Association for Research and Development are working hard to defend women’s rights. Tunisian women are scared. After decades of slow social progress, they want to make sure their rights won’t be revoked. I don’t blame them. Amidst the current chaos and looming threats will we start to see emergence of female Tunisia leaders within the women’s rights realm? In terms of fighting for women’s rights and progression of gender roles, do great female leadership need to be spurred by impending tragedy?

News Human Rights

DOJ Alleges Unfair Labor Practices and Discrimination at Michigan’s Only Women’s Prison

Michelle D. Anderson

The lawsuit, filed on June 13 in a Michigan district court, claims that female correctional officers in the region have been forced to work unfair overtime shifts and have been denied transfers and promotions at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit last week against the State of Michigan and its Department of Corrections, following through on a February notice from the federal agency.

The lawsuit, filed on June 13 in a Michigan district court, alleges that female correctional officers at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti have been forced to work unfair overtime shifts and have been denied transfers and promotions. Huron Valley is the state’s only prison for women.

The DOJ said in a statement that the allegations constituted a pattern or practice of violations related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark legislation prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or religion, and was last amended in 2009.

Michigan officials specifically discriminated against its women employees by implementing an “overly broad female-only assignment policy” and by denying their repeated requests for transfers, according to the 19-page lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed last Monday revealed that 28 former and current correctional officers had filed charges in 2010 and 2011 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to challenge the state’s policies. After investigating the charges and finding reasonable cause that Michigan had committed Title VII violations, the EEOC sought conciliation to no avail. It ultimately referred the charges to the DOJ.

“Qualified male and female correctional officers deserve equal opportunities to compete for job assignments and transfers without unnecessary barriers,” said Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the principal deputy assistant attorney general, in the statement.

Michigan Corrections Department spokesperson Chris Gautz told Rewire the department did not have a statement at the time and that it typically does not comment on pending litigation. Representatives from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s office did not respond to an email from Rewire on Friday.

The complaint alleges that the corrections department began its discriminatory practices in 2009, just a year after it consolidated its three adult female correctional facilities into one location. That year, the state designated 11 positions at Huron Valley as “female-only,” including food service, yard control, property room, and electronic monitor officer positions.

According to the lawsuit, Michigan officials only lifted the “female-only” restrictions on some of the positions earlier this month. And two months prior, in April 2016, the state offered a limited transfer opportunity to five women correctional officers, but that did not change an existing transfer freeze that has kept several women officers from being promoted or moved to facilities closer to their homes.

Despite the transfer freeze, several eligible male officers in the last six years have been allowed to move to other facilities throughout the state, while women officers were forced to stay in old positions and work consecutive overtime shifts, the suit claims.

Huron Valley, the overcrowding challenges of which were publicized by the Detroit Free Press in 2015, has about 2,200 inmates and a 85 percent female-majority correctional officer staff, according to the lawsuit. In 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study about overcrowding at federal prisons, concluding that correctional institutions that are over capacity have a negative effect on inmates, staff, and infrastructure.

The report noted that inmates in particular were more likely to experience factors leading to increased inmate misconduct, comprising the safety and security of other inmates. Others studies, such as 2007 research from the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal, noted that people in prisons are at a higher risk for acquiring blood-borne pathogens, sexually transmitted infections, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, and that overcrowding only exacerbates the problem.

Former Huron Valley correctional officer Latasha Clements, in an email obtained by the Detroit Free Presswrote to prison, union, and legislative leaders that the facility’s mandatory overtime shifts—caused by its shortage of female corrections officers—had led her to quit her job.

The email included the statement that “constant mandating, three and four days consecutively” had caused her physical and emotional health to deteriorate, and negatively affected her ability to adequately care for her husband and children.

The former state prison worker was one of a dozen Huron Valley corrections officers who quit their jobs in the last six months, according to the Detroit Free Press report.

The DOJ lawsuit demands a jury trial and a court order requiring Michigan to end discriminatory job assignment and transfer policies. The DOJ has also requested monetary damages for the affected correctional officers, and an order for the state to develop and implement lawful and effective measures to prevent further discrimination.

Barbara L. McQuade, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in an official statement that the lawsuit does not challenge “positions where it makes sense to assign only female officers,” but rather the practice of limiting “positions that are not justifiably related to inmate privacy to women officers.”

The DOJ lawsuit is not the first legal act the federal government has brought against the State of Michigan. In 1997, the United States sued Michigan under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act for violating the constitutional rights of women inmates by not protecting them from sexual misconduct and unlawful invasions of privacy.

Commentary Politics

A Telling Response: Trump’s Mistreatment of Women Evokes Yawn from GOP Leadership

Jodi Jacobson

Republican leaders have been largely dismissive of Donald Trump's misogynistic track record—which speaks volumes about the party's own treatment of women.

This weekend, the New York Times published the results of interviews with more than 50 people, many of whom attested to the fact that in both private and public life, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made “unwelcome romantic advances” toward women and exhibited “unsettling workplace conduct over decades.” Translation: He objectified, sexually harassed, and made unwelcome comments and advances toward women with whom he worked, whom he met in social settings, or who participated in his reality show empire. He even, according to one person quoted in the Times, sought assurance that his own daughter was “hot.” Yet GOP leadership has been largely dismissive of Trump’s track record—which speaks volumes about the party’s own feelings on women.

While important in its detail, the Times story is anything but surprising. Trump is a historical treasure trove of misogynistic behavior and has talked about it openly. In an interview with Esquire, for example, Trump stated: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” He has frequently made derogatory comments about the looks of female politicians, journalists, actresses, and executives: He’s claimed that “flat-chested” women can’t be beautiful and mused about the potential breast size of his infant daughter. He’s suggested that sexual assault in the military is “expected” because men and women are working together and that the thought of someone pumping breast milk is “disgusting.”

Forgive me if I am not shocked that reports indicate he’s no feminist. Female voters know this: Even conservative news outlet National Review fretted about the fact that both Trump and former presidential aspirant Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are both highly unpopular among female voters, noting that “seven out of ten women (67 percent) have an unfavorable view of Trump, and only 26 percent view him favorably… and [some] polls have his unfavorability ratings among women even higher, at 74 percent.”

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In interviews this weekend, the Times‘ report elicited what was effectively a yawn from Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, the guy charged with leading the GOP both in terms of the party’s platform and in helping its candidates across the country get elected. On Sunday, Fox News‘s Chris Wallace asked Priebus whether the reports of Trump’s mistreatment of women bothered him. Priebus responded by asserting that “people just don’t care” about all these stories, although when pressed, he suggested that Trump would have to answer to his own statements.

But that dodges the question. Priebus is the head of the party and also needs to take responsibility for his nominee’s behavior, as does the party itself. He did not say, “I deplore the remarks Trump has made during the campaign,” or, “as a party, we need to reflect deeply on why our candidates and policies are so deeply unpopular among a group that makes up more than half the U.S. population.”

Priebus said none of that. He just shooed the issues away. The fact he did not even attempt to address the substance of the Times article is the most telling news of all.

The real problem is that it’s the GOP leadership that just doesn’t care. This morning, the Guardian reported that “After a week of make-up meetings with Donald Trump, Republican party leaders have arrived at a new strategy to accommodate their presumptive presidential nominee: ignore his problematic attitude to women, his tax issues and his fluctuating positions on trade, immigration, foreign relations and a host of other topics, and instead embrace the will of Republican voters.”

The reality is that Trump’s “problematic attitude toward women” is not an isolated problem. For the GOP leadership, it is not a problem at all, but the product of their fundamental policies and positions. The GOP has been waging war on women’s fundamental rights for nearly two decades; it’s just gotten more brash and unapologetic about the attitudes underlying the party’s policies. The GOP is full of candidates who think pregnancy resulting from rape is a blessing; who minimize and stigmatize the role of access to contraception and abortion in public health and personal medical outcomes; who demonize and marginalize single mothers; and who won’t pay for basic services to help the poor. The GOP platform is built on policies that seek to deny women access to reproductive and sexual health care, including but not limited to abortion, thereby also denying them the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. So the fact that both the party leaders and the media spun themselves into a tizzy when Trump suggested he would imprison women who had abortions was all theater. That is GOP policy.

The GOP majority in Congress and in state legislatures continues to deny low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women—living wages, labor protections, and paid family leave. At the state level, Republican governors and legislators have obliterated funding for education, child care, aid to single-parent families, aid to children with disabilities, and basic health-care services. And Trump is far from unique in this election cycle among GOP presidential candidates: Republicans in the running from Ted Cruz on down have used women as objects when it is convenient, with Cruz going so far as to parade his two young daughters on the campaign trail in bright pink dresses, seemingly to underscore their “innocence” and to stoke fear of transgender persons seeking access to the most basic facilities, though many of those are young girls themselves.

It’s not only Donald Trump’s mistreatment of women. It’s that the GOP’s platform is based on sheer misogyny, and the leadership has to ignore it or they’d have to rethink their entire platform and start from scratch.