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

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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?

Commentary Politics

The Loss of Our Sons and Daughters Is More Than a Political Moment

Toni Bond Leonard

We must bear witness to support the Black mothers who shared their stories of losing children to state and racial violence at the Democratic National Convention. But bearing witness means demanding justice and policy change.

When I watched the Mothers of the Movement—a group of Black mothers of slain children—take center stage at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last week, I saw Black women “making a way out of no way.” We turn our suffering and righteous indignation into agency.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, talked about being thrust into the spotlight while grappling with her teenage son’s killing. Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, began her remarks by acknowledging God’s greatness and how the mothers’ presence at the DNC was itself proof of that greatness. She then related the horrific details of her 28-year-old daughter being found hanging in a Texas jail cell after a possibly unlawful traffic stop in 2015. She called it the worst nightmare anyone could imagine.

But as eloquent and moving as the Mothers of the Movement were, their narratives were treated as a political moment that demonstrated mostly that Hillary Clinton had successfully campaigned to garner the backing of these mothers who are surviving reproductive loss. As I watched Reed-Veal fight back tears, I wondered what type of strength it takes to find peace with such a loss.

The lives of women such as Fulton and Reed-Veal—and those of their deceased children and their remaining families—matter more than a fleeting appearance in Philadelphia. While Clinton is apparently able to imagine what it means to lose a child and talk about that on the campaign trail, it is different to live with the immeasurable weight of losing a loved one, especially when it was due to systemic racism.

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In the Christian tradition, we remember Jesus’ suffering on the cross. And the mothers’ words call us to bear witness to police violence and the women who suffer irreparable reproductive loss. But bearing witness requires us to do more than see and hear about atrocities. We must also demand justice.

Reproductive justice theory holds that women have the human rights to bear children (or not), and to parent with the necessary social and economic supports so that their children not only survive, but thrive. Thriving means access to safe affordable housing, quality education, a living wage, healthy foods, and health care that is grounded in prevention and healing. It means living without fear of violence, especially from the very state authorities entrusted with protecting us.

In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, womanist theologian Delores Williams discusses Black women and a particular type of “surrogacy.” She uses the biblical story of Egyptian slave Hagar, who became Abraham’s concubine to bear him the son that his wife, Sarah, had not. Hagar’s body—and her child—were not her own. Williams argues that Black women have long been forced to step into others’ roles—raising white women’s children during and after slavery, for one—and that surrogacy has been exploitative.

We stand now in a moment where Black women are still surrogates. Their children are not their own, used as human targets by law enforcement and racists to act out their hatred of Black people. And even as the Mothers of the Movement struggle to grieve, their pain plays out in public.

To honor and address their pain, we must listen compassionately to Black people who say “Black Lives Matter.” The shootings of police officers cannot be used to scapegoat the legitimate concerns and demands of Black Lives Matter, which push us to confront historical and ongoing violence against Black Americans. Those urgent cries must fall on ears ready to understand the long history of our lives not mattering in this country. Those cries come from the collective memory of enslaved Black bodies, especially Black mothers forced to bear children to gratify economic greed, and firsthand contemporary experience.

Political candidates must also do more than just listen to the heartrending stories. They must also put forth concrete legislation to address the structural inequality behind racial profiling and the murders of Black people.

While Clinton’s platform includes ending gun violence and building trust between communities and police, what we did not hear at the DNC was how she would advance policies that would prevent the tragic reproductive loss that the Mothers of the Movement now know.

Her platform sounds progressive, but I cannot help but remember her racially coded comments in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act: that youth in gangs “are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Typically, dogs are brought to heel so that they walk close to or follow their owners. An unconscious, unfortunate choice of wording, perhaps? Still, the anti-poor legislation passed during her husband’s administration, and which she supported, has created and worsened conditions that shove poor families, disproportionately families of color, further into poverty.

In this watershed moment, radical accountability is needed if we’re to stem the use of deadly force against Black people.

Our elected leaders can model accountability by admitting that their own policies or statements have fed the police and not hungry people. Quite frankly, Clinton’s support of the crime bill and of the federal welfare reform requires some meaningful and public repentance.

And that repentance has to be more than a moment at the DNC or any future political gathering, but a sincere strategy to correct the injustices that claimed the Mothers of the Movement’s children. This is what it means to bear witness.

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.

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