Published on Arab Voices

Tahar Haddad: A towering figure for women’s rights in Tunisia

For defenders of women’s rights in Tunisia, the figure of Tahar Haddad looms large. For generations of women’s rights activists in Tunisia, he has been seen as the brains and heart behind the country’s progressive legal status of women.

Houda Bouriel, director of the Cultural Center of Tahar Haddad in Tunis, notes that for Haddad, “a society in which women are not liberated is not truly free.”

Wikimedia CommonsHaddad, however, was long relegated to second class hero in popular Tunisian culture. Yes, there are schools and street names named after him, but the real praise usually goes to Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, under whose rule Tunisia passed the Code du statut personnel (English: Personal Status Code), or CSP for short.

The CSP was landmark legislation when it was passed on August 13, 1956. Prior to even establishing the country’s constitution, the CSP enshrined key rights to Tunisian women – and families, among them the right to civil divorce, required consent of both parties prior to marriage, and the abolition of polygamy.

But while the CSP came to be accepted throughout Tunisian society (and is today endorsed by both conservative and liberal political parties – and even celebrated as a national holiday on August 13), the CSP elicited tremendous controversy in Tunisia in the 1950s. The law divided religious scholars, especially around issues like polygamy. While polygamy was rarely practiced in Tunisia prior to its abolition, its prohibition concerned Koranic scholars.

Haddad in many respects paved the way for the CSP. He played a pivotal role in shaping the debate over the advanced legal status of women – and did so in a way that embraced Tunisian culture, rather than rejecting it. Unlike other national liberation activists, who embraced Western ideas of civil rights, Haddad looked into Arab culture and Islamic scholarship – advancing the notion that Islam and basic human and civil rights cannot be disassociated.

Born in 1899 to a poor family from southern Tunisia, Haddad enrolled in his local madrassa, formal schools not yet available to Tunisians under the colonial administration. He excelled and eventually enrolled in the prestigious Zeitouna University, the foremost center of Islamic learning in the country. He received his degree in 1920.

Following his studies, Haddad took up the cause of Tunisian independence as a member of the CGTT trade union, which was to become a powerful force in the country’s struggle for independence from the French.

He also took up the cause of women’s rights, which he viewed as fundamental to the advancement of his country – and not in the least at odds with his faith. In 1929, he published his famous pamphlet, Our Women and the Shariah and Society (Shariah is Islamic Law).  For Haddad, universal education was fundamental to this advancement, and he encouraged all women not only to attend school, but to participate more broadly in society.

At a time when women were barred from Harvard, and hadn’t yet earned the vote in France – Haddad’s ideas were radical – and inspiring. “To talk about women’s rights at that time was daring,” says Bouriel. “Moreover, he did it not through his own ideas of women, but through his Islamic learning.”

While Haddad died prematurely at the age of 36 in 1935, his ideas remained a cornerstone to the work of Tunisian independence leaders – and particularly to Bourguiba. By the time Tunisia’s deposed dictator, Ben Ali, came along, he had adopted and co-opted the mantle of women’s rights. Haddad, like many of the Tunisia’s pre-independence heroes was relegated to a name on a street sign.

Today, the cause of women’s rights has taken on even greater meaning in post-uprising Tunisia, as new generations of Tunisians look to enshrine greater rights for women into its new constitution, and to continue to occupy the public sphere.

For bold ideas, these activists need look no further than the figure of Tahar Haddad.


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