Tunis — Tunisia voted Monday to enshrine gender equality in its draft constitution, a key step towards safeguarding its relatively progressive laws on women's rights, with the ruling Islamists under pressure to compromise.
"All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties. They are equal before the law without discrimination," states article 20 of the text, which was approved by 159 lawmakers out of the 169 who voted.
The formula was agreed between the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and the secular opposition during negotiations to end months of political crisis that followed the assassination of an opposition politician by suspected jihadists last year.
Ennahda sparked a storm of controversy in 2012 when it tried to introduce gender "complementarity" rather than equality into the post-uprising constitution.
Since the 1950s, when it gained independence from France, Tunisia has had the Arab world's most progressive laws on women's rights -- although men remain privileged notably over inheritance -- and some suspected Ennahda of wanting to roll back those rights.
The Islamists also agreed in recent months to drop their insistence on Islam being the main source of legislation, or criminalising "attacks on the sacred".
Instead, Islam is recognised as the state religion and freedom of conscience is guaranteed.
On Sunday, the assembly also forced a successful revote on a proposed amendment that would make it unlawful to accuse someone of apostasy, after a deputy claimed he had received death threats because a colleague accused him of being an "enemy of Islam".
Analysts say the ruling Islamist party has had to adapt its more conservative positions to avoid alienating liberal Tunisians.
"You could say that Ennahda has shown itself to be a modern movement, but also that it didn't have a choice, because Tunisian society is modern and progressive," said Sami Brahem, an expert on Islamic culture.
"If Ennahda wants to exercise power, it must be on the same page as this modernism, or else become a radical movement."
For sociologist Tarek Belhadj Mohamed, "confronted by the campaigns of Tunisian women and civil society groups, they had to make concessions".
Tight timetable set
Tunisia has set a tight timetable for adopting the long-delayed new charter of January 14, third anniversary of the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the popular revolt that sparked the Arab Spring.
Rights groups had expressed reservations about the article on gender equality, arguing that it was too vague and did not sufficiently articulate the prohibited grounds of discrimination.
But women's rights activists in Tunisia welcomed the provisional approval of article 20.
"We wanted to add details that would ban discrimination based on sex or skin colour," Ahlem Belhaj, former president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, told AFP.
"But it is very good news that (gender) equality has been adopted. It was our demand and it's a victory," she added.
The national assembly also on Monday approved the article that guarantees "freedom of opinion, thought, expression and information", and gave the green light to provisions safeguarding enforceable rights and proscribing torture.
These carry added significance in a country that only recently emerged from five decades of dictatorship.
Earlier, article 21 was approved which states that "the right to life is sacred" and "nothing can harm it except in certain extreme cases established by the law".
The compromise was criticised for failing to abolish the death penalty, with a proposed amendment to do so rejected, although in practice no execution has been carried out since the 1990s.
Tunisia's politicians have committed to adopting the draft charter -- which must be approved by two-thirds of parliament's 217 members or put to a referendum -- by January 14.
Under an accord reached by the country's divided political factions, the assembly must also pass an electoral law and set up a commission to oversee elections this year, whereupon outgoing Islamist premier Ali Larayedh has agreed to hand power to a transitional technocrat administration.
The powerful UGTT trade union, which has been mediating in the political crisis, is insisting that Larayedh step down by Thursday at the latest.