One in four world citizens are Muslims and there are 57 official members of the Islamic conference (Hessini, 2007). With this comes great diversity across racial and geographical lines even though all Muslims share the same specific beliefs. Therefore, these variations are apparent in family planning and reproductive laws. Tunisia is leading the way in the MENA region with its liberal laws on abortion and contraception, reforming its laws before France and the USA. Services in Tunisia are provided for free through their public health care scheme and an abortion can be requested under the threat of life, mental health, foetal impairment, rape and other socioeconomic reasons. Thus Tunisia represents a new model of family planning in the MENA showing successful results for the country.
This is because president Bourguiba paved the way for modernisation when Tunisia gained Independence in 1956. This journey to modernise proved that modernisation equates to a declining birth rate, thus Tunisia is the perfect example to demonstrate this. Mr Bourguiba believed that advocating for birth control would improve the socio economic development of Tunisia. In fact, this is seen in figures today with Tunisia’s rapid economic growth in per capita income rising from $1,430 a decade ago to $2,070 today (Gautam, 2003). This rapid economic growth clearly shows the positive impact women have on the economy, thus, free access to birth control proves beneficial because it generates economic growth.
This economic development has led to the increase in foreign investors, allowing Tunisia to sustain a 5% annual growth rate, compared to other countries such as 3.1% Algeria and 2.6% Morocco (Gautam, 2003). This clearly indicates that women are being integrated into the work force because of the availability and variety of birth control methods that enable them to limit their family sizes. Tunisia is unique in this as other MENA countries provide limited resources and methods, Tunisia has recently introduced medical abortion, leading the way in medical advancement. These improvements in women’s position is seen in the increase of young women now attending higher education and, in some local universities it is reported that there are a higher number of female students than male students. Ultimately, these changes highlight the contribution of women’s role increasing because of the free access to birth control, this shows other countries the economic benefits of such changes.
These developments have led to the urbanisation of Tunisia, because of the transition from agriculture to the manufacturing industries. A much more manageable family size enables mobility for work and allows families to become sustainable, increasing the quality of life. Based on providing a better quality of life for Tunisians, Mr Bourguiba took advantage of independence to create a modernised interpretation of Islam (Gautam, 2003). This changed attitudes of citizens to accept the reforms of the Tunisian government as well as show other countries that Islamic law is flexible and adaptable to societal change. This was first implemented through Polygamy, insisting that having one wife was not anti-Islamic, using this rhetoric to assert reform. This is Bourguiba rejecting old interpretations of Islamic doctrine and paving the way for a more positive outlook on the role Islamic law played in influencing policy. Tunisia shows the success of such a model and should be the solution adopted by other MENA countries to trigger change in family planning. This model shows that Islamic values are not the limiting force to accessible contraception and abortion, but instead political conservatism has given rise to limits on women’s reproductive choices. Therefore, Tunisia’s developments through birth control reveal that Islamic values are used in other MENA countries to assert political agendas.
Overall, the success of Bourguiba’s campaign meant that women had a significant amount of new found choice in their private lives, allowing women to take on other roles in society. This changed the demographic landscape of Tunisia. Literacy levels increased, unsafe abortions no longer existed and women now married much later. Even though, improvements can still be made, Tunisia still has a long way to go in maintaining these rights for women, especially after the Arab Spring. Even so, Tunisia is setting an example to the rest of the MENA region by showing the positive effects of liberal family planning and abortion laws. Tunisia rejects mainstream stereotypes on Islamic countries by showing the existence of Islamic values without violating women’s reproductive rights.
Gautam, N. 2003. Family Plan: As Tunisia Wins Population Battle Others See A Model; Women & Economy Gain With Lower Birth Rate, But Unemployment Rises; Classes In The ‘Shadow Zones’. Wall street Journal, p. A1.
Hessini, L. 2007. Abortion and Islam: Policies and Practice in the Middle East and North Africa. Reproductive Health Matters 15(29), pp. 75-84.