Single women in Tunisia demand reproductive rights
Tunis (AFP) – A Tunisian singer’s announcement that she would freeze her eggs in hopes of becoming a mother has sparked heated debate over women’s reproductive rights in the North African country.
Nermine Sfar, 31, has appealed to her nearly one million Instagram followers to inspire other women in education and careers to freeze their eggs and preserve “the dream of becoming a mother”.
According to Tunisian law, single women can only freeze their eggs if they are undergoing medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, “which could affect their ability to procreate”.
The technique allows women to have eggs extracted, frozen and safely stored in liquid nitrogen, which could make them pregnant years later.
Under the country’s 2001 legislation, eggs are stored for five years, renewable at the patient’s request.
But Tunisian law excludes the possibility for single women to freeze eggs to delay pregnancy for social or professional reasons.
According to the Sfar team, the singer does not meet the legal criteria in Tunisia and therefore cannot access the procedure, like many other single women in the country.
Sfar’s message reignited a discussion about changing the law, with some responses suggesting that given Tunisia’s deep economic and political crises since its 2011 revolt, the issue of egg freezing is of secondary importance. .
But others said it was time to change the law and allow more women to benefit from the technique, in a country often seen as a pioneer of women’s rights in the Arab world.
“In Tunisia, unfortunately, there are boiling brains and laws,” wrote one social media user.
Nayma Chermiti, a TV journalist, has been considering going through the process for two years, but says the law embarrasses her.
“I don’t see any logic in this law,” the 40-year-old told AFP.
“This excludes healthy single women who have work responsibilities or financial constraints that prevent them from getting married or having children.”
She also criticizes civil society for not having pushed parliament to modify a pre-revolutionary law which “does not correspond to the evolution of women and their responsibilities”.
Dr Fethi Zhiwa, head of the fertility clinic at Aziza Othmana Hospital in Tunis, said young unmarried women inquired “virtually every day” about freezing their eggs.
“This has increased over the past five years due to social developments in Tunisia, where the average marriage age for women is now 33,” he said.
This poses “a real problem”, he added.
“There is a disconnect between biological age – which controls reproductive age – and social age, which controls career development,” he said.
Zhiwa said about 80% of the nearly 1,000 women who had frozen their eggs at the center since 2014 were single.
The doctor helped draft the law in 2001, 15 years after the first human birth from a previously frozen egg.
He said changing the law would be simple.
“There has to be political will, especially since there are no objections from the clerics,” he said.
“All they care about is making sure there is no exchange or donation of gametes (eggs or sperm).”
Civil society “distracted”
Zhiwa said the law was a “victim of its early approval”, noting that when it was drafted it was considered to be ahead of neighboring countries.
Morocco waited until 2019 to pass a law on medically assisted procreation — and only for married couples.
The kingdom, however, allows single women to freeze their eggs when they suffer from diseases such as cancer, said Jamal Fikri of the Moroccan Fertility College.
In Algeria, only married women have access to these services, while in Libya doctors say fertility treatments do not exist at all.
For Tunisian women’s rights activist Yosra Frawes, Sfar’s announcement “democratized a subject that was rarely discussed in Tunisia, as civil society was distracted by other issues”.
“Thanks to social media, women have more freedom of expression,” Frawes said.
“Subjects that were once taboo are now being discussed openly.”
© 2022 AFP