Women carry banners and shout slogans during a demonstration in Tunis, Reuters
Tunisian women protest against government plans to downgrade their status Reuters

Thousands of Tunisian protesters have rallied against constitutional changes they said would undermine progress in women's rights and degrade the status of women.

Up to 6,000 demonstrators marched in the streets of Tunis to protest about a new constitution being drawn up.

The country is divided between ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims, who want the introduction of Islamic law, and secular parties.

Anger was stoked by a stipulation in the draft constitution that said women were "complementary to men". The activists demanded that a 1956 law that grants women full equality with men remained untouched.

Protesters in Tunis waved banners bearing slogans such as: "Rise up women for your rights to be enshrined in the constitution" and "Ghannouchi clear off, Tunisian women are strong", in reference to ruling Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda was banned under former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who was toppled in mass protests in 2011 that exploded into the Arab Spring.

Ennahda won the most seats in elections to a constituent assembly and formed a government in coalition with two secular parties.

Though Ennahda has promised not to introduce strict Islamic rules and to protect women's rights, activists denounced the wording of the constitutional draft. They fear changes could put back women's rights and public freedoms.

"Major retreats usually begin with one step," said Ahlam Belhadj, who chairs the Democratic Women's Association.

"If we stay silent, we will open the door to everything else and end up surprised by even more serious decisions," she said.