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Since women gained suffrage in 1959, the Tunisian government has been a decisive player in creating and maintaining space for the women’s movement.  The politics of Tunisia function within a framework of a republic organized under a constitution with a president serving as head of state and a Prime Minister as head of government.

Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries to react positively to the call of the United Nations for the implementation of government mechanisms to address gender equality1. The government an agent of change spearheaded a number of initiatives such as the abolishment of polygamy and repudiation to promote gender equity and women’s rights.

The Ben Ali government banned all forms of discrimination towards women’s political participation and initiated positive discrimination measures at all level of government. The previous government had the most women in the region. Women have played a key role in Tunisian society, representing 26% of the working population, 50% of students, 29% of magistrates, 24% of the Tunisian diplomatic corp2 and 27.6% of parliament (59 of 214). While women have been integrated into the most consultative structures, their proportions remain less than their ambitions both at the central and regional level. As of 2007, there were only two women minister, five women secretaries of state, and one women advisor to the President, one women governor, as well as several prominent permanent positions for women in the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs3.

Although women led the last legislative elections in 2009 a UN-STRAW & CAWTAR documentary that covered the political course of seven key candidates identified a lack of political will. Under President Ben Ali, the RCD initiated a voluntary quota system (25%) in local and municipal councils. Unfortunately this voluntary quota applied only to the RCD candidate list4 and did not reflect the rapidly expanding political participation of Tunisian women.

On April 11, 2011 the constituent assembly of Tunisia made history by passing a gender parity bill. A first in the region the bill declared that men and women must feature in equal numbers as candidates on the electoral list. The bill acknowledged the work of Tunisian women and awarded them an equal opportunity to participate in the country’s new, post-revolution electoral system.

Whilst it may appear self-explanatory that women be given an equal chance to contribute to the political construction of a new state, the recent elections have only partially recognized the work and rights of women to be part of the new government.

On Sunday 23 October Tunisa held elections to elect a 217-member constituent assembly that would be charged with drafting a new constitution within a year and chart the countries transition. Prior to the election there appeared to be some doubts on the foundation of the gender parity law. The registration of the Islamist An-Nahda movement caused additional ripples as a result of a speculations that the party would backtrack on women’s rights by refusing to review the discriminatory personal status laws. A statement later refused by the leader of the party.

The gender parity law was suppose to facilitate women’s inclusion in the electoral process by ensuring women play a key part in the drafting of Tunisia’s next constitution. Close to 4,000 women ran for the first time in the election for one of the 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly. In spite of the list and the recent gender equity law, women’s actual representation in the new assembly will not reflect their proportion of the national population. Women headed only 7% of more than 1,500 candidate lists5 and only one woman was given the chance to lead a political party (Maya Jribi-PDP Party)6.

The election resulted in a majority vote for the An-Nahda party7 that has pledged to uphold women’s rights. Presently 42 of the 49 women elected to the constituency assembly are from the Islamist party. Despite the role women played during the protests, the transitional government only has two female ministers8.

Parity is one thing but the reality is different, women are still not seen as a priority on the party platform. Whilst acknowledging the weaknesses of the gender parity law in practice one must also recognize its achievement however marginal. It has heightened interest in politics among women and it has allowed women to contribute to a nascent democracy but and has resulted in the largest % of women elected to a national body in the Arab World.

Although there appears to be no exact figure available of the number of women registered to vote a monitoring project undertaken by Gender Concern International (2011) observed that there was a massive presence of women from all social and professional backgrounds at the poling stations.

However an analysis of the role of female political participation in Tunisia revealed two core concerns: institutional obstacles (disparities between law and practice) and cultural obstacles rooted in society. There appeared to be a consistent lack of communication and information. Women cannot demand their rights without knowing their rights. Women came burdened with children, and in some cases were unable to read the voting ballet and were offered little assistance. While a number of women concluded only after getting to the voting station that they were not registered and unable to voice their opinion.

 It is too early to fully understand the outcome of the elections of October 23, but the women of Tunisia appear prepared to defend their rights to political representation as illustrated by the number of Tunisian women demonstrating on Wednesday November 2, 2011. The equity bill may have emphasized the rightful legal position of women by placing them in the spotlight but women are still not proportionally represented on the political stage. Whilst acknowledging the weaknesses of the gender parity law in practice one must also recognize its achievement however marginal. It has heightened interest in politics among women and it has allowed women to contribute to a nascent democracy but and has resulted in the largest % of women elected to a national body in the Arab World.

A lot of work is still necessary to close the gender gap as stated by a candidate for the Takkatul Party, Bushra Balhaj Hmeida “women can make politics more human” if they are given the chance and included equally in the construction of a new state. Proponents of the An-Nahda party have some women’s group worried that the party may be holding a double discourse. The future actions of the coalition government on family law, and women’s rights at large will define the role women come to play on the political stage.

Conclusion:

A recent article on the Aljazeera (2011) website states “ Tunisians finally have an independent, elected body that reflects their diversity and represents their voice” yet the new government appears to have failed to equally represent women. However it must be recognized that the new assembly has a higher percentage of women that France, Belgium, Ireland, the UK and the US. 42/49 female members are from the Islamist Ennahdha Party and a woman has just been appointed Vice-President of the Assembly.


This new government a large coalition of a number of parties provides a unique opportunity for the pursuit of women’s rights by including a wide spectrum of views and political ideologies that could spearhead progress in the domain of women’s rights. It still too early to understand the outcome of the elections but any efforts made of the coalition government must be followed by actions that demonstrate genuine commitment to women’s status as full and equal to their male counterparts.

The Islamist Party has pledged it would elevate a decades-old gender equality status to basic law, a promise that it can uphold by making the Personal Status Code legally binding. The coming months will be both a challenge and experience with Women’s Groups and organizations monitoring the transformation of the Personal Status Code which could be threatened by the introduction
of Sharia Law.
 

Election Outcome: 

The major Tunisian parties are busy putting the finishing touches on the first democratic government in the nation’s history. The Islamist party Hizb Ennahda will get the most important positions, including the coveted post of prime minister.

Hemadi Jabali from the Tunisian’s moderate Islamist Party (Ennahda) was named the country’s new prime minister. He has now been tasked with constructing a new government.

In a recent interview to France 24 Hemadi Jabali promised to guarantee that Ennahda will be at the forefront of the fight to guarantee women’s rights in all fields – politically, socially and professionally. The members of the coalition government and primarily Ennahda will affirm the rights of women through the constitution, through legislation and above all through our actions.”

Only time will tell whether the Ennahda party under the leadership of Hemadi Jabali will fullfill its' promise. Putting forward Souad Abderrahim a 46 year old pharmacist, one of the three women from the party's candidate list for the position of President of the National Assembly, would demonstrate the parties commitment to ensuring women's political representation at the national level. 
 
 

 


Women Political Representation Statistics

Political Representation

Prior-to the election

After-the elections

National (upper house/senate)

15.3% (2005)

 

N/A (only decided in next elections)

Local (lower/single house)

22.8% (2004)

58/217 or 26.7%

% of candidate lists headed by a female candidate

N/A

7% (number varied from 3% on independent lists and 7% on party lists) 
Maximum 2-3 per party list 

Parliament

27.6% or 59/214 (2010)

N/A

Constituency Assembly (part of the transitional government-charged with re-writing the constitution and organizing the next elections)

N/A

22.5% or 49/217

(Source: Compilation of UN Statistics and Inter-parliamentary union)

 

1 United Nations . (2011, 06 30). In Egypt, Tunisia and Elsewhere, Women Are in Vanguard of Demanding Change. Retrieved 10 10, 2011 from United Nations Secretary-General : http;//www.un.org/News/Press?docs/2011/sgsm13685.doc.htm

3 UNDP Fast Facts-Tunisia + Gender Inequality Index UN Statistics (SIGI)

4 Goulding, K. (2010). The Quandary of Gender Quotas in Tunisia: Representations and Perceptions at the Local Level. UN-INSTRAW, CAWTAR.

UNDP Project to Promote and Encourage Female Political Participation in Tunisia: http://arabstates.undp.org/subpage.php?spid=10

Retrieved 10 25, 2011 from Ensemble Pour L'Egalite: http://www.womenpoliticalparticipation.org

 

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