The Struggle for Female Political Participation in Tunisia

Considering that Tunisia has long been on the frontlines in gender politics, electoral lists for the parliamentary elections that took place on October 26 have proved a disappointment; female candidates led 11 percent of electoral lists. Given that women made up 50.5 percent of registered voters (up from 45 percent in October 2011), the low percentage of female candidates sparked outrage among female activists who had a leading role during the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and who, over the last three years, have stood steadfastly against trends that threatened to derail the democratic movement. Despite their increasing political participation and the constitutional and legislative protection for women’s political and civil rights (such as Article 24 of the Tunisian Electoral Law ensuring parity in electoral lists), Tunisian women find themselves almost excluded from “real” political opportunities.

Female human rights activists and members of civil society generally agree that this exclusion demonstrates what is called “duplicity of political discourse” and the marginalization of women’s political representation. They argue that political parties are unconvinced by the principle of parity and that they nominated women just to “fill in the blanks” in their electoral lists or to clean up their image in the eyes of national and international observers. Nominating three women at the head of Ennahda’s electoral lists in foreign countries while nominating only one figure, Deputy President of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) Mehrezia Labidi, to lead only one of its local electoral lists, is a disingenuous attempt to showcase the Islamic political movement’s “betting on the leadership abilities of women,” intending to “deliver the image that the West wants to see from a “modern” Islamic party.”

Equally important, statistics show that female political participation is remarkably lower in the interior regions than the coastal ones—particularly surprising given that voter registration among women in the interior governorates is higher than for men. The exclusionary stance is particularly clear, for example, in the Tataouine governorate located in southern Tunisia, where female candidates led no electoral lists, despite the fact that vertical parity and alternation was guaranteed by the Fundamental Law 16/2014 on Elections and Referenda, enacted in May 2014. Although gender parity and alternation of nominees was respected, political parties abused the alternation rule by having a man at the head of every nine-member-list, effectively ensuring a larger number of male nominees (89 percent of all lists contained five men versus four women).

Unfortunately, the absence of “real” political representation of Tunisian women was not restricted to electoral lists. Men also dominated the media exposure discussing the 2014 elections. According to The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), every candidate had three minutes on a national channel to deliver his/her electoral program. However, even those TV sessions provided for candidates to briefly present their electoral programs were male-dominated programs, obstructing womens’ opportunity to demonstrate their political leadership skills. “Unless [there is an] impediment, only the head of list can present its political program on national media,” said ISIE. Accordingly, women only enjoyed 11 percent or less of national media time.

What’s the alternative?

Some Tunisian women, specifically those who experienced politics from within as members of the NCA, assert that the prevailing mindset of Tunisian society explains the suppression of women leaders. In a research conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on female political participation in Tunisia after the revolution, February 17-28, 2012, “the overwhelming majority of male respondents, regardless of age or region, said they are more comfortable having a man for a boss because they could not accept taking orders from a woman.” Moreover, “in describing their households, participants only tended to acknowledge divisions of labor with women mainly involving child rearing, cooking and cleaning, while men provided financial support and made decisions at the family level”. Unfortunately, “this division of roles was not necessarily regarded as negative; many women expressed pride in fulfilling traditional duties.” For this reason above all, women only reluctantly engage in politics and run for office. They doubt their ability to equally fulfill private and public roles and, more importantly, fear the political smear campaigns that most politicians and public figures face. Hence, women opt for civic engagement in Tunisia because of its charitable and voluntary characteristic as a means of refuting extremist attempts to isolate them from public life.

For the last three years, female activists and their proponents have led waves of protests against reactionary trends to defend their hard-won gains guaranteed by the Tunisian Code of Personal Status and the 1956 Constitution. Since 1956, Tunisian women have had the right to suffrage, divorce, and access to abortion, before other Arab—and even some European countries. Tunisian laws guarantee gender equality, prevent polygamy, and repudiation of wives by their husbands, set compulsory education for children of both genders from the age of 6 to 15, permit family planning, and legalize contraception.

In fact, some of this year’s male presidential candidates are relying on the most motivated and influential women of their entourage to plan and co-lead their electoral campaigns, employing their powerful management skills and strong personalities. The Republican Party’s honorary president, Ahmed Najib Chebbi, for instance, relies on Maya Jribi, the party’s president and the head of the list of the Ben Arous governorate, to strengthen his position as a presidential candidate. Also, Noureddine Hached, an independent syndicalist, candidate for presidency, announced (during the celebration of National Women’s Day, August 13, 2014) that a panel of highly professional women are working hard to prepare his political program at the Farhat Hached Institute and that these women, among others such as Anissa El Materi (his wife) and Emna Hached (known as Oum al-Kheyr Hached, his mother) have impressed and inspired him to become a leader.

Bearing in mind that leaders are made, not born, and believing in their ability to have impact, Tunisian women and girls have decided to bring about change through social and civic engagement. From the south to the north, civil society in Tunisia—a burgeoning landscape of non-governmental organizations, associations, and prominent female business leaders—has successfully created change in relation to women’s rights and liberties as it played an essential role in constitutionalizing gender equality and parity principles. The Association of Democratic Women affirms that it has played a crucial role in institutionalizing women’s rights over at least at two phases. First, in 2012 it organized an NCA model, which proposed potential articles on women’s rights, distributed to all NCA members. Second, it cooperated with the Women’s Alliance to push the NCA to adopt the proposed articles and to disclaim the “complementarily principle” between men and women—a separate but equal stance—promoted by reactionary trends to women’s political participation.

Undoubtedly, the leading role played by Tunisian women and girls in civil society will shape the future of female political engagement in Tunisia. It will open up the space for more direct political participation through shaping women’s characters and equipping them to become decision makers. However, this will require that Tunisian society not only truly believes in female political leadership, but that it invests in it.

Afràa Fdhil is a research student at the Faculty of Legal, Political, and Social Sciences of Tunis in Carthage. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AfraFdhil.

Image: An Ennahda movement supporter shouts slogans during a campaign event at Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis October 24, 2014. Tunisia held parliamentary elections on October 26. (Photo: REUTERS/Anis Mili)