Tunisia: Feminist Fall?

Nine months after the overthrow of the former president, Tunisia has voted in the first open and fair election in the region. In the final part of a three part article Kristine Goulding argues that if a 'feminist fall' does not come to fruition, it will be because the citizens of Tunisia have shown democratically that feminism is not consummate on their agenda.

Kristine Goulding
25 October 2011

This is the third part of a three part article. (Read parts one and two.)

Structurally, Tunisia’s transitional government led by interim president Fouad Mebazza, interim prime minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, and minister of women's affairs Lilia Laabidi, seems to be making a concerted effort to ensure that women’s equality is and remains a key electoral concern. April’s gender parity law was just the beginning.

In September, Tunisia became the first country in the region to withdraw all its specific reservations to CEDAW, the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Tunisia has long registered objections to specific clauses of CEDAW on the grounds that they conflicted with Tunisian nationality and personal status codes. Withdrawing the reservations opens the door to the potential of an even more liberal family code, and will reverse a long-standing tradition of hypocrisy – signing a convention to demonstrate the country’s legitimacy and respectability but then excusing the government from some or all of its obligations.

A womans's hand with a blue-ink-stained index finger

The government too has undertaken a massive campaign to urge Tunisian women to vote.  The “I Must Go There” slogan has been launched via radio and Tunisian national TV channels to motivate women to vote on 23 October. “Our goal is to make women aware of their voting duty,” said Lilia Labidi. “Development is not possible without democracy and excluding women from the public sphere.” Labidi herself has undertaken a strenuous jet-setting lifestyle to publicize the women of Tunisia, making stops at the UN General Assembly in New York, the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and countless high-level meetings throughout Europe, the US and the Middle East.

Sadly, the government’s ad campaign and proud words come in response to a foreboding pragmatic development. The High Independent Authority for the Elections (ISIE), the body charged with registering Tunisians, establishing legitimate voter lists, and carrying out free elections on 23 October, announced that at the end of registration period in mid-August only 55 percent of the estimated voting population had actually registered. While 45 percent of those registered were women, observers were shocked that the numbers remained so low, even after the registration period was extended. And even more disturbing, less than 5 percent of the 1,600 lists entered by Tunisia’s myriad political parties are headed by women. While women make up 50 percent of the total list, by and large they have been excluded from leadership positions. Even the ISIE itself fell prey to this trap: of the 16 members, just two are women – although one woman has been elected as vice president.

Preliminary numbers following the elections appear to show better turnout results: according to many sources, more than nine in ten eligible Tunisians cast ballots between October 21st-23rd. "Among 4.1 million people registered, more than 90 percent have voted." Boubaker Ben Thabet, secretary general of the Independent High Authority for Elections in Tunis told reporters. Such turnout is utterly unprecedented, and was met with great acclaim throughout the country.

Yet troubling patterns showing reluctance to include women candidates in the elections have been mirrored on the ground throughout Tunisia. A qualitative study undertaken by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Tunis, Sfax, Gafsa and Medenine, revealed significant opposition to April’s gender parity decree. While both men and women consider women’s participation important to Tunisia’s future, the majority find the quota too high. Many participants pointed out that women have little experience in politics, and that candidates should be elected based on merit rather than gender. Said one young participant in Sfax, “When they [the transitional government] limit us like this it is not effective. We need people … who can do the work regardless of gender. What matters is competence.”

Identical concerns were voiced during interviews conducted throughout the country 2009 when Ben Ali still held power. While Tunisians value women’s voices in political decision-making processes, it is more important for most to have well-qualified candidates regardless of their gender. In 2009, many saw quotas as a heavy-handed approach used by the government to guide the results of the elections. The same is true in 2011. This attitude reveals an incongruity between political parties and the demands of the people. While all political parties (including al-Nahda) voted to approve the gender parity ruling, the decision apparently did not reflect the views of the population. Could this be seen as the beginning of another generation of disconnected political sycophants?

The study’s participants raise a valid concern regarding the credentials of female participants, especially in rural interior areas. Rural districts, including Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan and Silana were granted disproportionately high numbers of seats in the National Constituent Assembly to compensate for historical underrepresentation. At the same time, those districts have some of the country’s highest rates of illiteracy, between 26-30 percent – a number which is even higher among women, especially older women. In the interior governorates, 36 percent of all women are illiterate.

While literacy is certainly not the only measure of political qualification, the statistics do raise another dilemma. Attracting qualified and motivated female candidates will be challenging enough in the urban coastal governorates; the process will be even harder in the interior. Historically the majority of female politicians have been drawn from the urban bases of Tunis, Sousse, Sfax and Ben Arous, and only erratically have political training and empowerment workshops been made available to rural women. Until present there has been no unified effort to reach parochial populations. This trend raises doubts of the efficacy of the new quotas: will the gender parity policy facilitate the election of unqualified women, in the process undermining the goal of sustainable women’s empowerment? Could the policy further entrench inequalities between the cities and hinterland?

The clinching point to note is that Islamism, while a potential threat to women’s rights, is not the only threat. If a feminist fall does not come to fruition, it will not be because of the failure of the interim government and its policies; it will be because the people are not ready or willing. As under ex-president Ben Ali, the government and the political elite remain ahead of the man – and woman – on the street in conceptualizing women’s rights. The elections on 23 October will demonstrate the extent to which women’s rights have become part of the national discourse – and in the process, show who will have the last word, the politicians or the people.

The elections and beyond

The elections have underscored a curious tension in the women’s rights discourse: a conflict between a “thin” notion of participation and gender equity focused on mere numerical representation of women in politics, and a “thicker” notion of equality that includes access to jobs, decent income, participation in decision making, and bodily integrity. Universalised gender quotas and gender-equitable party lists are examples of the former, but the latter, a more substantive type of change which facilitates gender-egalitarian policy outcomes, is far more challenging – and beyond the scope of the gender parity ruling. Substantive gender-egalitarian change is about more than just numbers. Instigating change from the top down is a start, but fostering an underlying ideological transformation will require more than just quotas.

The greatest fear of the election is that a victorious Islamist party will prevent such a societal transformation from occurring. The old adage that Islamism and feminism are incompatible cannot be forgotten. But as is the case so often, politics, politicians and the media have tended to frame the complex issue of Islamism and gender in dichotomous terms: in the case of Tunisia, a history of liberalism, women’s rights and secularism, threatened by the spectre of an Islamic takeover. While the fault line between those who would like to see an Islamist form of governance and those who wish the continuance of secularism has divided the nascent democracy, religion cannot and should not be the only question asked at the polls.

Viewing the Islamism/secularism equation as “either/or” misses several important issues. It neglects the history of the Tunisian state – Islamism is and always has been a part of Tunisian society, and consequently Islamist parties are only reacting to pressure from their electoral bases. These are the same people who dismiss gender quotas as undemocratic and heavy-handed. It dismisses the dynamism of political parties and the political process – nascent and established parties themselves are not monolithic, and there is constant redefinition and debate within and outside political organizations. Most of all, it overlooks the wider stage on which these political trends are shifting with public opinion and international events – the larger Arab Spring, the transformative power of religious political movements and the ever-present spectre of the media.

As the dust of the elections starts to settle, it is clear that al-Nahda has claimed victory in Tunisia's landmark elections. Preliminary results indicate that the party has won the biggest share of votes, assuring it a strong say in future political processes. Party officials estimate that al-Nahda has taken at least 30 percent of the 217-seat National Constituent Assembly, and will therefore have the strongest voice in drafting the new constitution. Other estimates put the party's share from Sunday's vote closer to 50 percent. Official results are expected throughout the day today, but the overall outcome is clear: Islamists have won a huge victory in the first democratic election in Tunisia in half a century.

Yet no matter the outcome of the election, and despite the trepidations of many observers, the wheels of change have already been set in motion; substantive gender-egalitarian change has already begun. The past months have seen political parties of all stripes catering to their female constituents, courting them to become part of their lists – even outlier parties such as al-Nahda. The multitudes of parties have included cadres of women in their executive boards, and women across the political spectrum have stepped in front of cameras to represent their parties. With unheard of speed, it has become “normal” for women to be politicians. This mentality change cannot be reversed. During the last months, women have claimed many privileges that otherwise would have taken them years, and more and more women have expressed interest in the political sphere. Hopefully this interest will persevere.

Tunisia’s election will stand as an example to others in the region, both for its successes and its failures. Al-Nahda's success could boost other Islamist parties in north Africa and the middle east, which raises alarm ( and hope) for many observers. Yet luckily, for all the reasons that Tunisia led the Arab Spring uprisings – a strong sense of civic activism, a strong value of women’s rights, and a strong separation of politics and religion – the country is ideally positioned to deal with the aftermath of an open and free election, regardless of the winners. While a smooth transition is hardly guaranteed, and while the struggle for women’s rights is still uphill, Tunisia’s path to reform appears to be leading in the right direction.

This is the third part of a three part article. (Read parts one and two.)

To read related articles in openDemocracy50.50's debates click on Religion Gender Politics - prospects for gender equality and pluralism and Our Africa - a changing continent through women's eyes


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData