Tunisia may end up with an all-male parliament – by design
President Kais Saied has made it harder for women to run for office, reversing a decade of gains from gender quotas
Tunisia will go to the polls tomorrow in an election that could produce an all-male parliament.
That outcome would be no accident: recent changes to electoral laws have made it nearly impossible for women to compete in politics.
“People in my area trusted me because they know I don’t belong to any party,” says Monia Abid, a 58-year-old mother of three who lives in La Goulette, a fishing district near the capital, Tunis. After years of community work and organising, first as a member of the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party, and then in the leftist Popular Front Coalition, Abid decided to run for office for the first time in this election. However, her candidature was rejected after she failed to collect the 400 signatures required for nomination.
In an election where the role of political parties has been deliberately reduced and candidates have been required to self fund, or at least privately finance, their campaigns, a successful run for office is beyond the reach of many women, who remain dependent upon husbands and male family members in a society labelled by many feminists as deeply patriachal. Yet that’s not the only hurdle
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The failure to win nomination stung, coming as it did just as Abid was preparing to re-engage with public life after more than a decade.
In 2011, she had retreated from public life, following a “takeover” of the political space by the self-styled “Muslim Democrats” party Ennahdha, which won a landslide in the country’s first post-revolutionary elections. Ennahdha continued to dominate the country’s politics until the Tunisian parliament, widely perceived as ineffective and locked in sometimes violent internecine squabbles among its members, was eventually suspended by president Kais Saied as part of what has been described as his coup d’etat of July 2021, before being dissolved in its entirety in March.
Saied has since dramatically refashioned the country’s democratic systems according to a template he had devised long before entering politics. In September, he changed Tunisia’s electoral law, sidelining political parties – which he blamed for a legislative log jam and whose existence he saw as a barrier between the people and power – and instead creating what he framed as a presidential regime. However, by placing the emphasis firmly on individuals, the new legislation made it harder for women even to run for office, let alone win.
With no public financing available, female candidates face a particularly difficult situation. Activists within Tunisia describe the country as a deeply patriarchal society, and many women “have less access to finances than men,” said Sana Ghenima, head of Femmes et Leadership – a non-profit civic association that promotes women’s political participation. “Women are left to their own devices. Without a party supporting their candidacies, they struggle to gather signatures,” she added.
As part of his electoral reforms, Saied also removed quotas for women candidates that helped Tunisia make gains toward gender parity in its legislature. Until the parliament’s suspension, Tunisia’s election laws required political parties to alternate the members of their candidate lists between men and women, and to have half of their lists headed by a woman. They were seen as a natural progression from the country’s landmark 2014 constitution, which declared that men and women had “equal rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination”.
However, for Saturday’s vote, just 11.5% of the 1,058 candidates for the 161-member parliament are women, according to Tunisia’s election commission. Even fewer are expected to win.
Female candidates faced frequent unethical demands (realistic or otherwise) to bribe voters with money and municipal permits if elected.
Tunisia’s commitment to women’s rights has always been viewed with scepticism by activists within the country. The gender parity law, passed in 2017, was rarely observed by the country’s parties, with Ennahda going the furthest towards meeting its quota.
Landmark legislation making a specific offence of violence against women, also passed in 2017, has failed to take root in either courts or police, with the problem of marital rape, beatings and femicide still characterised as widespread by organisations such as HRW – though specific statistics remain thin on the ground.
Thouraya Sethom, another female politician who failed to secure nomination, made a dismal prediction for the 122 women running for election: “11.5% women candidates means 2% or 3% elected.”
Sethom, a divorced mother of two, said that the nomination process typically saw her political rivals either promising or withholding building permits in exchange for endorsement – even though elected representatives legally would not have the power to make good on such promises and threats.
The 50-year-old teacher has made a name for herself in Mamurah, a coastal town in north-eastern Tunisia, as well as in the region as a whole. She is known for her campaigns for human rights, as well as her work on women’s and children’s causes, and the environment. Even this record of civic activism wasn’t enough. “I’m well known in my whole province,” she said. “I believed in democracy and integrity. I was wrong.”
Unlike Abid, Sethom saw the revolution of 2011 as a source of hope for Tunisian democracy. It was the year Tunisia held its first democratic election after the mass protests that came to be called the ‘Arab Spring’ toppled autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his kleptocratic circle.
In the 2011 Constituent Assembly, whose members were pulled from across Tunisia’s society to draft a new constitution, Sethom ran as part of the Doustourna Network, a civic association born in the aftermath of the revolution. Though she lost, Sethom felt there was still reason to believe in a democratic future.
However, in the current round, denied the support of a political party, she could not even get her name on the ballot paper.
Sethom says that her rivals bribed voters and observers told her “things like ‘you’re too honest’, ‘you’re not suitable for politics’, ‘stay in the civil society’.”
“It’s a masquerade. They are mainly male crooks,” Sethom said of the candidates who now dominate the electoral field.
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