Women struggle to run even in progressive Tunisia

AP News
Posted: Oct 21, 2011 3:51 PM
Women struggle to run even in progressive Tunisia

The new constituent assembly that will emerge from Tunisia's landmark elections this weekend will, without a doubt, have one of the highest percentages of female members of any Middle Eastern parliament.

But for the female activists of Tunisia, which has long distinguished itself from the rest of the Arab world for its progressive policies of equality, it is not enough.

The laws governing Tunisia's first free elections as an independent state mandate that every electoral list must include half women, but only 6 percent of the more than a 1,000 lists are actually headed by women.

Since in many cases only the first person in each list will gain a seat, the new elected body that will write the country's constitution will doubtlessly be still heavily weighted towards men.

"It is a sad record," the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said in a statement before Sunday's election, deploring the lack of female leaders on the electoral lists.

"Political society has not yet reached the level of our ambitions," said the association's leader, Sana Ben Achour, a judge.

Tunisia is one of the few Arab countries where women have long been allowed into the hallowed ranks of the judiciary and are prominent in medicine, education, government and even the security forces. Women make up 55 percent of university students.

Even if the constituent assembly has just 20 to 30 percent female members, it would still be way ahead of parliaments in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco or elsewhere that have only a handful of female members.

In 1956, independence leader Habib Bourguiba promulgated a personal status code that was revolutionary for the region, outlawing polygamy, giving women a say in divorce and mandating equality of the sexes.

Even with Tunisia's progressive history, however, the parties are taking no chances in these elections in case women are not as electable as men.

"There is the obligation of getting results," said Nejib Chebbi, the founder of the Progressive Democratic Party. "Parity is one thing, but the reality is another."

His front-running secular party has presented itself as the guardian of the nation's secular values against Islamist candidates, yet the PDP only has three of its lists headed by women, even though the head of the party is a woman as well.

"We have a lot of work to do to address this gap," party leader Maya Jribi said, adding that part of the fault lies in women themselves for not taking leadership roles.

"Our goal, above all, is to win the elections," she said.

Most of the main parties have just two to four lists with women on the top out of the 33 electoral districts.

The sole exception is the Modern Democratic Axis, an alliance of small leftist and independent candidates that is the only group to comply with the letter and the spirit of the election law by putting women at the top of half of their electoral lists.

The Islamist Ennahda Party, which has said it supports the equality of women and the country's personal status code, has just three women, including Souad Abdel Rahim, a pharmacist who does not wear the Islamic headscarf and is running in the capital, Tunis.

Youssra Ghannouchi, the daughter of the party's founder, said it is difficult convincing people that women can lead as well, largely because when they were present in politics, it tended to be as quota appointments under the dictatorship.

She said, however, that this could change over time as people become more used to them in politics.

"They don't have much experience in politics in the past, but women in Tunisia have been active in civil society and trade unions, so there is an important basis on which they can build on the future," she told The Associated Press.

The challenges for female candidates are even more severe in the country's conservative heartland.

"In the interior, there is a total lack of women in the social and political spheres," said Mounira Allawi, a candidate on the list for the leftist Democratic Movement Party in Kasserine, in the arid center of the country.

With short coifed hair and a business suit, Allawi would not look out of place in the more cosmopolitan capital, but she said in her home region "there is only a minority of women who want to participate, most are indifferent."

While few women on the streets of Kasserine wear the Islamic headscarf so prevalent in countries like Morocco and Egypt, it is still more than on the capital. Allawi said that religion plays a bigger part in people's beliefs in the interior.

The new assembly will write the country's constitution and groups like the Association of Democratic Women worry that their long-held rights may not be explicitly protected in the new document.

"There are still pockets of resistance" in people's mentalities, said Hamma Hammami of the Tunisian Workers Communist Party.

"There are still men who can't stand having a woman on the list," he said.