On April 11, 2011, on a recommendation of the Council of the Tunisian High Commission for the Fulfillment of the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, the transitional authorities in Tunisia passed a revolutionary law. It institutes total parity, and provides that all candidate lists must include alternating male and female candidates for the upcoming constituent assembly election, to be held on October 23, 2011.
Many Tunisian and foreign observers applauded the initiative and expected a high number of women to be members of the constituent assembly. However, to most Tunisians’ surprise, only 5% of women candidates from the total of 10,937 candidates head the 1,424 lists scattered throughout the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. This could seriously reduce the chances of electing a respectable number of women to the constituent parliament and thus decreases the chances of writing a new, gender-sensitive constitution.
Many Tunisians perceived the gender parity law as a natural measurement following the massive and active role of women in the revolution. Others felt uncomfortable that such a law was granted by the political elite and not strongly demanded by the women. Catherine Ashton, the spokesperson of the EU High Representative, argued that such a law "demonstrates that Tunisia intends to ensure full participation of women in political life" adding that "Tunisia can be a beacon of innovation in the region and beyond".
Such a “revolutionary” law is not the first of its kind in the history of modern Tunisia. Tunisia has long had the most progressive personal status code (laws aimed at redressing gender balance) in the region, prohibiting polygamy and giving women equal rights with regard to marriage and divorce. Remarkably, the code of personal status was adopted in 1956 just after independence, even before drafting the constitution.
Tunisians generally consider the code of personal status as a major achievement of the first republic, and can only but agree to the fact that it has deeply changed the norms associated with women’s position in society and within marriage. Tunisian women's rights to education, employment and family planning are highly accepted and valued in urban and rural areas.
Tunisian women's participation in the political scene has long been stigmatized by a quota system - 27.6% of the members of parliament “elected” in 2009 were women. But Ben Ali, the ousted president, was often perceived to be increasing the women's quota in parliament as a mere façade for democracy.
When discussing the new electoral law in the Council of the Tunisian High Commission for the Fulfillment of the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, back in March 2011, women activists from outside of the council convinced the members that unless the electoral law protects women's rights some conservative religious parties may oppose more rights for women and may advocate the rollback of gains already made. Many Tunisians fear the Islamist al-Nahda movement, allowed to register as a political party in March. Would the al-Nahda party have voted against parity, it would have proved that it is unfit for democracy and have outcast itself from the democratic transition process. However, to many Tunisians’ surprise, al-Nahda voted in favour of the gender parity law and adopted the general argument that it is vital that all political actors stand firm on the progress already achieved for women in Tunisia.
Unfortunately, the general consensus that women's rights are not to be violated but strengthened did not straightforwardly translate into women heading candidate lists in either party or individual lists. Party leaders often declare that they have nothing against the full participation of women in the political arena but they seemed to prioritize winning the elections over giving an equal chance for women full participation.
As the proportional representation election system adopted for the election of the constituent assembly prevents any party from winning a high majority, the party leaders find it safe to appoint men at the head of candidate lists and “fill in” the lists with men and women equally, thus respecting the gender parity law. The political elite seem to hesitate on considering women's participation in the constituent assembly as vital, and many think that they can protect women’s rights without necessarily electing equal numbers of men and women in the assembly. There seems to be a general belief that Tunisian women have already achieved a lot since 1956, and that the struggle right now is to guarantee and protect such acquired women rights rather than get new ones.
Many Tunisian men voice their concern that Tunisian women are not ready to fully participate in the political arena and that they need to get ready first before claiming any major roles in politics. Surprisingly, they often forget that the majority of Tunisian men are not ready for politics either. For 23 years, the ex-ruling party monopolised all real political action in a handful of the president's advisers and prevented the majority from gaining the necessary expertise. The majority of Tunisians, including the parties in opposition, were more like a group of athletes who spent their lives in a gymnasium without ever having the chance to lift any weights.
But for now the Tunisian activists who fought for equality have much work to do in order to turn gender parity into practice and promote more women politicians. Building a sustainable democracy requires a balanced political participation and representation. Many hope that the constituent assembly will not only write a gender-sensitive constitution but specifically write a constitution that matches the real needs and aspirations of the Tunisian women and society. Civil society is expected to play a major role in conveying women's needs and wants to the assembly, especially now that after the revolution a plethora of new associations have been born.
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