Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tunisian Women in politics

This photo shows women from Tunisian party AFAQ registering their candidacy at the high election committee's office in the town of Monastir

Tunisia is preparing for its first elections since a revolution ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With only a few weeks to go before polls open, dozens of newly formed parties are taking their first steps towards democracy. As campaign season gears up, Tunisian women are making their presence felt. Recently I followed four Tunisian women who submitted their candidacies in the seaside city of Monastir. This is their story:

Neyla Charchour is no stranger to Tunisian politics. In 2002, she set up the Liberal Mediterranean Party, promoting her views using a blog and the party’s website. When her party attracted the attention of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she was interrogated by the police, her internet was cut off, and her husband was jailed for ten months on trumped up charges, she says.

Today, in a post-revolutionary Tunisia, Charchour is back in politics. She says that while Civil Society organizations play an important role, she felt it was necessary to reenter politics in order to make her voice heard

“Bringing your ideas into laws, make them come true, not only keep them as an idea. When you want parity between men and women, it needs laws, and if you wants laws to be adopted, you need to go through a party,” Charchour says.

On a Wednesday morning in early September, the last day for those running in the election to submit their candidacies, Charchour sets out from the capital Tunis with fellow members of her economically liberal Afaq, or Horizon party, to their hometown of Monastir. One of those fellow party members is Meriem Bourguiba.

Bourguiba is the granddaughter of Habib Bourguiba, who became Tunisia’s first President after being one of the leaders to win Tunisia’s independence from the French. He cultivated ties with the West, upheld secular principles, and put in place Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, a law which came into effect in 1957 and which aimed to institute equality between men and women. In the words chosen by himself for his mausoleum, Bourguiba liberated the women of Tunisia.

Bourguiba says that her grandfather’s vision for Tunisia, one defined by pragmatic approaches to solving Tunisia’s problems, is just what the country needs as the country finds its footing following the revolution.

“Pragmatism: This is the ideology that works for Tunisia, pragmatism. What you need is the hot issues have to be dealt with, beyond any ideology,” she says. “And we see it today, the people cannot wait. They want a job and they want to eat, and without those two, even democracy cannot prevail,” says Bourguiba.

However, with over 105 political parties registered following the ouster of Ben Ali, there are a multitude of diverse ideologies competing for a voice, with everything from communists to capitalists and everything in between.

One party making its presence felt on the Tunisian political scene is the Islamist party Ennahda. An August poll conducted by the state news agency TAP shows Ennahda way ahead, with 23% support, followed by the Progressive Democratic party, with 9% support. The winners of the October 23rd elections will participate in a constituent assembly with a mandate to write a new constitution for Tunisia, a system designed by the interim government in a decision referred to as Kasbah 2.

These numbers trouble Henda Fennira Ben Fadhel, another Afaq woman registering her candidacy for the first time. She fears that if they win, Islamists will work towards reversing the Code of Personal Status.

“I have three girls, and after Kasbah 2, I had the feeling that the organization of the Islamists and the decision to go for a constitution in which these guys will have a hand in and a say in, made me feel like my girls are in danger,” Ben Fadhel says.

Many in Tunisia worry that the elections are not going to be the free and open elections that they hope for. Some accuse ex-regime figures of trying to foment instability; others say foreign money is being funneled in to influence the elections. However, the women say they must stay optimistic.

“If it doesn’t happen on the 24th of October, what we can say is ‘we tried.’ We’ll have tried. We didn’t stay on the fence. And in ten, fifteen years time, our children, her daughters will ask us the question and we’ll say ‘we tried,’ says Bourguiba.

In a sunlit conference room in Monastir with high walls, two secretaries accept documents from Charchour as the candidates make last minute calls to find out the exact names of relatives to fill out elections forms. After handing in the forms and getting their candidacy documents stamped, there is a round of handshakes among the women, with congratulations going first from the older ladies in the group to the youngest, Amira Laajimi, 25, for her first foray into politics. The event is quickly followed by a family photo full of grins. As the process winds down, Charchour looks across the table to Ben Fadhel and says in English “We did it.”

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