Tunis, Tunisia – Ten years ago, Tunisian women took to the streets to help overthrow the autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after nearly 20 years in power and, for some, to denounce the patriarchal nature of the Tunisian political sphere.
“During the 2011 uprising, we dreamed big,” longtime women’s rights activist Neila Zoghlami recalls with nostalgia.
“We dreamed of equal representation. We dreamed that we would become full citizens, not only charged with the duties of men, but also endowed with their rights … we dreamed that we could finally create a real space for women in politics.
Now general secretary of the Tunisian Feminist Association of Democratic Women, Zoghlami says that despite great progress in the right direction, her dream remains unfulfilled, as political commitment and women’s representation have started to erode. .
On the eve of the Tunisian revolution, despite several decades of “state feminism” initiated by former President Habib Bourguiba upon his independence from France in 1956 and perpetuated by the repressive regime of Ben Ali, the policy has unquestionably remained a world of men.
At first glance, the Tunisian parliament was made up of a large number of women. After the introduction of gender quotas on the electoral roll, women won 28% of the seats in the 2009 legislative elections – a larger share than in the US House of Representatives in 2021.
But under the guise of growing representation, Ben Ali had instrumentalized women for political gain, said Hela Omrane, 34, a former MP elected in 2014.
“It was just a public relations exercise for the regime,” she told Al Jazeera.
For Omrane, the revolution was an opportunity for women to truly engage in politics, and not just to be used as “ornaments”.
Certainly, 10 years later, women have successes to celebrate.
“After the uprising, a large number of women who had never been politically engaged, never even been on social networks because they were afraid of the Ben Ali regime, found themselves mobilizing politically, to involve in civil society and encourage others to vote in a spontaneous movement across the country, ”recalled Bochra Belhaj Hmida, lawyer, politician and prominent Tunisian feminist who led legislation for women’s rights in parliament between 2014 and 2019.
Since then, political mobilization has earned women several historic victories.
As voters, women demonstrated their political influence more clearly in the 2014 presidential election, when a million women voted for Beji Caid Essebsi of the newly formed secular and centrist party Nidaa Tounes, helping her to achieve victory.
In 2012, women parliamentarians defeated an attempt by members of the Islamist Ennahdha party to enshrine the “complementarity” of women to men, instead of “equality”, in the country’s new constitution.
In 2017, landmark legislation on violence against women included provisions against preventing women’s entry into politics.
Women won an unprecedented 47% of seats in local elections in 2018.
However, in recent years, women’s political involvement and representation has declined in Tunisia.
The trend was particularly clear during the legislative elections of 2019, in which only 36% of registered Tunisian women voted – 10% less than men – and only 22% of seats were won by women, or 10% of the vote. less than in 2014.
“From 2011 to 2014, even in rural areas, women maintained an unprecedented interest in politics, following the debates closely on television,” said Dorra Mahfoudh, a longtime sociologist and feminist activist who was part of the transitional authority after the uprising, Jazeera.
“But over the years, and while the revolution’s promises have not been kept, their political commitment has eroded.
Fleeing the elections
For Belhaj Hmida, many older women felt betrayed when the government elected in 2014 failed to completely defeat Ennahdha.
Many young women, she added, do not consider themselves represented by any party in parliament today.
“No one really speaks to them, in their language, about the issues that interest them – so they avoid elections,” she said.
Sonia Ben Miled, a 28-year-old activist and communications manager for feminist NGO Aswat Nissa, said that in rural areas this disengagement is compounded by recurring obstacles, such as women struggling to access transport and often lack the identity papers required to vote. .
The 2019 election also saw a significant drop in the representation of women in parliament; with only 5% of women on the electoral lists, they lost around 30 seats.
“There were perhaps more women in parliament in 2009, but at least now these women are democratically elected, they are legitimate,” Mahfoudh said.
Beyond the reluctance of political parties to include women on their electoral lists, Ben Miled said the disappointing figures were also in part a result of the persistent patriarchal and misogynistic nature of the Tunisian political sphere.
“There is still a glass ceiling for Tunisian women in politics today. This prompts some to quit smoking, ”said Ben Miled.
“You only have to look at the composition of the party’s political offices, parliamentary committees or even the government to see that women are strongly under-represented in decision-making positions.
The allocation of ministries also respects outdated gender stereotypes, she added.
“You will never see a woman running the interior or defense ministries – these are always the prerogative of men. Women hardly ever get the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Verbal violence has also increasingly become a deterrent for women considering entering politics.
“In 2014 there was a real drive for inclusiveness – we were trying to build democracy,” Zoghlami said.
“But today, women’s participation in politics is met with increasingly violent rhetoric.”
Many denounced the verbal abuse they suffered on social media, often targeted at their personal lives and families.
“At first, it was not easy for me to come to terms with the backlash that each of my media appearances would cause just because I am a woman who works in politics. But I think it was even more difficult for my family, ”said Omrane.
According to Belhaj Hmida, as a result of these trends, “there is no feminism in parliament today, no progressive voices”.
At the same time, she said the links between parliament and civil society organizations defending women’s rights have started to erode and all that remains in parliament are “backward views” on the role of women in politics.
Notably, last December, parliamentarian Mohamed Afess, of the conservative al-Karama coalition, criticized the rights of women in parliament.
In an infamous speech that angered civil society, he claimed that advances in women’s rights have tainted the honor of women and that what people call women’s freedom is in fact debauchery and a lack of virtue.
After Afess’s speech, Zoghlami confessed that she had lost all confidence in the ability of parliamentarians to safeguard the rights for which women had fought since the revolution.
“With this new parliament, women are back to square one,” echoed Omrane, who joined politics in 2012 in reaction to Ennahda’s push for the “complementarity” of women.
In stark contrast, Belhaj Hmida said she was happy that Afess’s views were broadcast.
“Look at the uproar he caused – it was encouraging,” she said, referring to the lawsuits that several civil society organizations have brought against the parliamentarian.
“Call me a naive optimist, but I think it’s a good thing we’re having this conversation out loud: muzzling that kind of talk wouldn’t allow us to overcome it as a society.”
‘The fight goes on’
Many have said that reducing the issue to a dichotomy between progressive feminists and patriarchal Islamists is unnecessary and even misleading.
One of the main causes of concern for Zoghlami today is the continued instrumentalization of women in politics by parties of all ideological backgrounds.
“The situation has not changed much compared to the Ben Ali regime,” she said.
For Belhaj Hmida, “the so-called progressive parties take a stand for women’s rights only when it suits them. They instrumentalize women and women’s rights like everyone else.
Even before the revolution, progressives and opposition parties always told her: “Women’s rights are not the priority, now is not the time,” she said.
“Today, when ‘progressive’ political parties want to fight Islamists and conservatives, they suddenly become more feminists than the feminists themselves. But it’s just for the show, ”she added.
“The rest of the time they try to divide us by pushing us into a constant state of competition for a small number of positions, instead of fighting with us for more parity.
As a result, there is little cooperation between political parties among women in parliament.
“Women and their political rights are a pawn on the political spectrum. It’s disheartening, ”said Ben Miled.
To reverse this logic, in 2012 her NGO Aswat Nissa launched the Women’s Political Academy, which has trained over 200 sitting and aspiring politicians and community leaders under the age of 35 on how to mainstream gender issues. gender in public policy and working across party lines to advance women’s rights.
Meanwhile, looking back on her dream a decade after the revolution, Zoghlami said that despite the difficulties, she was not yet ready to throw in the towel.
“We are still a long way from equal representation today, but we have won battles since the revolution, and the struggle to ensure the place of women in politics continues,” she said.
“We believe in a better Tunisia and a better tomorrow.”