Tunisia: Women's uphill struggle

Tunis - The status of women in Tunisia has for decades been among the most advanced in the Arab world, but even after this year's democratic revolution politics has remained a man's world.

Women had high hopes the October 23 polls would land them some top jobs. Up until now, female political power has been embodied by Leila Trabelsi, the feared and reviled wife of toppled dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

While a new parity law requiring an equal number of men and women on electoral lists competing in next month's first post-revolution polls was respected, women were still largely excluded from leadership positions.

According to newspaper reports, less than 5% of the 1 600 lists entered by Tunisia's myriad political parties are headed by women.

"I am disappointed and a little shocked," said Larbi Chouika, an electoral commission official.

"I would have wanted parties to make a symbolic gesture."

A key article in the electoral law adopted in April - three months after Ben Ali was ousted - institutes gender parity and alternating male and female candidates on all lists.

Under Ben Ali's former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally, women accounted for around a quarter of parliament, and many women were hoping to improve on that in the upcoming constituent assembly elections.

Women 'are hesitant'

"There's still a long way to go," said Maya Jribi, secretary general of the Progressive Democratic Party and Tunisia's only female party boss.

"But one of the problems we have is that women themselves are hesitant. They participate but do not promote themselves enough," she said.

Jribi's own party has only three women heading up lists out of 33.

"Our goal is to win the election not to field women simply to play to the gallery," she explained.

Under former president Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia promulgated the code of personal status, a groundbreaking series of progressive laws enshrining the equality of men and women, abolishing polygamy and allowing divorce.

The law put Tunisia years if not decades ahead of other Arab countries on women's rights, but convincing female participation at the highest decision-making level has remained an illusion.

"It's a matter of mentalities, many people simply don't accept the idea of a woman heading an electoral list," said Hamma Hammami, secretary general of the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party, which has four lists headed by women.

"Sometimes it's the women who don't want to be on the frontline," he said.

"Family responsibilities and the way of thinking of some husbands sometimes hinder women's participation in public life," said Sinda Masoudi Derbali, who heads a Communist party list in Nabeul, some 70km from Tunis.


She said that was particularly true in the Mediterranean country's hinterland, where illiteracy rates can reach 50% among women.

"There's no incentive or training for us to be more active in the country's political life," Derbali said.

The party tipped to win the October elections is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist movement that was fiercely repressed under Ben Ali and is ranked by opinion polls as the country's most popular by some margin.

Out of the 33 lists Ennahda fielded for the polls, only two are headed by women, including one in an overseas constituency in the Netherlands.

"Women don't yet have leadership status in unions or in political parties, it's a fact," said Ennahda chairman Rached Ghannouchi.

"Women are under-represented even in democratic countries," said Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, Progressive Democratic Party founder and a former bete noire of the ousted regime.

"Parity is a great thing, but reality is also important. In politics, there is such a thing as the obligation to get results."

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