Tunisia's male-dominated parliament deals blow to women's gains

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station during parliamentary election in Tunis, Tunisia December 17, 2022

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station during parliamentary election in Tunis, Tunisia December 17, 2022. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

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Kais Saied's electoral reforms made it more difficult for female candidates both to run and win seats, say women's campaigners

  • Only 25 women elected to new 161-seat legislature
  • New electoral rules blamed for hampering female candidates
  • Saied accused of paying lip service to women's rights

LA GOULETTE, Tunisia - When Tunisian lawmakers take up their seats in the newly elected parliament next month, one change will be immediately obvious - there will be far fewer women among their ranks.

Tunisia has been seen as a leader on women's rights in the Arab world, but campaigners say electoral reforms introduced by President Kais Saied ahead of the country's controversial recent election made it harder for female candidates to run for office.

"This is the first time in Tunisian history that women get excluded in this way," said Sana Ghenima, head of Femmes et Leadership, a nonprofit group that promotes women's political participation.

Preliminary results show only 25 women candidates won seats in the newly configured 161-seat parliament following the Jan. 29 election run-off, in which turnout was a mere 11%.

Critics of Saied, who shut down the previous parliament in 2021 in a move critics called a coup, said the empty polling stations were evidence of public disdain for his agenda and seizure of powers.

The president's electoral reforms included new requirements for candidates seeking to stand and the abolition of a quota system introduced in 2014 to boost women's representation in the legislature.

The effects of the changes will be starkly visible when parliament convenes in mid-March, researchers say.

Female lawmakers will occupy about 16% of the seats in the new legislature, Femmes et Leadership said. In 2021, they accounted for 26%, and 31% between 2014 and 2018, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union data cited by the World Bank.

A woman walks past Avenue Habib Bourguiba Clocktower in central Tunis on January 29, 2023

A woman walks past Avenue Habib Bourguiba Clocktower in central Tunis on January 29, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna A. Farouk

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Women's champion?

Saied's electoral reforms weaken the role of political parties - most of which boycotted the recent election- and candidates now have to run as individuals - instead of being part of a party list.

They must also self-fund their campaigns and garner 400 signatures from supporters - a new requirement.

Saied has said the changes will help fight corruption and improve accountability by bringing the people closer to their elected representatives.

At the same time, he has trumpeted his commitment to women's rights, appointing the Arab world's first female prime minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane, in 2021. He also appointed a woman as chief of staff, his closest and most powerful aide.

But women's rights campaigners say the election results cast doubt on his commitment to boosting women's political empowerment.

"Saied is far away from the practice of politics on the ground," Ghenima said. "He is ... ignoring years of struggles by women."

Saied's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The president has not spoken publicly about the issue since the election.

Conservative attitudes

According to Femmes et Leadership, nearly half of the 200 women who tried to compete in the ballot failed to meet the new candidacy requirements.

Veteran political activist Monia Abid was one of them.

Monia Abid gestures in an interview in La Goulette, near Tunis, on January 29, 2023

Monia Abid gestures in an interview in La Goulette, near Tunis, on January 29, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna A. Farouk

Monia Abid gestures in an interview in La Goulette, near Tunis, on January 29, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna A. Farouk

She spent months knocking on doors in the run-up to the election held in two stages in December and January, but was still unable to gather all the signatures she needed to launch her first run for parliament.

"In the past, it usually took (candidates) a week to do so. But this time it just didn't happen for me," Abid, 58, told Context in La Goulette, a fishing neighbourhood close to the capital, Tunis.

Only 11.5% of the candidates who ran for parliament were women, said Femmes et Leadership.

Ghenima said the new self-funding rule had disproportionately affected women aspirants because they are more likely to be financially dependent on their husbands or male family members and less able to raise bank loans or other forms of financing.

"I saw many women struggling to collect signatures and finance their campaigns without any party supporting them," she said.

Before Saied dissolved the previous parliament, political parties had been required since 2014 to have half of their lists headed by a woman - a landmark measure that succeeded in boosting women's parliamentary participation.

The quotas reserved for women on party lists fell victim to Saied's broader effort to reduce parties' role in campaigning.

Awatef Cheniti, 44, one of the handful of women who will take up their parliamentary seats next month, said one of the challenges of having to gather the necessary signatures had been overcoming patriarchal attitudes in her northwestern constituency.

"It wasn't at all easy, especially for me living in an ultraconservative area," said Cheniti, a political newcomer from the town of Téboursouk who decided to run for a seat after finishing her doctoral studies in France.

While she supports reducing the clout of political parties, she said the electoral law should be modified in a way that guarantees decent levels of female participation.

During campaigning as she ran against a field of seven male candidates, she said some men had refused to accept her flyers because they believed women should not be involved in politics.

"I can't believe I actually made it," she said.

(Reporting by Menna Farouk; Editing by Helen Popper)


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