Women will likely play a big role in determining Tunisia's future in the coming elections, especially if the vote goes to a second round.
With Tunisia’s presidential election season underway, women voters have a great potential to determine its outcome. The question is whether this year’s ballot will draw a sizeable part of the female electorate.
Tunisian candidates started campaigning last week for the September 15 presidential elections, which were moved forward after the death in July of Beji Caid Essebsi, the first democratically elected head of state after the 2001 uprising that overthrew long-time dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
More than seven million Tunisians are registered to vote in the crucial September ballot, with around 1.5 million casting their ballots for the first time.
Data released by the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) indicate that the new voters are heavily women and youth, an encouraging sign considering 65 percent of voters abstained in the first democratic municipal polls last year.
Voter turnout has relatively been low in each of the three post-revolution elections amid widespread public mistrust of the political system, and party politics in particular.
Women will likely play a big role in determining Tunisia’s future in the coming elections, especially if the vote goes to a second round.
In the 2014 presidential election, Beji Caid Essebsi won the run-off after gaining 61 percent of the female vote, compared to 39 percent for his opponent Moncef Marzouki.
Arnaud Kurze, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Media Line that the potential for Tunisian women voters to determine the outcome of the election is significant, “if they participate.”
Six months before the elections, ISIE’s member Anis Jarboui stated in the local media that the number of registered female voters is “higher” than that of males (173,000 versus 142,000).
Despite women’s electoral participation rate is often lower than men’s, Tunisian electorate was composed of 50.5 percent women in 2014 (increased from 47 percent in 2011), based on figures from ISIE.
Though it is hard to predict if a substantial portion of the women’s voting bloc will participate on election day, with the increased number of registered voters, women are expected to make a reasonably large presence.
Salwa Kennou Sebei, who heads the Association of Tunisian Women for Research on Development (AFTURD), is confident that women will actively participate in the vote notwithstanding the possibility of abstention or of a sanction vote against the political establishment.
In the frame of its project “Aux urnes citoyennes!” (“Women citizens to the polls!”), AFTURD conducted in April two workshops whose goal was training trainers to raise public awareness and encourage women’s participation in the presidential and legislative polls.
“This year, we decided to focus on the electoral base because we need to make sure that Tunisians, women and men, go to vote,” AFTURD’s president noted.
She mentioned about some initiatives run by grassroots associations targeting women who live in rural areas and lack identity cards necessary to cast their vote, to help give them access to vote in the elections.
While women in Tunisia stand out in the voting base, they remain under-represented in positions of power.
They are still largely excluded from decision-making levels, no political parties are led by a woman, and no woman has been president or prime minister to date.
Tunisian women are often victims of political violence when they enter parties. Discriminatory practices are aimed at barring them from higher positions, or relegating them most of the time to posts exclusively related to women, family, children and social affairs.
Without mentioning matter-of-fact constraints. Women are handicapped in finding time to be present in the political scene given their family and home responsibilities.
“Patriarchal provisions rule in the circles of power. A misogynous system still governs politics, prevailing within political parties as well as in the state speech”, argued Halima Jouini, a Tunisian feminist leader and vice-president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH).
There is still a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in formal politics in spite of the principle of parity introduced in electoral lists.
Tunisia’s electoral law endorse parity and women rights, guaranteed by the 2014 Constitution, and requires both vertical and horizontal parity, meaning that candidate lists must alternate between genders, must ensure that women are equally represented in top positions and parties.
Tunisia is one of the few countries to establish gender equality with regards to candidate lists. Women now make up 47 percent of the municipal positions in Tunisia following the 2018 local elections.
However, the implementation of equal representation between men and women in elected institutions is still questionable.
Just 16 percent of women are heading them in the coming elections. Only 12 percent were on top of the electoral lists of candidates in the previous parliamentary polls.
The upcoming election counts two women among the 26 contenders racing for presidency, Abir Moussi, head of the Free Destourian party (PDL), which was formed from the remnants of Ben Ali’s ruling party, and former tourism minister Salma Elloumi, leader of Al Amal party.
They both openly oppose the country’s Islamists, wanting to fight against fundamentalism that has endangered Tunisian women’s freedoms, besides vying to improve economic prospects for unemployed youth.
The two presidential candidates are committed to continuing the path of civil rights set by the late president Essebsi.
Tunisia has been pioneering for women’s rights in the Arab world since its independence, adopting in 1956 a Personal Status Code that abolished polygamy and changed divorce law.
Essebsi oversaw the passing of several key texts, including a law countering violence against women and the repeal of a circular banning women from marrying non-Muslims. He also established the Commission on Individual Liberties and Equality, and supported an unprecedented draft which aims to grant women equal inheritance rights.
Some women in the liberal bloc fear that the Muslim Ennahdha party could take advantage of the rifts within the secular and moderate camp to win the elections and halt the advancement of women’s rights promoted by Essebsi.
Others are positive that they won’t lose what has been achieved but are well aware that they will continue to face resistance from conservative forces in the country.
“There may be worries that we wouldn’t succeed in getting more rights, but it’s very unlikely that we will go backwards,” the LTDH’s deputy president opined. “Take the equal inheritance bill, it has now become an issue for public debate.”
For Sebei, there is “no fear of regression in the legislation” defending women’s rights and freedoms, however there are “risks in the implementation of laws”.
“The choice of the voters is going to be influenced by two more opposing elements: the willingness to claim the legacy of president’s Essebsi presidency on specific issues, including women rights, versus the ability to challenge citizens’ fears and expectations,” Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, a senior non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East wrote in the Atlantic Council think tank.
With the candidacies of Moussi and Elloumi, women’s rights remain on the agenda throughout the electoral campaign, with several candidates trying to reach out to the female electorate on questions that matter to them.
Economic improvement and social justice are among the issues of concern for the largest part of Tunisian women, who are hit by an unemployment rate that is nearly twice that for men and face gender discrimination in the labour market including wage gap.
In the elite, women will be looking for effective action on matters regarding equality, civil rights, individual freedoms and human rights overall.
Dorra Mahfoudh-Draoui, a sociologist who specialises in women’s employment and work conditions, is convinced that women will play a decisive part in the forthcoming vote.
“Women are really fed up with the sluggish economy, worsening living standards, gender-based violence. They want real change,” she voiced out, “I expect a large turnout!”
As voters scrutinise candidates’ platforms, women are likely to be drawn to those leaders who clearly commit to including women and youth as a priority in their political programmes, and enable policies that represent the electorate.
Women are set to act as the balance in the presidential elections as well as the legislative ones to be held in October.
“We cannot win the elections without the support of Tunisian women,” stated Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Youssef Chahed at the launch of his electoral programme last week.
Insisting on women’s crucial role in both elections, he said: “Tunisian women are effective and efficient actors in the rebuilding and economic development of the country.”