Tunisia: New Electoral Law Prescribes Gender Parity In Upcoming Constituent Assembly Elections
On April 11, 2011 the Tunisian transitional authorities ruled on a gender parity law, requiring equal numbers of women and men as candidates in the upcoming Constituent Assembly election. AWID interviewed Radhia Bel Hak Zekri, President of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD), on the significance of this law for women and women’s rights in Tunisia.
By Massan d’Almeida
Tunisia is a Maghreb country considered to be progressive because of its Code of Personal Status, which is one of the most modern in the Arab world. Women have a relatively strong presence in the public sphere in Tunisia and they constitute 26.6 % of the labour force. Under the previous Government led by the Rally for Constitutional Development (RCD), women represented 27.6% (59 of 214) of members of Parliament , the highest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Following the forced resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 after a non-violent revolution, Parliament was dissolved in February 2011 and the power to govern the country by decree was transferred to the Interim President, Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of Parliament.
On April 11, 2011, the transitional authorities in Tunisia passed a revolutionary law, which institutes total parity and provides that all candidate lists must include alternating male and female candidates for the upcoming Constituent Assembly election, to be held on October 23, 2011. The Constituent Assembly will have 218 members whose mandate is to draw up a new constitution. They will also have the power to either appoint a new government or extend the term of the current government until the general elections, originally scheduled for July, but which have been postponed.
This decision is a first in the Arab world and marks a regional breakthrough and progress for women’s rights in Tunisia. It grants them the opportunity to participate in writing its new fundamental law to ensure that women’s rights and gender equality are well reflected in this important document. But there have been growing concerns that progress made on women’s rights might be undermined by ideological and religious fights for power. Despite the key role that women played during the protests, they are barely represented in the current political scene; thetransition government has only two women ministers.
Does the post revolutionary Tunisia portend a better future for women’s rights in the country? To learn more about this, AWID interviewed Radhia Bel Hak Zekri, President of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD).
AWID: How did Tunisia’s women’s rights organizations and movements mobilize for the passing of this new law?
Radhia Bel Hak Zekri (RBHZ): The struggle of women’s rights organizations for the recognition of political, economic and social rights of women has been ongoing for decades and was pursued after the revolution. In the context of democratic transition, it has focused on the political participation of women, including strengthening their representation in public spaces and the improving their access to decision-making positions. Women from different sectors including women’s associations and women’s commissions of national labour unions and human rights organizations came together to organize and to assert women’s specific rights.
The electoral law is the first document passed within the framework of political reforms undertaken in this period of democratic transition towards a National Constituent Assembly. The principle of compulsory equality with alternative male-female candidates is a victory for Tunisian women and for the progressive forces in the country. However, these achievements were not obtained by chance. Throughout the process leading to January 14, women were very active in the unions, in the demonstrations, in associations and political parties. They also paid the price as victims of police violence during demonstrations.
A committee of experts, which included feminist activists from AFTURD and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), formulated the draft electoral law. The representatives of AFTURD and ATFD within the High Commission for the Fulfilment of the Revolutionary Goal, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, together with other civil social actors, played an important role in the promulgation of the new law.
It is because of these struggles led by Tunisian women before, during and after the revolution throughout the country, that today we finally see the recognition of their rights to participate, on an equal basis with men, in Tunisian political life.
AWID: Some organizations have overtly expressed their concern over this law, could you explain these reactions?
RBHZ: The debate on the electoral law was the first major step towards building democracy in Tunisia and the political actors were almost unanimous on the absolute need to break with dictatorship and political monolithism. In this fight for democracy, the women brought in the principle that democratic transition cannot occur without women or against them, but rather that existing women rights need to be preserved and advanced towards complete and real equality.
The resistance came from conservative as well as some progressive political parties. These mainly male dominated parties expressed resistance to mobilizing women and formulating the lists in line with the principle of parity. Opponents to this law consider this to be infantilization of women, and others believe this positive discrimination is contrary to the principle of equal opportunities for all, because it grants a privilege to women by obliging political parties to put them on their lists.
AWID: What does this law mean for Tunisian women from now on?
RBHZ: This law is a historical turning point for Tunisia because it guarantees, for the first time, free, plural and transparent elections.
The principle of equality enshrined in the new electoral law has a symbolic value. It is a measure of positive discrimination that recognizes the right of women to access political responsibilities and public spaces, and which will certainly have a positive effect in the medium term in addressing discriminatory practices within political parties. Its true value lies in the struggle that Tunisian women are undertaking at different levels in political parties towards ensuring that women are placed at the top of the party lists. Its success is contingent on the awareness and the political involvement of women in this crucial period and on awareness-raising efforts of the leaders of the women’s movement in Tunisia.
At the regional level, this measure could lead to a domino effect and inspire legislators in other Arab countries.
AWID: Do you think that this law alone is enough to bring greater equality between men and women in Tunisian society?
RBHZ: No, the path towards equality is still strewn with obstacles and women’s struggle to consolidate their rights should continue regardless of the outcome of these elections. The newfound freedom of expression in Tunisia has resulted in once-stifled voices emerging and demanding individual freedoms and more rights for women. However, it has also allowed regressive forces to emerge that question the achievements of Tunisian women, and who are beginning to take action and organize a dangerous offensive that takes advantage of the current precarious situation in the country.
AWID: What will the women’s rights organizations and the women’s movement do during this preparatory phase of the upcoming election in October in order to ensure that the law on gender parity is respected?
RBHZ: In the new Tunisian context, which is more conducive to freedoms of association, we are witnessing the creation of many new initiatives both in the capital and in the regions; a true explosion of women’s associations that is reassuring for future struggles. The immediate objectives of all the traditional and new women’s associations in the short term is civic education and awareness-raising with women on the electoral process and on the need for the presence of women in decision-making positions in future State structures.
This historic step not only brings opportunities, but also many risks. The counter-revolutionary forces of the old regime are reorganizing and trying to destabilize the country and block this democratization process from advancing, and we need to be vigilant and guard against these forces.