Tunisia: Gender-parity 'revolution' hailed


Tunisia's ruling that men and women must feature in equal numbers as candidates in July polls is an Arab world first that builds on this year's revolt and allays fears of conservative influence, observers say. The decision by authorities preparing the July 24 constituent assembly poll after the uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the north African nation's long-serving president, has been hailed as a regional breakthrough. The Tunisian revolution has sparked similar revolts in other Arab countries. "It is historic," said Sana Ben Assour, president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, after international rights groups also welcomed last week's announcement.

"And it is only right in a country where men and women fought side by side for democracy."

The weeks of demonstrations that led Ben Ali to quit in January after 23 years in power opened the way for unprecedented freedoms in the secular state, including the unbanning of political parties that call for political Islam.

Many had feared this could lead to reverses in gains for women amid some calls by Islamists for women to be made to wear headscarves or claims that their place is in the home.

But the Islamist Nahda movement, allowed to register in March for the first time since it was formed in 1981, was among those that voted in favour of the new ruling.

One of its leaders, Ali Laryadh, dismissed concerns it wanted to backtrack on women's rights in Tunisia, saying such allegations came from "people who want to misguide public opinion and attack the movement".

"We were the first to call for parity between men and women for the electoral lists, and with the principal of alternating men and women on the lists," he said.

Visible presence

Women feature relatively strongly in public life in Tunisia compared to some of their more oppressive Muslim neighbours.

They represent 26 per cent of the working population, half of students, 29 per cent of magistrates and 24 per cent of the Tunisian diplomatic corps.

The previous parliament, dissolved after the fall of Ben Ali regime, had the most women in the region.

The gender parity ruling "is the first in the Arab and Muslim world, which should encourage Tunisian women to involve themselves more in political life", Laarbi Chouikha, a political analyst, said. The vote on July 24 will elect a constituent assembly that will be charged with drawing up a post-Ben Ali constitution and hear submissions on issues involving women.

The move to full equality on the lists is "revolutionary" and "an historic step", Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the main opposition Ettajdid movement, said.

Tunisia's relatively progressive stance on women is rooted in the landmark 1956 Personal Status Code that abolished polygamy and repudiation, an exception in the Arab world.

It was unacceptable in today's Tunisia for women to be excluded, Lilia Laabidi, the women's affairs minister, told AFP.

"They took part in the revolution, condemned corruption and all forms of violence, it is completely normal that they should be represented 50 per cent in all sectors."

However, psychological and cultural obstacles to women's integration remained, she said.

"Someone who has been raised in an environment in which a woman is not free cannot realise a woman's real value straight away," Laabidi said.

"That is why we must stop showing women in television series as a simple Bedouin, or a cleaner or, if she lives in the city, as a prostitute."

She said Ben Ali's government, during which the humanitarian work of his corruption-accused wife Leila Trabelsi was vaunted, had stifled women.

"The ministry of women's affairs and non-government groups could only work for her glory. Instead of giving out prizes, it was she who received them. It is the opposite of what should happen," Laabidi said.

21 Apr 2011