Tunis – Nine months after a popular election toppled the dictatorship of former Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali, voters headed to the polls Sunday to cast their ballots for fresh leaders to rewrite the laws of the country’s political system.
The election campaign in the birthplace of the Arab Spring has been, among other things, a battleground for women’s rights as voters set out to choose from about 11,000 candidates, half of them women.
“I am very proud of these women, all of whom are extremely capable candidates,” Maya J’ribi general secretary of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and top of the electoral list for the Ben Arous governorate of Tunis, told IPS just days before the election.
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“We are moving towards a women’s era in Tunisia,” she told a packed hall Saturday, where at least half the attendees were women, some of them veiled. Scores of young boys and girls were also present.
“This year our priority isn’t secularism, it’s democracy,” Najed Zammouri, another PDP candidate told IPS.
“My hope is that women will defy their husbands in these elections,” Khadija ben Hassine, the Modernist Democratic Pole (MDP) electoral candidate for the Manouba governorate of Tunis, told IPS. She was referring to the growing popularity of the Islamist Ennahda Party in Manouba, a trend that many women are concerned about.
Despite being the most fertile area of Tunisia’s capital, Manouba is also its poorest. Formerly an agricultural stronghold, the introduction of a major textile industry left swathes of unemployment in its wake when farmers were forced to sell their land to businessmen.
Since the textile industry employs only women, men in the region have lost their traditional role as breadwinners and been relegated to the homestead, a transformation in social relations that his stoked intense frustration among the male population.
“Ennahda is offering men back the virility they lost in their real life through religion,” ben Hassine told IPS. She added, however, that women are not following their husbands to the ballot boxes.
“Many of the female voters – including young women out on the streets – want to improve their daily lives and this election is giving them the opportunity to make their own choices based on their own interests,” she said.
Despite fears about the rise of an openly Islamist party post- revolution, plenty of progressive women continue to support Ennahda.
Two women on Paris Avenue, a busy street in the heart of Tunis, expressed their support for Ennahda, which, according to them is “the only honest party on the ballot.” The women, both in their early twenties and dressed in Western clothing, believe that the party will support job creation and transparency.
Ennahda held their final party meeting Friday in a packed stadium in Ben Arous, 15 kilometres from the centre of Tunis, drawing hundreds of conservative and progressive women to the audience.
Souad Abdelrahim, the only candidate to not wear a veil, sat front and centre on the platform, a bold statement of Ennahda’s progressive stance. Abdelrahim says she is engaged in the electoral campaign in Tunis to prove to women that they have no reason to be afraid of En- nahda.
The speakers at the party rally stressed that Ennahda is different from the ruling Islamist parties in Iran or Saudi Arabia. They also reiterated the fact that, if elected, they would uphold Tunisia’s family code, which is one of the most progressive in the Arab world.
Despite the fact that Ennahda has repeatedly pledged to defend democratic values and women's rights, secular observers are fearful that, once in power, the party will reveal a more conservative Islamic agenda.
These concerns have been stoked by the manifestation of new ultraconservative groups known as Salafists, who have attacked movie theaters playing ‘Laicité Inch’Allah’, a film by the renowned filmmaker Nadia al Fani. The conservatives have also attacked Nessma TV for airing ‘Persepolis’, an autobiographical animated film by Marjane Satrapi, several weeks ago.
“This is why I decided to engaged myself in elections, to defend the freedom of expression and of culture in the Constitution,” Selma Baccar, another well-known filmmaker, told IPS.
Meanwhile, women representatives from all parties have been forced to contend with intense discrimination in the media. Despite the fact that 50 percent of all electoral candidates are women, only 25 percent of media space was reserved for women.
Though Tunisian electoral laws guarantee the presence of women on electoral lists, they can offer no guarantee of the number of women actually elected. Women’s groups, who mobilised their members to cast ballots on Sunday, are keen to ensure that the push for women’s rights is not co-opted after the election into another male-dominated constitution.
In the past no one had any choice but to vote for Ben Ali. The revolution has changed the situation, but there are still obstacles to realising the goals of the revolt, especially for women.