Tunisians are set to vote in an election on Saturday that will result in a weakened parliament “almost entirely male-dominated” as activists warn of a sharp deterioration in women’s rights increasingly authoritarian president.
The contentious election, boycotted by all major parties, marks the final piece of the constitutional puzzle that President Kais Saied began to piece together in July 2021 when he suspended the legislature in what critics called a power grab.
After Saied’s move to introduce an electoral law without the gender parity provisions that have made Tunisia a regional frontrunner for women’s representation in politics, the new parliament will not only have few powers but also few women, activists warn.
Only 122 female candidates, compared to 936 men, were admitted to stand, the Electoral Commission says, meaning the new chamber will certainly look very different from the one elected in 2014, when nearly a third of MPs were women.
In addition to removing a rotating list of candidates, the new law imposes additional requirements that disproportionately hit women who want to run and have contributed to their exclusion, opponents say.
“The Tunisian Parliament was once the model for gender equality in the region. With these new changes in the law, that could soon be history,” wrote Salsabil Chellali, Tunisian director of Human Rights Watch in a blog.
The abandonment of parity commitments comes at a worrying time for women in a country that has long boasted as the most feminist in the region.
Enshrined in law since the independent nation began in 1956, the decades that followed built on a core set of women’s rights, including a ban on polygamy and enforced unilateral divorce. Some now feel that progress has stalled. “Things are getting worse culturally,” said Henda Chennaoui, a prominent activist.
“Kais Saied speaks from a deeply conservative mindset. He is not interested in representation, not in equality or justice. Right now he’s denying the whole woman question. He is silent about it. Whenever there’s a big moment, like National Women’s Day, it’s missing… It’s dangerous.”
Supporters of the president, who held a referendum in July that was criticized for being opaque but resulted in overwhelming support for the new constitution, deny these allegations. They point out that it was he who last year appointed the first female prime minister of an Arab country, former civil servant and geological engineer Najla Bouden.
However, Bouden’s public speeches were scarce and critics have claimed that they were correct in predicting that she would become a mere presidential official. Additionally, Saied has offered his full support for the country’s Islamic inheritance laws, which favor men, at the expense of his predecessor Beji Caid Essebsi’s more progressive approach.
“Women’s rights have not progressed since Saied’s election,” said Kenza Ben Azouz of Human Rights Watch. Even if the political will is there, she added, the president’s nearly 18-month suspension of parliament has prevented any practical progress such as the signing of the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women.
“I don’t think there has ever been a place for women’s rights [in Saied’s project]. He is,” said Sayida Ounissi, a female MP for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which is boycotting Saturday’s election. “Anyone standing [in this] Choice has already been agreed with him. There is no political diversity, no gender diversity, nothing.”
Though dismissed as a fig leaf by some feminists, the parity commitment enshrined in the old electoral law was viewed by others as one of the greatest achievements for women’s rights after the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
What started as a requirement for parliament – the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP), which Saied officially dissolved in March – was expanded in 2017 by requiring parties contesting local elections to ensure that half of their lists of candidates are women. According to Chellali, this resulted in 47% of city councilors being women after the 2018 election.
The new law, which makes no mention of gender parity, also requires potential candidates to submit 400 signatures from registered voters in their constituencies and to self-fund or privately fund their campaign. Both face women “who are less likely to have the same powerful local networks to sponsor their candidacy as men and the same financial resources as their male counterparts,” Chellali wrote.