Sara Medini, political analyst at the Tunisian feminist organisation Aswat Nissa, was in a meeting at work last week when she happened to glance at a news alert on her phone. What she saw left her at first flabbergasted, then delighted.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought I had misread it,” she said. “I told my colleagues: ‘He’s appointed a woman! He’s appointed a woman!’
“We were all delighted. We had goosebumps. It’s really a historic moment – but that doesn’t mean they have a blank cheque.”
The decision by the president, Kais Saied, to name Najla Bouden, a senior civil servant in the higher education ministry and lecturer in geological engineering, as the first female prime minister of Tunisia, or indeed of any Arab country, made waves around the world.
At home, it was greeted with a mixture of emotions – not least relief by those who hope it is a step on the road back to normality after Saied’s shock move in July to sack his prime minister and suspend parliament in what many saw as a coup.
The jury is out, however, on what Bouden’s appointment will mean for Tunisian women.
“The fact that a woman has been appointed is excellent; it’s a step forward [and] it breaks with stereotype. But it’s not sufficient. The political programme of the government – her government – must follow egalitarian principles,” said Medini.
“She comes in at an incredibly critical moment. She has a lot of work to do.”
For decades Tunisia has been considered a standard-bearer for women’s rights in the Arab world, with a package of family laws – passed just months after independence in 1956 – abolishing polygamy and allowing women to file for divorce.
Women won the right to vote in 1957 and were able to run for office by 1959. In 2011, when the country led the first revolution of the so-called Arab spring, toppling the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, women were on the barricades.
But some feel that progress towards full equality has stalled. Saied is against reforming laws to grant women equal inheritance rights, something the late president Beji Caid Essebsi said he would do – to the outrage of conservatives and religious figures.
There have been legislative victories since the revolution, notably a 2017 law aimed at cracking down on violence against women. But Medini said there was still a huge amount of work to be done “on a practical level” to ensure the changes were implemented.
On top of all this, Tunisia’s severe economic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has hit women disproportionately hard. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 gender inequality index, Tunisia dropped from 90th to 124th between 2006 and 2020.
“[The crisis] has accentuated women’s economic weakness and thus accentuated their dependence on their families, on their husbands,” said Medini.
“For example, a woman [who] is the victim of violence at the hands of her husband can’t escape the home or ask for a divorce, because she hasn’t the necessary money.”
For Halima Ouanada, an academic at the University of Tunis El Manar, some of the reactions last week to Bouden’s appointment were proof of the challenges still facing women in power.
“Rather than dwelling on her role as university professor, on her good international reputation as an academic, following more than 13 years of experience in the management of large-scale projects, the debate turned into reflections on her gender: the price of her shoes, her glasses,” Ouanada wrote in Le Temps News
“She was presented as the daughter of so-and-so and the wife of so-and-so … as if she owed nothing to herself, to her intelligence and perseverance.”
Bouden’s emergence into the spotlight did take many by surprise. Aged 63, she has spent her career at Tunisia’s higher education and scientific research ministry and as a university lecturer.
But Hèla Yousfi, sociology lecturer at Paris Dauphine University, said the appointment was not surprising, given Saied’s own background as a law professor turned politician.
“Kais Saied was brought to power by a popular extra-parliamentary movement, which expressed its total mistrust of the political class,” said Yousfi. “So there is a consistency there with the nomination of someone from outside the political class. It’s consistent with the Tunisian people’s complete crisis of faith in the political class, which has failed for 10 years to fulfil the aspirations of the Tunisian revolution.”
There are fears that Bouden will have little room for manoeuvre. Saied has kept in place the emergency measures he introduced in July, in effect ensuring that the prime minister will be solely responsible to him. Some have predicted she will be a mere pawn of the president.
Yousfi acknowledged the risk, but said it was too soon to tell how things would pan out in the country’s unpredictable political landscape.
“If my experience of Tunisian politics has taught me anything, it’s to wait and see,” she said. “No one thought Kais Saied could nominate a woman as head of the government. It’s possible [her role could be constricted]: he has an organic conception of power.
“But you can’t predict what’s going to happen. We must wait for the [political] programme, the vision, and also what is proposed in terms of an institutional roadmap. We are in limbo at the moment. We must wait and see.”