Tunisia election set to deliver male-dominated parliament and erosion of women’s rights

As the country goes to the polls, reforms introduced by hardline president Kais Saied have led to the exclusion of female candidates

Tunisians will vote on Saturday in an election that will lead to a weakened parliament “almost exclusively dominated by men”, as activists warn of a stark deterioration of women’s rights under an increasingly authoritarian president.

The controversial elections, boycotted by all the main parties, mark the final piece of the constitutional jigsaw President Kais Saied began assembling in July 2021, when he suspended the legislature in what critics called a power grab.

After Saied’s move to introduce an electoral law with none of the gender parity provisions that made Tunisia a regional trailblazer for female political representation, the new parliament will not only have few powers but few women, activists warn.

Just 122 female candidates, compared with 936 men, have been approved to run, the electoral commission says, meaning the new chamber is certain to look very different from that elected in 2014, when nearly a third of MPs were women.

As well as removing a requirement for candidate lists to alternate between the sexes, the new law makes additional demands that disproportionately affect women wanting to run and have contributed to their exclusion, its opponents say.

“The Tunisian parliament was once the exemplar of gender equity in the region. With these new changes to the law, that could soon be history,” wrote Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch, on a blog.

The abandonment of the parity commitments comes at a worrying time for women in a country that had long prided itself as the most feminist in the region.

Enshrined in law since the dawn of the independent nation in 1956, a core set of women’s rights including a ban on multiple marriages and forced unilateral divorce were built on in the ensuing decades. Some feel now that progress has come to a halt. “Culturally, things are deteriorating,” said Henda Chennaoui, a prominent activist.

“Kais Saied is talking from a deeply conservative mindset. He’s not interested in representation, not in terms of equality or justice. Right now, he’s denying the whole women issue. He’s silent on it. Whenever there’s a big moment, such as national women’s day, he’s absent … This is dangerous.”

Supporters of the president – who in July held a referendum which was criticised as lacking in transparency but did result in overwhelming backing for the new constitution – reject these accusations. They point out that it was he who last year appointed the first female prime minister of any Arab country, the former civil servant and geological engineer, Najla Bouden.

However Bouden’s public addresses have been scarce and critics have claimed they were right to predict she would become a mere functionary of the president. Moreover, Saied has offered his full support for the country’s Islamic inheritance laws, which favour men, at the expense of the more progressive approach championed by his predecessor, Beji Caid Essebsi.

“Since Saied’s election the case for women’s rights has stopped advancing,” said Kenza Ben Azouz of Human Rights Watch. Even if the political will existed, she added, the president’s suspension of parliament for the best part of 18 months had impeded any practical advance, such as signing of the Istanbul convention on violence against women.

“I don’t think there was ever room for women’s rights [in Saied’s project]. This is who he is,” said Sayida Ounissi, a female MP from the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, which is boycotting Saturday’s poll. “Everyone who stands [in this] election has already agreed with him. There’s no political diversity, no gender diversity, nothing.”

A young Tunisian woman holds up a placard that reads in Arabic, gender parity only in the sponsorship of candidates, be beautiful and shut up
A protest in Tunis to defend gender equality in elections. Part of the placard reads, ‘Be beautiful and shut up’, October 2022. Photograph: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Though dismissed as a figleaf by some feminists, the parity commitment enshrined in the old electoral law was seen by others as one of the bigger gains for women’s rights in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

What began as a requirement for the parliament – the Assembly of Representatives of the People (ARP), which Saied formally dissolved in March – widened in 2017, with an amendment requiring parties competing in local elections to ensure women made up half of their candidate lists. According to Chellali, this led to 47% of city councillors being women after the 2018 elections.

The new law, in which there is no mention of gender parity, also asks potential candidates to submit 400 signatures of registered voters from their constituencies, and to self-fund or privately finance their campaign. Both stack the odds against women, “who are less likely to have the same powerful local networks to sponsor their candidacy as men and the same financial means as their male counterparts”, wrote Chellali.


Simon Speakman Cordall in Tunis and Lizzy Davies in London

The GuardianTramp

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