Elections in Tunisia gear up for a male-dominated parliament and erosion of women’s rights | overall development

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 sharp deterioration in women’s rights under a increasingly authoritarian president.

The controversial elections, boycotted by all major parties, mark 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 any of the gender parity provisions that made Tunisia a regional pioneer for women’s political representation, the new parliament will not only have few powers but also 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 sure to look very different from the one elected in 2014, when nearly a third of MPs were women.

In addition to removing the requirement that candidate lists rotate between the sexes, the new law sets forth additional lawsuits that disproportionately affect women who want to run and have contributed to their exclusion, opponents say.

“The Tunisian parliament was once the example of gender equality in the region. With these new changes to the law, that could soon be history,” he wrote. Salsabil Chellalí, Tunisian director of Human Rights Watch, the a blog.

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

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

“Kais Saied speaks from a deeply conservative mindset. He is not interested in representation, or equality or justice. Right now, she’s in denial about the whole women thing. He is silent about it. Whenever there is a big moment, like national women’s day, he is absent… This is dangerous.”

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

However, Bouden’s public speeches have been rare, and critics have claimed that they were correct in predicting that she would become a mere official of the president. In addition, Saied has offered her full support to the country’s Islamic inheritance laws, which favor men, at the expense of the more progressive approach advocated by her 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 were there, he added, the president’s suspension of parliament for most of 18 months had prevented any practical progress, such as the signing of the Istanbul convention on violence against women.

“I think there was never a place for women’s rights [in Saied’s project]. That’s how he is,” said Sayida Ounissi, a lawmaker from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which is boycotting Saturday’s election. “All who are standing [in this] choice has already agreed with him. There is no political diversity, there is no gender diversity, nothing.”

A young Tunisian woman holds a sign that reads in Arabic, gender parity in candidate endorsement only, be beautiful and shut up
A protest in Tunisia to defend gender equality in the elections. Part of the poster reads: “Be beautiful and shut up”, October 2022. Photo: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Although some feminists dismissed it as a fig leaf, the parity pledge enshrined in the old electoral law was seen by others as one of the greatest achievements for women’s rights after the 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine. Ben Ali.

What started as a requirement for parliament, the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP), which Saied formally dissolved in March, was expanded in 2017, with an amendment requiring parties competing in local elections to ensure that women make up half of their candidate lists. . According to Chellali, this led to 47% of female councilors after the 2018 elections.

The new law, which makes no mention of gender parity, also asks potential candidates to submit 400 signatures of registered voters from their constituencies and self-finance or privately finance their campaign. Both have the odds stacked 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,” Chellali wrote.

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