As revolutionaries continue to fight for democracy in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, Tunisia – the domino that activated the Arab Spring – has taken another step forward, thanks to women’s rights advocates there and their allies.
Following the non-violent revolution in Tunisia that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, on April 11th, Tunisian transitional authorities ruled in favor of a gender parity law. The law requires equal numbers and alternating lists of women and men as candidates in the upcoming October 23rd Constituent Assembly elections.
Once elected, the Constituent Assembly will be charged with drafting the country’s new constitution.
Prior to the revolution, and the subsequent dissolution of Parliament, Tunisian women made up 27.6% of members of Parliament, the highest in the MENA region and well above the 19% worldwide average.
As Tunisia’s next step in democracy building, the Constituent Assembly elections represent an opening for women’s rights activists, who have been organizing long before and as part of the recent revolution. Notably, they are credited with reform of Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, which is now considered to be one of most modern in the Arab world.
Rahdia Belhadj Zekri, President of the Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Développement (AFTURD), sees the electoral law as a victory for Tunisian women and for progressive forces in the country.
She emphasizes, though, that “these achievements were not obtained by chance. Throughout the process leading to 14 January, women were very active in the unions, in the demonstrations, in associations and political parties.” Members of AFTURD and several allied organizations formulated the draft gender parity law and organized for its promulgation.
Zekri explains that male-dominated conservative forces have opposed the law on grounds of political enfranchisement for women. Some progressive forces have expressed disdain as well, claiming it infantilizes women and that as positive discrimination, contradicts the principle of equal opportunities for all by granting privileges to women.
According to Mona Lena Krook, a feminist political scientist who has dedicated her entire career to studying gender parity mechanisms in political institutions and processes, quotas of one kind or another exist in more than 100 countries.
The jury is still out, though, Krook says, on whether such gender parity mechanisms universally empower women. On one hand, in some contexts, quotas have led to the election of elite women with ties to powerful men and no accountability to women more broadly or to the enfranchisement of conservative women who serve as tokens for their parties anti-feminist agendas.
Also, sometimes women elected when quotas are in place are quick to disassociate from “women’s rights” due to fears of being type-casted or lack of skill and resources in handling manipulation and the contradictions of political processes.
Still, in other contexts, Krook says there is evidence that such parity mechanisms increase the diversity of women elected including the young and most marginalized. Quotas also bring attention to women’s rights within policy making processes, question the gendered nature of the public sphere and inspire female voters to become more political involved.
While some argue that these mechanisms can usher in ‘unqualified’ women with little formal political experience, critics argue that quotas can catalyze political education and literacy and provide opportunities for women with other kinds of experience, such as that gained from organizing.
The impact of this mechanism in Tunisia remains to be seen. But it bodes well that the mandate is a result of struggles by women’s rights advocates and their allies – and not anti-feminist actors seeking to sabotage political processes.
Zekri is convinced that this is a very promising development. She explains, “the principle of equality in the new electoral law has a symbolic value. It is a measure of positive discrimination that recognizes the right of women to access political responsibilities and public spaces, and which will certainly have a positive effect in the medium term on the discriminatory practices within the political parties.”
Now, there is work to be done. New women’s associations are forming in Tunis and throughout the country. Civic education and political literacy efforts are underway. Women are working within political parties to identify and support strong candidates. Once-stifled voices are now demanding freedoms and rights for women. And though conservative and counter-revolution forces are redoubling their efforts, those committed to democracy are vigilant and exponentially growing in strength.
All of this is reassuring for future struggles, in Tunisia and regionally. As Zekri concludes, “this measure could lead to a domino effect and inspire legislators in other Arab countries.”
Masum Momaya and Massan D'Almeida contributing to writing and research.