Tunisian women absent from presidential campaign

Women played a prominent role in the protests that toppled longstanding dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. (Reuters)
Updated 09 September 2019
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Tunisian women absent from presidential campaign

  • Tunisia has been considered relatively progressive on women’s rights in the Arab and Muslim world since its independence in the 1950s

TUNIS: Tunisia has long been seen as a pioneer for women’s rights in the Arab world, but on the eve of presidential elections, women are calling this reputation into question.
“Men promise a lot to women. But when Mr. Moustache arrives in power, nothing happens,” said Feryel Charfeddine, head of Calam, an association fighting violence against women.
Whether they be passionate activists, laywomen or former elected officials, many women say they do not expect “much” from the polls that start with the first voting round on September 15.
“I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist,” said Charfeddine, who is alarmed by what she sees every day on the ground: increased violence, diminished rights and social conservatism.
“Women aren’t interested in politics anymore. Unconsciously, they know that it’s the same patriarchal system that endures,” she said.
Women played a prominent role in the protests that toppled longstanding dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and they were a courted group in previous post-revolution elections.
But they have been largely absent from the 2019 presidential campaign, which has focused heavily on security and economic issues.
Nor are they well represented in the large pool of presidential hopefuls, with just two women standing out of 26 candidates.
One is staunch anti-Islamist Abir Moussi, the other a former minister, Salma Elloumi.
“They’re part of the alibi,” said lawyer Bochra BelHajj Hmida, who was elected to parliament in 2014 but is stepping back from politics.
“I had a very, very rich experience, but I’m leaving politics without regret,” she told AFP.
While in office, Hmida helped spearhead an inheritance equality law, facing fierce backlash from some sides for her position on the hotly debated issue.
“Men expect women in politics to be the least disruptive as possible, that they don’t debate and especially that they don’t make decisions. I lost a lot of male friendships,” she said.
She noted as well a lack of female solidarity, saying it’s “as if there was only one spot to win and you have to fight each other for it.”
The sometimes taxing environment can dissuade engagement.
“Women don’t feel supported and there is no willingness of political parties to change that,” said Zyna Mejri, a young activist.
Tunisia has been considered relatively progressive on women’s rights in the Arab and Muslim world since its independence in the 1950s, adopting in 1956 a Personal Status Code that abolished polygamy and changed divorce law.
Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first president elected democratically by a nationwide vote in 2014, boasted of having been carried to power by the female electorate.
He oversaw the passing of several key texts, including a law on violence against women and the repeal of a circular banning women from marrying non-Muslims.
“It’s true that we’re way better off, but we still have a lot to do,” Mejri said.
“We can have every day a new great law about equality, but the problem is the enforcement of that law,” she added, noting that “it’s also about changing the mind of Tunisian society.”
“Schizophrenia,” Charfeddine calls it, pointing to the gap between the country’s progressive image of the society’s strong conservatism.
Hmida often collided with the aggression of young men that did not understand her fight for equality.
But she remains convinced of the need for debate and says she has at times shifted her point of view.
“When I managed to establish a dialogue with some of these young people, it also opened my eyes... I became aware of their frustration, of the way they think the ‘bourgeois’ look at them,” she said.
The question of whether Tunisian society is “ready” for more equality infuriates Yosra Frawes, head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD).
“It’s not even a question, equality is a universal principle,” she said, noting however that she sees “an enormous setback” for women’s rights in the country.
She cites growing difficulties regarding sexual and reproductive rights, less access to health care — particularly in rural areas — and the impoverishment of women.
According to a recent AFTD study, women make up more than 80 percent of Tunisia’s agricultural workforce, a sector the association denounced as precarious and “exploitative.”


Nine suspected militants killed in Egypt: ministry

Updated 18 September 2019

Nine suspected militants killed in Egypt: ministry

  • Police raids in Cairo targeted hideouts of “terrorist elements”
  • Those killed included “a commander of the Liwa Al-Thawra” extremist group

CAIRO: Nine suspected extremists including a commander have been killed in shootouts with police in suburbs of the Egyptian capital, the interior ministry said Wednesday.
Police raids to the east and south of Cairo targeted hideouts of “terrorist elements,” it said in a statement.
Those killed included “a commander of the Liwa Al-Thawra” extremist group, it added.
The Liwa Al-Thawra movement appeared in 2016 and has since claimed deadly attacks against the police and the Egyptian army.
Almost nine years after the 2011 uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak, security remains a chief concern in Egypt.
Hundreds of security personnel have died in an escalation of attacks since the military overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Mursi in 2013.
That ouster was led by then army chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who became president after 2014 polls and secured re-election last year with an official 97 percent of the vote.
In February 2018, the army launched a nationwide offensive against extremists, focused mainly on North Sinai, where the Daesh extremist group has a significant presence.
The authorities say some 650 suspected extremists and around 50 soldiers have been killed since.