This is the last piece of TIMEP’s series on women advocates across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region on the ways in which they are challenging the roots of gender inequality.
In this Q&A on the challenges facing women in Tunisia in light of the political developments on the ground, TIMEP interviews Ikram Ben Said, a feminist activist and founder of Aswat Nissa (Voices of Women).
TIMEP: How have Kais Saied’s actions since July 25, 2021 impacted women in Tunisia? How have feminist and women’s rights activists responded to the constitutional and political crisis?
IB: I want to mention first that we are clearly heading toward a dictatorship regime that will impact all Tunisian citizens, in particular women, because violence and exclusion rise in the absence of democracy and the rule of law. Women will have to face misogyny at home and at the state level.
I also want to emphasize that Kais Saied is a conservative president. His positions have never been in favor of gender equality and we are already witnessing some dangerous signs that are threatening some of the revolution’s achievements. For instance, Circular N.18, which ensures parity and equal access of men and women in high office appointments, has been repealed by the head of government Najla Bouden, without taking into consideration how important those kinds of laws, circulars, and policies are to guarantee women’s public and political participation.
In addition, Saied has proposed an amendment of the 2011 law on associations that would ban foreign funding to local organizations. This is an attempt to shrink the space of civil society and to crack down on freedom of association and dissent. Women’s rights organizations will be impacted by this, as well as all the women who turn to them to seek legal and psychological support. Indeed, many of these organizations are basically doing the government’s job in combatting gender-based violence while ensuring that women’s needs and concerns are reflected in the state’s budget and policies.
Women’s rights and feminist associations are organizing themselves through coalitions, joint statements, and protests, all the while they are pushing back against oppression—this is so time and energy-consuming. What a disappointment that, after all the fights for human rights and democracy, we find ourselves back to square one.
TIMEP: How would you describe the current status of women’s political participation and representation in Tunisia?
IB: Before Kais Saied’s decision to suspend parliament, we witnessed a lot of violence directed toward women politicians inside the parliament and on social media. This is intimidation that keeps them away from the political sphere. Furthermore, Saied’s recent proposal of having an individual voting system instead of lists is a major setback for women’s political participation, which was an important achievement of the feminist movement right after the revolution. This decision would instead prioritize voting for powerful men. This proposal is a blow for a fairer political participation for women in an inclusive democracy.
The president in his latest decree stated that he will replace most of the electoral commission, one of Tunisia’s last independent bodies. Based on this decision, three members of the commission will be kept by him, while he appoints four other members. This is a move that will clearly compromise the integrity of the electoral process.
The nomination of the first woman to ever head a government in Tunisia, and as a matter of fact in the Arab world, is part of part of Saied’s tactic to appeal as a progressive politician, in comparison to Islamists, but it is misleading. With the prerogatives that she has, Bouden cannot even choose her own ministers. And since October, she has not addressed the public on a regular basis and is not engaged in any of the country’s burning issues. She is not the kind of head of government that can challenge the president, and her silence in this very particular context is quite disturbing.
The nomination of Bouden within this political and economic context is not good news for me, as women leaders who internalize misogyny replicate the same oppression and patriarchy that the regime uses. Women in power do not necessarily serve women’s agenda and interests; they might also serve the agenda of the oppressive regime.
This nomination is purely a reflection of state feminism, when the state puts itself as the ultimate protector of women’s rights and uses women’s issues as a political card against its political competitors and for the international community.
TIMEP: In your view, what are the greatest barriers to women’s equality and access to equal rights in Tunisia today?
IB: We sparked a revolution in the streets against the state but we did not bring the revolution at home.
For me there are two major obstacles.
The first is social reproduction, or what we can also call life making activities. Tunisian women still carry the burden of housework tasks and raising children. They spend, on average, between eight and twelve hours a day on household related work, while men spend less than 45 minutes. This major contribution to the society is unpaid, unrecognized, unvalued, and referred to as care and love rather than actual work. This hinders the ability of women to access jobs, pursue careers, and participate in public and political life.
The second major obstacle is gender-based violence. Physical and psychological domestic violence, sexual harassment in the street and at work, economic exclusion, and institutional violence through discriminatory laws are all factors that keep women trapped in trauma, anxiety, fear, and poverty cycles rather than unleashing their full potential. And while feminist organizations are extremely vigilant, active, and supportive of women, there is impunity and a lack of accountability on the state level, and a normalization of violence on a societal level.
I personally believe that there is no equality if women are not safe at home, if household activities and decision making are not equally divided, and if women do not fully own their bodies and sexuality. It all starts at home, because as the feminists who came before us clearly articulated: The personal is political.
TIMEP: What role has Aswat Nissa and civil society at-large played in advocating for women’s access to equal rights in Tunisia?
IB: For years, Aswat Nisaa has been working to enhance women’s political participation and gender inclusive public policies. We do it through advocacy, building capacities, organizing, mobilizing, and campaigning. Aswat Nissa was for example on the frontline of the Tunisian #MeToo movement, called #EnaZeda, by sparking a nationwide conversation on sexual harassment and by holding a safe space for women and girls to share their stories. The campaign led by Aswat Nissa triggered a stimulating public debate and led to the November 2021 sentencing of a member of parliament, for sexually harassing a high school student. But beside these kind of campaigns, Aswat Nissa supports women who are victims of violence through legal and psychological orientation and support. In 2021, we helped 200 women who were victims of violence.
Aswat Nissa is also very engaged in influencing policies through collaborating with other civil society organizations; this included the successful passing of a gender responsive budgeting law. We also support municipalities in making their policies gender sensitive and in turning grassroot solutions into public policies while also supporting women officials elected across the political spectrum.
TIMEP: What steps should Tunisian authorities take to promote gender parity in politics and protect the rights of women more generally?
IB: The first step, before anything else, would be to save our country from this very dangerous path toward a dictatorship and to get back to democratic institutions as stated in the constitution. Let’s be clear: There are no women’s rights without democracy and no democracy without women’s rights.
Then, I believe that inclusive and non-discriminatory laws and policies, as well as the proper allocation of budget are important steps to ensure gender equality. In Tunisia we have very progressive laws but we struggle when it comes to implementation. As a matter of fact, we have a comprehensive law against gender-based violence that needs to be implemented, but it does not have a sufficient budget and an enforcement plan.
Without setting a clear budget designed to combat violence and promote women’s economic and political participation, we cannot achieve anything. For instance, the 2022 budget is completely gender-blind despite the fact that we do have a law that emphasizes the importance of gender responsive budgeting, it just needs to be implemented.
This interview is part of TIMEP’s Forging a Gender Equal World: Women in MENA Q&A series, a collection of interviews with women from and in the MENA region on their work combating gender inequality.