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Tunisia’s female candidates struggle to be taken seriously

Female candidates must comprise 50 percent of the names on party lists for the October 23 Tunisian elections. But getting their constituents to look them in the eye - much less vote for them - remains a challenge for many women.


As the men sip coffees and smoke shishas, traditional water-pipes, at a bustling market in the northern Tunisian town of Zaghouan, one woman is busy working with her carefully composed and gender-equal campaign team.

Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, a prominent lawyer and women’s rights activist, is a candidate in the October 23 election for a constituent assembly that will determine the future of this North African nation credited with sparking the Arab Spring.

As a female candidate, Hmida is a bit of an exception. The former president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, she is a member of the prominent, secular Ettakattol party and is at the top of her electoral list.

Under Tunisian law, every party list must be comprised of an equal number of male and female candidates. But while they make up the mandatory 50 percent of every list, few women – if any – head a list.

Despite the apparent equity on paper, on the streets of Tunis, gender parity in politics still looks to be a long way off. Campaigning in the Zaghouan outdoor market, Hmida is having a hard time connecting with potential voters.

“Hey, look at me, I want to talk to you,” the firebrand women’s rights activist-turned-politician tells a pistachio vendor.

"No, no, I can't look at you. I can't look at a woman," says the vendor. "I'm embarrassed. I can't look at you. Go on, I'll listen, but not look."

“What do you mean?” asks Hmida. “I'm not just a woman, I'm standing as a candidate to serve my country.”

"I don't know what you want to do and I'm not sure you really want to serve your country," the vendor replies sourly.

Making up the numbers

Tunisia is credited with having one of the best women’s rights records in the Arab world. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president after independence from France in 1956, was a staunch defender of women’s rights, enacting one of the region’s most progressive personal and family codes.

His successor, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, extended Bourguiba’s pro-women policies during his 23-year reign.

It was Ben Ali’s ouster on January 14 that kicked off a wave of pro-democracy movements across the region that came to be called the Arab Spring.

The October 23 elections will be the first post poll since the Arab Spring broke out earlier this year, and consequently all eyes are on this tiny Arab nation.

International observers will be closely monitoring the voting and subsequent ratio of women in Tunisia's constituent assembly to form a picture of what a post-revolutionary government might look like.

Under Ben Ali, women comprised about 30% of the national parliament. But while the rules of female representation on party lists are meant to ensure gender parity in politics, few of those women will actually be elected into the assembly. Most analysts predict the body will remain male-dominated.

Sell Sabil Shaaben, a 24-year-old law student, became a candidate after she was contacted via Facebook by a small independent party. Between her studies and a part-time job, Shaaben hasn't found much time to campaign.

She says she hasn’t attended any of her party meetings nor has she ever met her party leader. For now, her strategy appears to be calling up her friends on her incessantly chiming mobile phone and asking them to vote for her.

Shaaben confesses that she has little chance of winning and she’s brutally honest about why she’s on the party list.

“The women on the list...a lot of them, are here to make up the numbers," she admits.

Only the results of the October 23 poll will tell if female politicians and the constituents they serve can manage to increase their role in Tunisian politics.



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