Oct. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Maya Jribi, the only woman in a leadership job at one of Tunisia’s main political parties, says it’s been an uphill battle to persuade other women to run as candidates in the Oct. 23 elections.
“I recruited some excellent lawyers but they all had reasons not to run,” said Jribi, deputy head of the Democratic Progressive Party, or PDP, in an interview in the capital, Tunis. “They didn’t have enough experience, they didn’t like speaking in public.” Jribi’s party has put women at the top of its candidate lists in only three of the 33 constituencies, and she’s “not happy about it.”
Tunisian women played a major role in the protests that ended the rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and triggered revolts across the Middle East. Their priority now, in the Arab Spring’s first free election, is to preserve parts of Tunisia’s old regime, which gave women more rights than other Arab countries, while ending its corruption and repression.
“We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water,” said Ahmed Brahim, who runs the PDM or Modernist Democratic Pole, the only party where women head half the lists. Women’s rights in Tunisia “are fragile because they are associated with an authoritarian state.”
Brahim and Jribi say a victory by the Islamic Ennahdha party, which is leading in the polls, may imperil those rights.
Like the other leading parties, Ennahdha says it will preserve the family code, a cornerstone of the state created by Tunisia’s founder Habib Bourguiba and continued by Ben Ali, who is now living in exile in Saudi Arabia. The code, dating from the 1950s, put women on equal footing with men in divorce, work and education.
Tunisian women also won the right to abortion and contraception before their French counterparts. The country scored highest in all five categories in a 2009 survey of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa by Freedom House, a Washington-based non-government organization.
This year’s uprisings have brought some gains for Arab women. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah last month promised that women will be allowed to vote in the next municipal elections in four years’ time. In Egypt and Libya, women were prominent in the street protests that forced Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi from power, though women’s groups have subsequently complained about being marginalized by new rulers.
Ennahdha rejects the charge that it would roll back freedoms for women.
“Why would I limit the rights of my wife and daughter?” Ali Laarayedh, the head of the party’s constitutional committee, said in an interview.
For now, the party and its leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, deserve the benefit of the doubt, said Geoff Porter, founder of Connecticut-based North Africa Risk Consulting.
“Whenever moderate Islamist parties do well, their secular opponents warn that they are being moderate now but will show their true face once elected,” he said. “I think we should take Ennahdha at their word. Ghannouchi recognizes that over the past 50 years Tunisia has become a secular country. He would have his work cut out for him if he tried to roll back the changes that have taken place.”
The struggle that all parties are having to find women to head their candidate lists underscores the handicaps faced by women even in more progressive states such as Tunisia.
Parties are required to put up equal numbers of male and female candidates in the election for a 217-member assembly that will run Tunisia for a year while it writes a new constitution. Only the candidates at the top of each party’s lists stand a good chance of winning seats, and only about 5 percent of lists are headed by women.
“It wasn’t easy to find women willing to lead and it wasn’t easy to find men willing to step aside,” said Brahim. “We still have a ways to go as a society.”
Laarayedh said an Ennahdha government would expand women’s rights by ending discrimination over dress.
Under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, women in headscarves as well as men with beards were prevented from attending university or working in the public administration and many companies. Full facial veils are almost non-existent among Tunisian women, though a recent influx of Libyan refugees has brought some to the streets of the capital, Tunis.
“For 50 years, pious Tunisians in beards or headscarves were kept out of many jobs,” Laarayedh said. “They were turned into second-class citizens who could only work in textile factories.”
Jribi of the PDP says Ennahdha engages in double-talk, presenting a moderate image in cities and pushing a more hard- line Islam in rural areas, an allegation Laarayedh denies. The rival candidates agree on one thing, though: that no more than 10 percent of the assembly’s seats are likely to go to women.
Of Ennahdha’s 33 lists, two are headed by women, including a Tunis lawyer who doesn’t wear a headscarf. There are two women in the group’s 17-member political bureau and 20 in its 100- member party assembly.
At a Sept. 16 election meeting in Tunis, hosted by the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, many women berated an Ennahdha candidate for the increasing number of girls wearing headscarves at schools, something that wasn’t tolerated under Ben Ali.
“Wearing a scarf is a personal matter,” said Khira Sghairi, a 56-year-old retired teacher who is no. 2 on Ennahdha’s list in the central town of Kasserine. “I have two daughters who don’t wear it and I’ve never insisted.”
Zina Slitti, a 33-year old nanny who was shopping in the Tunis medina, said the focus on headscarves is misplaced. “We are talking about scarves when there are far more critical things to talk about, like jobs and security and corruption,” said Slitti, who wears her hair uncovered.
Economic growth may grind to a halt this year after the uprising scared off tourists and investors, the government and International Monetary Fund estimate. Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January, and several associates have been put on trial, while the new government must decide how to dispose of assets seized after his ouster, ranging from yachts to stakes in mobile-phone companies.
Faten Khamassi, a 40-year old economics professor, might have been one of the assembly members making that decision. She declined an offer to head a candidate list for the Doustourna, or Our Constitution party. Now, she’s number four on the list for a district of Tunis.
“I thought I’d be more useful supporting a list than heading it,” she said.
--Editors: Ben Holland, Heather Langan.
To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at email@example.com; Jihen Laghmari at firstname.lastname@example.org; Camille Le Tallec through the Cairo newsroom at To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at email@example.com.