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Political Marginalization of Women Hinders Tunisian Democracy

Four years after the popular uprising that led to the removal of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia held its first free and democratic presidential election in the country's history in December 2014. AWID spoke to Khadija Cherif, one-time contender for the position of Minister of Women, Family and Children to learn about some of the challenges to women’s political participation in the country.

The elections ushered in a new administration in February 2015, consisting of 8 women[1] in the 42- member government (19%)[2]. At the parliamentary level, the elections resulted in an Assembly of People's Representatives consisting of 31.3% women MPs. Khadija Cherif, Under-Secretary-General of International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and a feminist activist in Tunisia[3] was a contender for the position of Minister of Women, Family and Children in January 2015, but in the end was excluded from the final composition of the new government.  She highlights the limits of the Tunisian democratic process in light of various challenges to women's full and effective participation in public and political life.

AWID: How has women's participation in public and political life in Tunisia evolved during the last five years?

Khadija Cherif (KC): Women’s participation in public and political life has undoubtedly improved over the past four years. Under the Ben Ali dictatorship, only women from the ruling party and those who were close had the right to express themselves, they had no critical sense towards official policy, likewise women parliamentarians were government mouthpieces. Feminist organizations experienced all forms of repression and could not carry out their activities. They were persecuted, harassed, were not able to be active or get their message out. After 14 January 2011, women were in the streets, drove their demands loudly, and were involved throughout the whole democratic transition process namely in drafting the Constitution.

Today challenges are numerous and the issues are important. Gender equality, parity, elimination of violence, and other crucial issues enshrined in the Constitution are under debate. While feminists are mobilizing to ensure harmonization of laws and the Constitution, some are questioning achievements on the basis of the interpretation of the Constitution and especially its article 1[4].  

In spite of the obstacles and questioning the achievements made, today women are actors in their future because of their engagement and freedom of action. The revolution facilitated better knowledge of our societal realities, women identify problems, define priorities and strategies to advance their issues and to be a stakeholders in the democratic and egalitarian processes .

AWID: Can you explain how the conservative Islamist party, Ennahdha, had the largest number of women in its parliamentary group following the 2011 elections[5]?

KC: An important number of women of Ennahdha accessed the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in 2011 in spite of their conservatism because of the rule of parity in electoral lists and the success of Ennahdha in the elections ranked as the first elected (non-majority) party. Women who belong to this party have consequently been the first to be elected. Islamist women were able to join the NCA thanks to the feminist struggles that they're so critical of and object to. The High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolutionary Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, which was responsible for preparing legislation for the October 2011 elections, was composed of women and Democrats who pushed for a law on parity in electoral lists. Resistance was strong but thanks to the mobilization in- and outside the NCA, the parity law passed. The nahdhaouis[6] did not oppose because women from Ennahdha party have demonstrated, in their majority, their allegiance to the political and ideological party line. The best example is the proposal to include the complementarity between men and women in one of the articles of the Constitution, initiated by the NCA's Commission on Rights and Freedoms, which was headed by a woman of Ennadha, which illustrates how ideology and party affiliation determine their position.

AWID: Article 46 of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution calls for equal representation for women and men, however the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections resulted in only 31.3% women in the Assembly of People's Representatives and 19% in the new government in February 2015. How can this be explained?

KC: Article 46 of the Constitution stipulates that “The State seek to achieve parity between men and women in elected assemblies” and although a parity rule has been taken into account within electoral lists, this rule has not been enforced for heads of lists[7].  Most political parties reproduced the experience of 2011 and didn’t have the willingness and the courage to interpret article 46 correctly to ensure better presence of women in the Assembly. This behavior clearly demonstrates resistance to this issue.  An appeal to the Administrative Court for non-compliance with the Constitution was rejected. In the future the Constitutional Court (which is not yet in place) will have to rule on this kind of issue. Today, the struggle led by women consists of the harmonization of laws with the Constitution to guarantee its implementation with respect for human rights and an effective presence in political and public field.

AWID: You were chosen for the Ministry of Women, Family and Children in January 2015 but then were excluded from the final composition of the new government. Some have said that the reason you weren't appointed was fear of your feminist image. What is your take?

KC: I do not think this was a statement about me personally. What is at stake is the realization of a vision that makes women’s issues a central issue and considers women’s status as decisive in political agenda. Democracy cannot be achieved marginalizing women. The reforms that would have been undertaken feared what I call the "Islamic-conservatives" stream, which stands also in the majority party Nidaa Tounes. Political alliances and partisan calculations resulted in my marginalization in the first government. I wish that the Ministry of Women, Family and Children succeeds in the interest of Tunisian women. This Ministry should rather be named the Ministry of Women so as not to be limited to the domestic realm and as not to be a  technical ministry. I hope that we will soon have women heading the sovereign ministries.

AWID: What silencing strategies are used against women in the public sphere and how can they circumvented?

KC: I don’t think that the silencing strategies are successful in spite of their attempts. Those attempts consist of demonizing feminists and discrediting their claims. Defamatory campaigns were led after the revolution and political ideologies around the re-Islamization of the society were spread with specific implications on women’s roles and status in society. Calls for implementing the Sharia, for polygamy, for customary marriage and for creating Islamic kindergartens (on the Wahhabi model) have nevertheless not been successful, thanks to the mobilization of all citizens, and especially of women.

There are remarkable feminists in the Assembly today, and democrats will not allow those silencing strategies because of their involvement and vigilance. 

Politicians and journalists have a key role to play in changing mindsets to prevent any regression on silencing women. The media does not engage enough on women’s issue because of negligence or they are unaware of what is at stake.  Media coverage still falls short of expectations, television and radio shows are mainly all-male.

AWID: Some women voters, especially in rural areas, face socio-economic challenges to participating in elections. How are illiteracy and traveling time to voting offices important factors to consider in the democratic process?

KC: In rural areas, the situation is a concern at two levels: heavy sociological factors (mindsets, social practices etc.) and economic and social issues (poverty, unemployment etc), which often result in withdrawing girls from school.  Without proper education, there is no hope about women being conscious of their role in society and the importance of their vote during elections.

Knowing the challenges of women in rural area to access information and to voting offices, several feminist and civic associations have undertaken awareness-raising efforts on the ground. They have asked the President of the Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections (ISIE - Independent High Authority for the Elections) to make available to population, and firstly to women, adequate transportation to polling stations on election day so they can exercise their right to vote in complete independence and avoid repeating the experience of 2011. Unfortunately, this was not possible and political parties that had the resources ensured that transportation and pressure the women on the vote. For upcoming municipal elections, those failures will need to be addressed in order to allow women to choose their elected representatives freely.


[1] Of the 8 women members of the new government, 4 are independent, 2 belong to the political party Ennahdha, 1 to the winning party Nida Tounes and one other to the political party Afek Tounes.
[2] The previous government was composed of 3 women out of 28 members.
[4] Article 1 of 2014 Constitution mentions: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Islam is its religion, Arabic its language, and the Republic its system.”
[5] The Islamist party Ennahdha won the National Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011.
[6] Those who belong to the Ennahdha party.
[7] This relates to the difference of « horizontal »  and « vertical » parity. The horizontal parity refers to the heads of electoral lists whereas the vertical applies only within the list.