News / Africa

Tunisian Women Seeking Place in Future Political Makeup

Women gesture during a protest in Tunis, January 29, 2011
Women gesture during a protest in Tunis, January 29, 2011

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Lisa Bryant

Women have been active participants in anti-government protests that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Now, as Tunisia turns the page on authoritarian rule, women are seeking their place in the future political makeup of this North African country.



There was a familiar sound in the January protests that ousted Tunisia's strongman president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The sound of women -- like teacher Ledia Nebli, who participated in rallies against the regime in downtown Tunis with her husband and three daughters.

Nebli says that of course women were beside men in the demonstrations -- they wanted freedom after more than two decades of authoritarian rule.

Tunisia's women have been beside men in many other ways -- starting with the fight for independence from France more than half a century ago. Many like reporter Samar Neguida are proud of their role.

"Women in Tunisia -- they have more rights than anywhere else in the Arab region and the whole Middle East region. They are allowed to vote, they are allowed to have cars -- not like women in Saudi Arabia. They have rights in the parliament -- more than 25 percent of the lower house of deputies is made up of women."

Now, Tunisian women are searching for their place in this new post-Ben Ali landscape.  Some fear the re-emergence of the once-banned Ennadha Islamist party.

The party's leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, argues he has no intention of imposing his beliefs on Tunisians. But women like Faten Abdelkefi  --  a 33-year-old mother of three and a major participant in the Facebook revolt that drove Ben Ali from power -- were out in force demonstrating against his return late last month.

Abdelkefi says Tunisian women are concerned they may lose the rights they gained if Ennadha emerges as a major political force.

But others like Neguida note that championing women's rights also served as a pretext to give legitimacy to Ben Ali's staunchly secular - but undemocratic -- regime.

"It was, in one way or another, helping Ben Ali. Because he was fighting Islamists by taking off women's veils for example."

With elections expected within six months, women are now considering what part they will play in the political process.

Blogger Abdelkefi says women were so worried about the Islamists returning, they paid less attention to their place in the current interim government -- where only two of the 23 ministers are women. Not one of the 24 newly named governors is a woman.

Abdelkefi suggests one longstanding group -- the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women -- could be reshaped into a political party.  

Abdelkefi is also keeping an eye on women in other Arab countries, now roiled by their own anti-government protests. She says she has been cheering on her counterparts in Egypt who helped drive longtime President Hosni Mubarak from office on Friday.

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