Address by Professor Lilia Labidi at the University of South Africa (UNISA) on International Women’s Day (8 March 2012)
The Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute in partnership with the UNDP hosted the event under the theme:
“The First Anniversary of the Arab Uprising: Women’s Role in the Uprising, What has Happened Since and What at the Prospects for Development?”
Women in a democratic transition: the case of Tunisia
Professor Lilia Labidi
Visiting Research Professor
Middle East Institute, NUS.
I would like to begin by saying how happy I am to be here with you today. It is a wonderful moment both for me and for my compatriots. I want to thank you so much for your invitation and for the welcome and honor you have given to me, and through me to all Tunisian women, whom I had the honor to represent, as Minister for Women’s Affairs, during the critical period from January to December 2011, as we prepared the transition to democracy.
I also want to express my joy to find myself once again in South Africa, a country which inspired us and even guided me and my colleagues at the Ministry as we tried to help our country through this transition. Finally, I would also like you to know that while we were open to learn from the experiences of women throughout the world, it is the women of our continent, with their successes and their failures, who provide us with the most useful lessons.
I want to discuss with you today how women were actors in the Arab Spring and the impact of the Arab Spring on them. Women participated in great numbers in demonstrations which were largely peaceful, without political party affiliation, without religious slogans. The demands, written on paper or on cardboard and in several languages such as Arabic, French, or English – slogans like, “Ben Ali dégage... Game over ... al-hurriya wa al-karama(freedom and dignity),” were voiced in a context marked by unemployment, by the inability to acquire the means to begin a family, and by a deep need for greater freedom. Women also actively participated in a series of strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, meetings, etc., throughout the year 2011 – events that, when they occurred under Ben Ali, while very infrequent were very harshly repressed.
Today I would like to show how this movement is constructing a new morality, in which taking care of others and parity are two of the foundations. To summarize these:
1) As an example of “taking care of others” I would point to the enthusiasm and support the broader Tunisian population showed, after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, toward the inhabitants of regions that began the revolution and towards refugees from Libya. Despite the limited economic means Tunisia possesses, the country welcomed some 900,000 refugees, and on occasion entire Libyan families were hosted by Tunisian families – this was a critical moment when the society as a whole expressed its desire to help those in need.
2)As for parity(equality between men and women in the electoral process), after the revolution government institutions and civil society mobilized – by means of meetings, brochures, television spots, radio messages -- to help inform women throughout the country about women’s rights, citizenship, democracy, “parity”, and Tunisia’s lifting its reservations on the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW). (An example was the establishment of a focus group on gender within the Ministry for Women’s Affairs.) All of these actions mobilized Tunisian feminists and had the support of the broader population, pushing the Tunisian state to be more supportive of women.
A. New Morality.
a) Taking care of others.
The Arab Spring has been important in permitting much of the population to renew its relationship to fundamental humanist values. The results of a study carried out by the Ministry for Women’s Affairs in 2005 showing male and female Tunisians rarely engaged as unpaid volunteers in civil society, devoting only 5 minutes per day on average. This study is no longer relevant, in light of recent events that show a population giving much of itself, out of respect for the sacrifice of those who died after 17 December 2010, during demonstrations that went on for 4 weeks and that resulted in 322 deaths and 3,652 injured. This revolution followed in the path of uprisings in Gafsa in 2008 and in Ben Guerdanne in August 2010, that raised the population’s conscience and saw denunciations with ever greater frequency and strength of what was called “the kleptocracy of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan,” names that became synonyms for corruption, nepotism, totalitarianism, etc. Shocked by the quantity of goods and possessions accumulated by the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan (amounting to between 25 and 45% of the entire country’s wealth), including 340 titles to landed property, 240 companies, 250 luxury vehicles, 1,000 pairs of shoes, strong boxes hidden by false bookshelves and filled with bundles of money and jewelry, the population had the feeling of having been duped and cheated, and demanded that Ben Ali’s advisors and collaborators be judged. Ben Ali’s party that had been in power – the RCD -- was dissolved on 9 March 2011 and the former figures of the RCD were ineligible and not allowed to participate in the elections.
The poverty rate of 3.8% that was publicized as proof of success, especially for international consumption- (Ben Ali only made public this figure which indicated extreme poverty of less than 2 dollars per day, while the figure of 11.8% of the population falling below the level for vulnerable populations was kept hidden) -- was later shown by the provisional government’s Ministry of Social Affairs to actually be 24.7% (a calculation using an empirical methodology based on lists of those receiving social assistance and beneficiaries of free medical care). This also showed more inequality between the sexes and between regions (44% women university graduates and 25% of men university graduates were unemployed in Sidi Bouzid compared the national average of 19% and 13.4%). And it showed the lack of freedom of expression under the former regime, one example of which is that wearing the hijab for ID photos had been prohibited since 1981(Decree N 108) – under the provisional government this was overturned and the hijab would now be permitted.
We must also mention political freedom. The number of political parties after the overthrow of the old regime grew from 8 to 114, few of which had women in leadership roles, except for the secretary-general of the PDP Maya Jribi (Social Democracy, a biologist); the founder of the Democratic Movement for the Edification of Reform(Mouvement Démocratique de l’Edification de Réforme, MDER, a centrist party (Emna Mansour Karoui, an entrepreneur and head of several companies); the spokesperson of Afek Tounes (Progressive liberalism)(Prof. Dr Emna Fkih, a radiologist)); Parti Tunisien (liberal)(Myriam Mnaouer). 162 parties saw their requests for legalization rejected by the Ministry of the Interior; of these, only Maya Jribi is a member of the Constituent Assembly; 187 newspapers and magazines received permission to publish between January and September 2011, the majority in Arabic; “citizen associations” basing themselves on “proximity” to local populations, were formed, among them 30 devoted to women, compared to the 22 associations that were formed during the 23 years of Ben Ali’s rule. These associations have goals such as support for youth, women in the practice of development, the defense of rights and freedoms in the construction of democracy. And within the trade unions, women have protested publicly the complete absence of women at the highest levels of union activity, although women constitute some 2/5 of union members.
All this testifies to the growing desire of the population to participate in public and political life. As the sociologist Saad al-Din Ibrahim wrote, “the middle class and other socio-economic formations have a legitimate quest for participation in the public affairs of their societies. If they are not allowed to do so peacefully, they will force their way into the system or use violence against it, using Islam as a culturally legitimate idiom.” (p. 206. In Doc. 17) p. 383) And Ellen Lust, a political scientist specializing in the Middle East, has argued that youth have demands for greater dignity and social justice and their struggles against corruption must be taken into account by their governments. (document 6)
Reacting to what they saw every evening on their television screens, as investigations into aspects that neither social scientists nor journalists had been allowed to explore, the desire to aid the most disfavored sections of the population increased. Groups of volunteers went by car or by bus, their arms full of presents, apologizing for what they hadn’t seen or hadn’t wanted to see, what they hadn’t believed or didn’t want to believe – all this contradicting the 2005 study carried out by the Ministry for Women, the Family, Children, and the Aged, that I mentioned earlier the results of which had never been published. Publishing them would have shown how Tunisians refused to act in ways that would legitimize the regime, even more so because of the rumors that much of the money collected by the Solidarity Fund set up by Ben Ali did not go to the poor, thus destroying the charitable impulse. In addition, during the past two decades, any actions in the public sphere that weren’t under the control of the authorities were forbidden or put under official control even when these involved actions of solidarity – I’d say, especially when they involved actions of solidarity.
Therefore, when after the revolution al-Nahda was engaging in “solidarity” activities like the celebration of collective marriages, circumcisions, etc., this immediately revived memories of the old regime’s practices and the way it used solidarity activities to its own ends, and led to accusations of corruption and of trying to buy votes.
This generosity towards others contributed to an atmosphere of elation, of joy, which everyone witnessed on 23 October 2011 when Tunisian women were clearly happy to participate in these first free elections. The voters, men and women, waited for hours – sometimes four hours or more – to vote, and the election observors were unanimous in declaring that there were no major irregularities. A very black page in the history of Tunisia had finally been turned.
The discourse of the regime from 1987 to 2011 emphasized that women were present in all the professions, constituting 1/3 of judges, lawyers, and journalists, 2/3 of pharmacists and doctors, 2/5 of university teachers, etc. But these women were not recognized by their communities. With the revolution, Tunisians discovered how feminists were blocked from forming networks for two decades; Tunisians learned that rural women suffer from much discrimination, and that women wearing the hijab, invisible throughout this period in the media and on national television, now were occupying public space. Not only was their mobility and freedom of expression greater, but their actions were being seen in the media.
During the year 2011, actions against the rights of women was condemned every time they appeared. When women of the ATFD (Democratic Women) were stopped from holding a meeting in Kairouan or their caravan was prevented from traveling to Mahdia, etc. – these actions were the target of vehement condemnations, as attacks on freedom of movement, on the right to assemble. And women intellectuals, association members, political activists, some wearing the hijab(headscarf) and some not, demonstrated on Avenue Bourguiba, the main downtown street bearing the name of a man known throughout the Arab world as women’s liberator. The actions and discourse of Nahdha women were also closely examined and their effects analyzed – if they refused to sign a petition to preserve the principle of parity, then women’s groups mobilized and called for vigilance in this area.
A general mobilization was apparent: meetings and demonstrations became more frequent, social networks were activated, the Kasba square (the seat of government, which had become a privileged location for popular demonstrations starting 14 January 2011) was also occupied. A petition signed by more than 1,000 women demanding dissolving the UNFT for having been an instrument of the ruling party was submitted to the Prime Minister’s office, and some women had meetings with the prime minister. New women’s associations, until then not very widely known, approached the media and gained publicity for their actions.
The law on parity was adopted by the High Instance for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, of Political Reform, and of the Democratic Transition(la Haute instance pour la realization des objectifs de la revolution, de la réforme politique et de la transition démocratique) -- formed in March 2011 and dissolved with the elections of October 2011 – with 84 votes for and 34 against. Yadh Ben Achour, President of this institution, which numbered 155 people (including representatives from 12 political parties and 18 civil society organizations, as well as a variety of national figures, representatives from the regions and from the families of the martyrs of the 14 January revolution), admitted that parity threatened to create difficulties for some political groups, especially in some regions, but that adopting this principle was in direct continuity with Tunisian reformist thinking and with the social revolution marked by the promulgation of the Personal Status Code in 1956. Al-Nahda Party(Harakat al-Nahda - the Renaissance Movement), with an Islamic orientation, created some surprise when it voted for parity, whereas the parties representing the ideology of Arab nationalism and the unique trade union(the UGTT) did not vote for the parity principle.
Some political parties were troubled by the parity principle. Some argued that women, less involved in politics, prefer to exercise what is called a “democracy of proximity,” engaging in local matters, such as those of a municipality. Among its detractors, some who argued that while the parity principle was based on equality, the parity law would put women in the position of religious or ethnic minorities. For Sami Jerbi, a jurist, parity was a form of positive discrimination that had been imported from the United States and he thought it abnormal that a candidate be favored because of sex and not because of competence. For some, parity is just a bit of decoration. And some others argued that the parity law penalized them since lists without 50% women were to be eliminated.
In fact, the short period between approval of this law and the elections made it difficult for parties to find women candidates, even where they wanted to, even more so because, for two decades, the opposition and women’s associations were not able to meet freely, to enter into contact with the population, etc. Besides, neither the authorities nor the official women’s organizations like the UNFT(National Union of Tunisian Women) and the ATM(Tunisian Association of Mothers, whose president was suspected of corruption and fled shortly after Ben Ali did) played a leadership role for women, although they never failed to call upon women when they needed to fill a stadium for a presidential speech or to promote the First Lady. (This attitude had its origins in the UNFT role at its creation after independence in 1956, one of its missions being to get women to vote – women’s right to vote was introduced in 1957.
Radhia Haddad, UNFT president in its early years and the first and unique woman elected to the first parliament, recounted to me how, at the time of municipal elections, she and her colleagues faced great difficulty in convincing women to be photographed for their identity cards – the women were convinced that images were forbidden in Islam. The UNFT, bringing together women’s organizations that existed before Independence in 1956, became in 1960 a significant force in the political field, with some 40,000 members, 5,000 girls and 85 sections across the country.) Later, during the first Ben Ali years, the Tunisian Association of Mothers(ATM) became another important women’s organization behaving in a similar way to the UNFT.
These practices continued up until the eve of Ben Ali’s flight when, after his final speech, in which he repeated General deGaulle’s famous phrase, “je vous ai compris”, “I have understood you”, the UNFT, of which Salwa Terzi was president, had prepared a demonstration in support of Ben Ali, having rented buses which would bring men and women from throughout Tunisia, having them all wear a violet scarf, the color of Ben Ali’s ruling party that the television stations would show as evidence of popular support for Ben Ali.
Returning to the question of parity, some political figures intervened with Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi, who then proposed a quota of 30%, rather than parity, which was criticized by feminists who saw in quotas a philosophy based on biological materialism. Women opposed and resisted the Prime Minister’s proposal. Radhia Bel Hadj Zekri, a teacher, published, in the name of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development(AFTURD), a declaration calling for vigilance so that Tunisian women would not suffer what happened to Algerian women after the war of liberation. Women management figures, journalists, and doctors, also got involved and moved throughout the country to encourage women to vote in the elections for the Constituent Assembly. Women artists like Jalila Baccar, Leila Toulab, Selma Baccar, Raja Ben Ammar, etc., also got involved in political action and for the defense of artists’ freedom of expression. The slogan “Women’s march continues, for equality, citizenship, and dignity” emerged.
Among feminists, there were numerous skeptics concerning parity and a lot of skeptical commentary circulated in the media. On the whole, they feared that the writing of a new constitution would be controlled by Nahda’s women activists. Hafidha Chekir, a jurist, argued that a 50% representation for women on the electoral lists wasn’t sufficient and that the political parties should put women at the head of their lists, in order to ensure them visibility in political circles after the High Instance had played its role. Already in the first weeks of the High Instance concerns were being expressed, for it was thought that parity would only give women a 5-10% portion of members of the Constituent Assembly. Some time later, as judicial procedures settled disputed cases over parity in the election lists, this proportion progressed. Nora Borsali, a teacher and journalist, estimates the proportion at between 15-20%. Another view is expressed by Gazi Ghrairi, a male jurist, that “even though the Assembly may not show parity, what’s important is that a large number of women will be active in the electoral campaign, they will play a political role, they will move throughout the country to hold meetings and speak to the media.” Faiza Skandrani, a teacher and publisher, founder of the association “Equality and Parity,” continued to fight for training women to campaign for the Assembly.
And, by the end of August, noticing the few women who were heading the electoral lists, some feminists met with the political party leadership, to get them more involved in the process of parity and organized conferences, debates, and brainstorming sessions aiming to highlight what was at stake in the elections.
The results of a survey taken in April 2011 and in September 2011, before the October elections, showed that the situation remained incomprehensible for 52.6% and 50.9% of persons questioned. In addition, 51% declared, in July, to not know whom to vote for.
It was in this context that I was head of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. When I arrived at the Ministry for Women’s Affairs I encountered a ministry that was, in fact, a shell. Decisions were taken elsewhere, in the Presidential palace, and then the implementation of projects was given to the UNFT and some NGOs. Was there continuity, an assessment, a vision in the programs carried out? The team that was in charge of women and the family was extremely small and mostly administrative. The Ministry also suffered from a flagrant absence of technical skills, putting the Ministry in a fragile position and making it totally dependent on external experts. Also, the absence of ministry representatives in the regions was also a major difficulty. During my time as minister, we created what we called “Universities for women’s rights and democracy”, which was a three-day period per year to provide training for staff from the ministry and from other departments that worked with the ministry because, without internal expertise, the ministry could not develop extensive programs in the regions and respond to the needs of women in different sectors. Without be allowed to recruit new personnel(for financial reasons), we were able to re-organize and to multiply by three the number of people working in the women’s sector, train the ministry’s entire staff in matters relating to violence against women, and send several individuals abroad for training on gender issues lasting between 15 days and three months.
The first two months were spent listening to the concerns of citizens and of those who worked in the ministry. We met more than 1,000 people whose concerns were presented in a report to the Prime Minister. The 3rd and 4th months were devoted to winning the trust of the population by involving them in setting up local programs, reconciling women with a ministry that had the reputation of serving the needs of the First Lady rather than those of Tunisian women.
Committees were set up to see what were the defects with regard to women that were contained in the various judicial statutes; training programs for women were established in collaboration with other ministries; bilateral meetings on particular issues were held with other departments and with regional governors; activities with women artisans and farmers were developed; and women were encouraged to form associations that would help them resolve collectively the problem of women in their communities. Finally, several seminars and conferences, both national and international, took place, to discuss women’s rights, to give visibility to women, and to open the media to women’s concerns. But, the time and space given over to women political figures remained limited: 10.4% for radio, 10.21% for television, 2.85% for the press. The 3rd report on Monitoring of the Media shows that the space given for women was 4.22% compared to 41.86% for men.
It is also important to mention the state of moral decay in the Ministry as a whole. Funds were allocated to associations without any monitoring; instances of plagiarism, etc. A particularly shocking example was the theft in the early 2000s of Tahar Haddad’s papers that had been bought by CREDIF, an independent structure on the financial level but under the authority of Ministry. Tahar Haddad had openly published a feminist book in 1930 but then had to live in great isolation after being attacked by the Zeitounian bourgeoisie for his writings. Up until 2011, nothing had been done to recover these papers.
Among other measures we took after entering the Ministry was to distinguish between the Ministry as a public service and the organizations that had been closely tied to the ruling regime. The salary of the UNFT’s president (which was taken from the Ministry’s budget by an unpublished presidential decree) was suspended following the revolution by presidential decree; recognition of the right of women to wear the hijab; calls for parity in elections and for establishing a Commission similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to prepare for reconciliation; recognition of associations that had formerly been marginalized; putting an end to the organic relationship between the government and associations like the UNFT, BASMA, and the ATM and the creation of a commission to examine requests for financing by associations working in the women’s sector; and lifting Tunisia’s reservations regarding the Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination against Women(CEDAW). The most difficult, perhaps, was to work in a situation where administrative restrictions meant that one could not recruit one’s own staff and had to work with staff who, in one way or another, had been tied to the RCD and to the UNFT, BASMA and or the ATM.
The results of a survey taken before the October 2011 elections, indicated that 71% of people were disposed to vote for lists headed by women, but, in fact, women constituted only 7% (110 women) of the heads of political party electoral lists, among the some 1,517 lists and 11,000 candidates for the 105 political parties. This came as a shock. The Qotb (Modernist Democratic Pole -- Pôle Démocratique Moderniste) was the only party to have offered as many women as men as list head (16 women, 17 men). So, in spite of a discourse favorable to women’s rights and parity, party leadership continued in the masculine mode: Nahda (3 women list heads of 33 lists); the Tunisian Communist Workers Party(POCT-- Parti des Ouvriers Communistes Tunisiens, 4 women heads of 32 lists); the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP-- Parti démocrate progressiste, 3 women for 33 lists); the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedoms(Ettakatol – FDTL, 3 women for 33 lists); the Congress for the Republic(CPR-- Congrès pour la République, 2 women for 33 lists); etc.
The results gave 41.47% of the votes to al-Nahda (which appealed to voters between 20 and 29 years old, to women, to city-dwellers, to those who had completed only primary or secondary school); 13.82% to the CPR (appealing to men, secondary school level, aged between 30 and 39 ans); and 8.76% to the Arhida the Popular Petition(appealing to the poor and to rural voters), with a scattering of votes for the other parties, etc. The traditional parties of the opposition, like the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedoms(Ettakatol – FDTL), the Tunisian Communist Workers Party(POCT-- Parti des Ouvriers Communistes Tunisiens) and the PDM had very weak support.
There was widespread surprise at the election results, with some tears of disappointment being shed, with some voters saying they were “shattered by the results,” that “So much effort for so little return.” Banners with slogans like, “Give us back our votes,” were carried by disappointed activists.
We also might want to raise some other questions about the meaning of the elections, what we might call “semiotic” questions. The high vote for Nahda was attributed to the fact that Nahdha had never been involved in the government, that it was likely to show greater morality in its affairs, and that many of its members had paid a great price for their opposition to the Ben Ali regime, suffering exile, prison, torture, having their wives raped, their families separated or destroyed. Some saw Nejib Chabbi, founder of the PDP(a party formed during the Ben Ali period), as positioning himself from the moment of Ben Ali’s departure as president and, in squarely opposing Nahdha, appeared in some ways to be in continuity with the RCD, Ben Ali’s ruling party. Posters on the roads that showed him together with Maya Jribi, the party’s secretary-general, meant to show support for parity, raised questions about where his party’s money was coming from and reminded many people of images of the Ben Ali couple.
These results also tell us something about the declining power of the traditional political class. The traditional opposition had been treated roughly by the regime, which restricted its discussions on public freedoms to the capital city, thus cutting it off from social reality. Without a direct relationship to the socio-economic reality of the population, the opposition was unable to respond to the demands of the youth, the poor, and women, or to attract them, whereas Nahdha succeeded by reassuring women that it would strengthen the rights of women, that it wouldn’t question the Personal Status Code.
Instead of a punishment against corruption, the vote was a moral one against those who had not been present during times of need – a Nahdha woman reproached a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women(ATFD) for not aiding the mothers of arrested activists, for not supporting women wearing the hijab. Members of a number of political parties admitted that they had not understood the country’s reality, that they had lost contact with the heartland. etc.
At one point after the Constituent Assembly convened, Souad Abderrahim, a Nahdha member, was roughly handled as she arrived at the Assembly and she vowed to bring a case against the Democratic Women’s group, identifying one of the women who had roughly handled her as a member of this group. To better understand this incident and what motivated such an attack, we need to remember that Souad Abderrahim, a pharmacist who doesn’t wear the hijab and who was list head for Nahdha in her district, had made statements critical of Tunisia’s lifting its reservations to CEDAW in August 2011 and had questioned the fundamental rights of children born outside marriage and of their mothers, strengthening the suspicions of feminist activists that women’s rights were at risk.
For Khédija Cherif(former president of the ATFD), this situation suggested that it might no longer be possible to advance women’s rights and people would have to work simply to protect what rights they now had. Amel Bel Hadj, current ATFD president, fears “a real regression in our society and an attitude that ignores and denigrates the struggles of Tunisian women for equality and for the abolition of violence against women.” There was some talk early on of naming Souad Abderrahim as Minister for Women’s Affairs, but facing the argument of amateurism, this talk disappeared and, finally, Nahdha awarded this position to one of its partners in the troïka(the three parties that formed the new government).
Some recent statements by the current Minister for Women’s Affairs, Sihem Badi, who is a member of the CPR, supporting orfi marriage(marriages taking place outside the official legal system and involving only an exchange of contracts between bride and groom, a contract that is not registered) as an act of individual freedom and a matter for ministries other than the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, gave rise to strong reactions among many sections of the Tunisian population, since orfi marriage would provide none of the protections for women and children ensured by the Personal Status Code as well as other legal codes. Following these reactions the Minister withdrew her statement. Strong reactions were also in evidence at the warm welcome she gave to the popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, etc.
While al-Nahda continues to be suspected by many people of doublespeak, a number of researchers have shown that, since the 1980s, there is good evidence that Islam is not an obstacle to democratization (Tessler. p. 350. 5Islam and democracy, Doc. 14). It should also be pointed out that when the traditional left, except for the PDM, put very few women as list heads, they were not accused of a similar kind of doublespeak.
What solution can today’s Tunisian feminists who think about the principle of parity offer to the problem shown in Tunisian elections, where even though the principle was followed, its application showed its limits. Very rarely did the political parties of the traditional left place women at the head of their lists.As the weeks passed after the elections, some women decided that they would continue their struggle outside the Assembly. Women, the youth, unemployed college graduates, citizens of many different backgrounds showed up for a demonstration on the opening of the Constituent Assembly, to show that their needs had to be taken into account, to remind the Assembly that even those who didn’t win elections must be reckoned with and they would remain vigilant. These demonstrations lasted several days, and there were scenes in front of the Assembly of women in tears, as though they were experiencing the death of a loved one.
After the Constituent Assembly opened, a “civil constituent assembly” was initiated by Sana Ben Achour, a jurist at the Faculty of Law and Political Science in Tunis, bringing together some 150 people, with, as co-presidents, a man(Slaheddine Jourchi, journalist and human rights activist) and a woman(Majida Boulila of Sfax, who bears the name of a woman militant well-known for her struggle against colonialism, who was imprisoned as a subversive by the colonial police during the 1950s, freed shortly before she was to give birth, and who she died several days later.) And some time after the three leading parties formed a Troika (consisting of Nahdha, the CPR, and Etakattol) to set up the new provisional governement, there were some resignations among the last two of these parties and a regrouping of some of the smaller parties. Many militants of Nahdha who were members of the UGTT, left the union following conflicts between it and the government.
To conclude, I would say that in some ways 2011 was a virtual return to 1987, the year when Habib Bourguiba was deposed from his “Presidency for Life” and when hopes for the democratization that so many wished for, was postponed into the indefinite future. And now, although revolt was led by youth and a new generation, one might argue that it has given an opportunity for a political rebirth to the elites marginalized by Ben Ali.
In order to avoid a repetition of this process, I would say that the lessons to be drawn from this transitional year, a transition we hope will lead to a democratic Tunisia, remain to be articulated, but they should take into account a number of factors:
1) the enthusiasm and the generosity towards others, the desire to take care of others, is a synonym of the desire for repair, for sharing, in contrast to the “solidarity” promoted by the former regime and that was publicized in an extreme way to promote the presidential image without improving the population’s situation. The reality that television viewers saw as reporters on national and private channels did their investigations, shocked viewers, showing them regions of the country that seemed frozen in time. Political party financing was the topic of many debates – where was the money coming from? were the parties receiving money from abroad? who was paying for the videos on the web, or for the meetings in the stadium, or for the posters along the roads? The USA and Qatar were often named as supporting particular politicians. This suspicion and caution, if it betrays anything, it testifies to a desire to struggle against corruption, to never again allow our weakness to be used by others for political ends.
2) The discussion over parity brought out a number of contradictions. Those who were expected to vote against parity voted for it, those who were expected to vote for it rejected it. Both responses reveal the tensions that pervade the various groups in Tunisia. And, if do not want women, who represent 60% of university students today, to be relegated to subordinate positions tomorrow and to be forced to seek their Karama elsewhere, programs need to be set up to promote feminist ways of thinking and acting
3) The skepticism of politicians – not to speak of their misogyny – and of feminists who, in their rejection of Islam, risk being seen as relays for Western islamophobia, must be taken into account and, in consequence, educational programs need to be set up in schools, factories, neighborhoods, etc., on subjects like the meaning of citizenship, freedom of expression, democracy; that values need to be developed collectively, with each learning from the other, and especially to build upon one’s own resources, so that everyone has the feeling of working for one’s own benefit as well as for the benefit of the community and the country, and where it would be possible to elaborate a new definition of social justice, of power, of the relationship between private and public (Elani Varikas, p. 12. Doc. 4).Civil society, parliamentarians, political figures, all must understand that diversity isn’t dangerous as long as it doesn’t block the funcioning of society and the state. The civil society’s constituent assembly – an idea to promote because it can play a mediating role – can function as a safeguard to protect power from itself. Building bridges between feminists and those who are elected to office – whatever their orientation and political affiliation – is of great urgency in order to go beyond the interests of one’s own group and to develop a broader vision. For “it is less the fact of being a woman than that of being a feminist which is the best guarantee for the political representation of women.” (p. 341, Doc. 8, Tremblay and Pelletier) Tunisian women cannot allow two more decades to be wasted. And other women of the region and of our continent also need the Tunisian experience of democracy and parity to succeed, for while we have often found women central in political discourse, as we saw throughout this year in Tunisia, we have also often seen women throughout history marginalized by arguments that subordinate their needs to supposedly higher goals, limiting the possibilities of women to influence events, as Mervat Hatem has noted(p. 23, Doc. 15). If we can succeed, this will give us all hope and provide another example of how, when we work together, we can surmount even the most difficult of obstacles.