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.