Wednesday, October 5

What the appointment of Najla Bouden as Tunisia’s first head of government means for women

Sara Medini, an analyst with the Tunisian feminist organization Aswat Nissa, was in a meeting when she saw the news on her phone. First he was surprised, then he was glad. “I didn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. I thought I had misread. I said to my colleagues: ‘You have named a woman! You have named a woman! We were all delighted. We had goose bumps. It is a historic moment. Although this does not mean that the government has carte blanche, “says Medini.

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The decision of President Kais Saied to appoint Najla Bouden, a senior official of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and professor of geological engineering, as head of the Government of Tunisia makes her the first woman in that country and any other in the world Arab to hold that position.

The news has been greeted with relief by those who hope this is a step towards normalcy in the country, after the president decided to oust his prime minister in July and suspend Parliament in what many called a ” coup”.

But it is not yet clear what this appointment will mean for Tunisian women. “That a woman has been appointed is excellent, it is a step forward and breaks stereotypes. But it is not enough. The government’s political program must follow egalitarian principles,” says Medini. “It has come at an incredibly critical time. It has a lot of work ahead of it.”

Exception in the Arab world

For decades, Tunisia has been considered a champion country for women’s rights in the Arab world, with a package of family laws, passed just months after independence in 1956, that abolished polygamy and allowed women to file for divorce. .

Women won the right to vote in 1957 and were able to run for elected office in 1959. In 2011, while the country was undergoing the first Arab Spring revolution, the one that overthrew the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there were women in the demonstrations.

However, some feel that the path to equality has stopped. Saied is against reforming laws that would provide equal inheritance rights for women, something the late President Beji Caid Essebsi had promised to anger conservatives and religious figures.

Since the revolution, there have been legislative victories, notably a 2017 law that aims to reduce violence against women. But Medini says there is still a great deal of work to do “at a practical level” to ensure the changes are implemented.

In addition to this, Tunisia’s severe economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit women. According to the 2020 World Economic Forum Gender Inequality Index, Tunisia fell from 90th place to 124th between 2006 and 2020.

The crisis “has accentuated the economic weaknesses of women and thus also their dependence on their families, on their husbands,” says Medini. “For example, a woman who is a victim of violence at the hands of her husband cannot escape from home or file for divorce, because she does not have the necessary money.”

The price of your shoes

For Halima Ouanada, a professor at El Manar University in Tunisia, some of the reactions to Bouden’s appointment highlight the challenges that women in power still face.

“Rather than insist on her role as a university professor, on her international reputation as an academic, after more than 13 years of experience in managing large-scale projects, the debate centered on comments about the price of her shoes or of her shoes. glasses, “writes Ouanada in Le Temps News. “She was presented as the daughter of such and the woman of such … as if nothing was due to herself, her intelligence and her perseverance.”

Bouden’s appearance in the spotlight took many by surprise. At the age of 63, her career in Tunisia focused on the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and as a university professor.

For Hèla Yousfi, a sociology professor at the Dauphine University in Paris, her appointment was not surprising given Saied’s own career as law professor turned politician.

“Kais Saied came to power through an extra-parliamentary popular movement, which expressed its total mistrust of the political class,” says Yousfi. “Thus, there is consistency between the appointment of someone outside the political class. It is consistent with the absolute crisis of faith that the Tunisian people feel for the political class, which for 10 years has not been able to fulfill the aspirations of the Tunisian revolution.”

They fear that Bouden has little room for maneuver. Saied has maintained the emergency measures presented in July, thus ensuring that the prime minister will respond exclusively to him. Some assure that he will be just a pawn of the president.

Yousfi acknowledges that risk, but says it is too early to anticipate an outcome in the country’s unpredictable political landscape.

“If my experience in Tunisian politics has taught me anything, it is to wait and see,” he says. “Nobody had thought that Kais Saied would appoint a woman as head of government. It is possible that his role is limited: he has an organic conception of power.”

“But you cannot predict what will happen. We must wait for the program [político], to the vision, and also to your proposal in terms of an institutional roadmap. Now we are in limbo. You have to wait and see. ”

Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies