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Haunted by threats and intimidation, women candidates are first victims of Tunisia’s elections

English Personal Freedoms

Wednesday 11 January 202312:57 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

تهديدات وتخويف وتشويه... المرشحات أول ضحايا الانتخابات التونسية


“During the election campaign, a new phase of pressure and harassment began, because accepting my candidacy alongside a group of men had angered them, or at least some of them, and also perhaps frightened them, because the idea of a woman winning in front of them, especially in the political sphere, is considered a blatant transgression. That's why they unleashed false rumors against me, like how I was using my workplace to collect tazkiya recommendations, and they filed a case against me. They were malicious accusations that never happened, so much so that I had to apply for leave throughout the campaign period, and I was very careful not to benefit from or take advantage of my work. They also tried to incite my family and husband against me so that I would not continue to run as a candidate, and leave the competition to only the men. The most dangerous part was the threatening letters that were sent to me through some relatives. They basically stated: ‘Withdraw your candidacy quietly. It’ll be better for you, or you will see something dangerous’. Also, my female co-workers who supported me were harassed as well. The threats scared me so much that I didn't allow my little girl to go to school during the last week of the election campaign, fearing she would be harmed. But on the other hand, it increased my determination to continue and make greater efforts to succeed and block the way for this kind of people who wouldn’t even make any significant addition to this frightening and backward mentality". With these words, Hind (a pseudonym for one of the candidates, added for her safety), spoke about the many restrictions and harassment she faced during her election campaign, in the early legislative elections in Tunisia, only because she is a woman who decided to enter the world of politics that men consider to be their field, and it worries or perhaps frightens them that women will enter it.

I was openly mocked and faced the ridicule of many men, who laughed and belittled my candidacy, and bet on my failure to collect ‘tazkiya’ recommendations and therefore my failure to run just because I am a woman

"Male-dominated elections"

On December 17, Tunisia organized early legislative elections, the first since President Kais Saied announced his exceptional measures on July 25, 2021. The participation rate of women in running for these legislative elections did not exceed 15%, in a remarkable decline compared to their attendance in the electoral events that took place during the past decade.

The challenges Hind faced did not stop at male competitors, but also included family and co-workers, "My candidacy was not easy, from the period of gathering tazkiya recommendations to the election campaign. At first, I faced great opposition from family members and some colleagues who kept repeating: ‘Stay away from politics, you are a woman, and you will not be able to add or bring much to the region in the current situation’, and ‘Why not let your husband run instead of you, as he is a man and is better able to do the job?’ But I decided to turn a deaf ear to what they were saying, especially since my husband was very supportive of me. That is why the period of collecting tazkiya recommendations was very difficult, and attempts to push me to withdraw continued in light of the prevailing thinking that gives merit to men, even if the academic competence of women is much greater, especially since I wanted to select people with a strong degree of awareness and knowledge to recommend and vouch for me.”

During the legislative elections, 1,058 candidates competed for 161 seats in the House of Representatives, in 161 constituencies, of whom only 120 were women, a ratio that made men six times more likely to win a seat in the parliament than women.

The issue of tazkiya recommendations is also among the most prominent reasons that led to this significant decline in the level of Tunisian women’s presence in the electoral process

According to reports made by women's organizations, the remarkable decline in women's participation in legislative elections is due to the gaps and loopholes included in the new electoral law, which prevent a balanced and meaningful participation of women, as it dropped the principle of parity between men and women, unlike the previous electoral law, which adopted the principle of vertical parity between women and men in electoral lists. The reports also warned that women’s attendance would be weak, if not non-existent, and explicitly considered that the new law excluded women altogether.

The issue of tazkiya recommendations (the process whereby partisans would have to vouch for new applicants) is also one of the most prominent reasons that led to this significant decline in the level of Tunisian women's presence in the electoral process. It was difficult for them to collect 400 tazkiya recommendations, which led to their rejection, as women often do not have the same extensive social networks locally to sponsor their candidacy, especially in the interior regions and popular neighborhoods where men’s networks are much broader than that of women.

The electoral law issued by Tunisian President Kais Saied last July imposes a requirement to obtain 400 tazkiya recommendations for the candidate, equally between men and women, and that among the 400 people giving the tazkiya recommendations, 125 must be under the age of 35.

Double symbolic violence

Najla Ben Miloud (a candidate for the Souk al-Ahad constituency, Kebili Governorate), also faced many difficulties just because of her decision to run in the elections, despite her important academic and scientific training, for she is a researcher, university professor, and patent holder of a sterilization machine that uses ultraviolet rays.

She tells Raseef22, “The decision to run in itself was not easy. It required a strong woman who was aware of what awaited her and was ready for all obstacles, and especially not be affected by what is said around her, as well as continue her mission with persistence and determination, because she’s well aware that the road would not be smooth in the first place, because she’s a woman who ventured into politics in front of a group of males who did not accept the idea that a woman would compete with them or would win in front of them. There were many difficult situations, but the most severe one was when some people, whether from the family circle or from outside, attempted to influence my daughters, especially my youngest daughter, and turn them against me. Some of them deliberately intercepted my young daughter and asked her provocatively: ‘Do you miss your mother? Poor thing, your mother left you alone all day, your mother did not care about you and your studies. Are you okay with the fact that your mother goes to look for tazkiya recommendations and only comes back at night and leaves you to eat food from the street?’ They said this along with other things that are never appropriate to say to a little girl, because she’s easily influenced by what is being said because she basically does not understand what is going on too well."

“The decision to run in itself was not easy. It required a strong woman who was aware of what awaited her and was ready for all obstacles, and especially not be affected by what is said around her, as well as continue her mission with persistence and determination"

Najla was able to hold on, thanks to the support of her husband, who mobilized to help her by all means to withstand all restrictions, harassment, and obstacles, and was not affected by the attempts of many to pit him against his wife by saying things like: ‘How do you accept to take up the responsibility of the house and children, while your wife roams the streets to collect tazkiya recommendations or to carry out her electoral campaign? Why doesn’t she cook for you? How do you accept that you and your daughters will eat restaurant food throughout this period?’ And other sayings that many people, whether from the family or outside it, tried to pass on several occasions to her husband, but he ignored all of this and chose to stand with her.

Najla adds, "During the experience, I discovered that women are still treated like they aren’t humans with full rights and duties, and are not seen as equivalent to and superior to men in competence. I was openly mocked and faced the ridicule of many men, who laughed and belittled my candidacy, and bet on my failure to collect tazkiya recommendations and therefore my failure to run just because I am a woman despite my proven academic competence, at home and abroad, which surpasses them all. Those cynical looks made me decide, upon my arrival in parliament, to be a fierce defender of women's rights, who are still the weakest link in society — the toiling women who work hard in the streets, farms, and even in construction for the sake of their families, women who are subjected to violence in all its forms at an increasing rate, despite the existence of an arsenal of important laws that support their rights but have not been activated. I will strive to put in place the necessary mechanisms to activate them on the ground as they should be."

Goodbye to parity

It is noteworthy that Tunisian women have recorded a good presence in legislative councils and assemblies during the past ten years, and the principle of parity between men and women in elected assemblies was one of the most important achievements related to women's rights after the January 14, 2011 revolution in Tunisia. This principle was first enshrined in the 2014 constitution, and the country's 2014 electoral law mandated that candidate lists include equal numbers of men and women. As a result of this law, 68 women were elected to parliament in 2014, representing more than 34 percent of the seats in parliament, a figure that gave Tunisia the highest female presence in parliament in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2019, however, that percentage fell to 26 percent.

The new law reduces the total number of parliamentary seats to 161 (from 217), of which 151 are inside the country, and 10 are for constituencies abroad. According to the same law, voting in legislative elections will be for individuals in one or two cycles, if necessary, in single-seat constituencies.

"The assault during my election campaign saddened me a lot, and once again I realized that all this is happening just because I am a woman, I am sure that the aggressor would not have dared to do this act in front of a man."

For Reem (a pseudonym for a candidate in one of Tunisia's northern districts who asked to remain anonymous to avoid further harassment from her rivals), it was not society and citizens who waged war against her candidacy, but rather her male rivals in the elections.

She tells Raseef22, "I was not subjected to harassment and heckling from citizens, but rather from male competitors who did not accept the fact that a woman can run, especially when she’s young, or looks like she is. It was a major obstacle for many men to have to recognize and accept my candidacy in exchange for the failure of some males. This even angered one of them so much that he filed a lawsuit against me, where he claimed that I pay citizens to vouch for me. I have been keen to resolve the case since it was filed last May, since I never did such a thing. But what terrified me was that despite my great efforts to resolve the case early, I was surprised by a police car coming to my house two days before the election to inform me of the course of the case. The police car parking in front of my house at this time caused a ‘scene’ in my area and bothered me very much, and it seemed to me that it was being done deliberately to arouse the suspicion of the people of my area around me.”

Things did not stop here. The municipality determines spaces to place posters for candidates, but when Reem went to put her picture in one of the places designated for her, one of the agents working in the place prevented her, insulted her, and spread a rumor that she belonged to a political party, despite her strong denials, and “I was kicked out in a horrible way”, as she put it. This situation pained her a lot because, by her estimation, it would not have happened if she were not a woman.

Another painful encounter took place when Faten entered one of the departments in her area, and she was attacked by a follower of a rival candidate who cursed her, insulted her, and spat on her face just because he was asked to do so to rattle her. "This situation saddened me greatly, and I realized once again that all this is happening just because I am a woman, and I am sure that the aggressor would not have dared to do this in front of a man."


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