- By Farah Samti
The woman, in her late fifties and clad in a white headscarf and a long blue dress, stood in the middle of Avenue Bourguiba, in the heart of downtown Tunis, and fumbled in her purse. Looking exhausted in the intense July heat, she was standing in a line of people in front of a tent where officials were registering Tunisian citizens for the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for this fall. Because of its strategic location in the center of the Tunisian capital, and perhaps also because of the ample shade provided by the trees lining the street, this particular tent has been recording the highest number of registrations in the city, according the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) employees who work there.
But that might not be saying very much. When the ISIE launched voter registration on June 22, the process was scheduled to end one month later — but low turnout and a profound apathy among eligible voters prompted the ISIE to extend voter registration until July 29. The total number of registered voters is now close to 5 million. Yet that still falls far short of the 7 million Tunisians who are eligible to vote.
"I don’t have an ID card," the woman asked, smiling. "Can I use my passport to register?"
A younger woman, also standing in line, asked her if she lived abroad.
"Yes. I try to visit Tunisia every other summer. But this time I’m back for good."
"Why?" asked the younger woman. "If I lived in Europe, I’d never come back. Better opportunities out there."
"This is my country. This is home," the older woman replied. "I want to be a part of this. I want to help decide who my president will be. I’m tired of being disconnected, of being too far away. This is the best time to be in Tunisia."
Many women stop by the tent every day to register or to check the locations of their polling station, said Intidhar Louati, an ISIE employee who was helping potential voters register at the tent.
"It’s no longer a question of women versus men," she told me. "I see women as active as men, as enthusiastic as men about registering and voting. Tunisian women have proved over and over that they have an opinion and that they won’t give up their right to express it."
Tunisia is widely considered to be one of the most progressive Arab countries. That perception owes much to the country’s relatively advanced state of women’s rights, which has been guaranteed by law since 1956. Tunisian women were among the first women in the Arab world to be able to vote, file for divorce, and to pass down Tunisian citizenship to children born abroad or to a foreign father. Polygamy has been officially banned since the era of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba, back in 1956. Both contraception and abortion are legal and accessible and have been for decades.
Since the revolution began in 2011, women have not only participated in nationwide protests but have also shaped events as politicians, ministers, and civil society activists. As the next elections approach, however, those who wish to ensure full female participation say that they worry in particular about rural women, who often don’t possess the necessary identification documents or live far away from registration offices. Some civil society campaigns, said Louati, are targeting these women by organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns to reach far-flung citizens.
Fatma Houas, president of the French branch of the volunteer association Citizen Commitment, said that Tunisian women are generally less motivated about politics than men because they are preoccupied with everyday concerns. "And if they come from a marginalized area, " Houas continued, "they need help to realize and understand the importance of what’s happening and of their vote. Politics might sound so distant from their lives. As for men, they have the chance to discuss politics in cafés or at work." Rural women find themselves isolated, especially from politics, as they spend most of their time either in the field or inside the house. Even when they meet with other women, they are unlikely to discuss politics.
Houas’s group has organized campaigns aimed at raising awareness among Tunisians living abroad about the importance of voting and exercising other civic rights. She explained that many Tunisians are overwhelmed by the sudden profusion of information about voting and elections. "Too much information kills the essential information," she said.
Officials and activists are using the registration process to target newly eligible voters as well as eligible voters who failed to register during the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections, the first free elections in Tunisia’s history. (The photo above shows a Tunisian woman holding up her voter registration receipt for the 2011 elections.)
"We shouldn’t panic about the low number," said Tunisian activist and artist Leila Toubel. "We’re encountering the same problem as in 2011." Back then, she said, 48 percent of eligible Tunisians chose not to vote. Since then, hundreds of thousands of more young Tunisians have reached the voting age of 18, joining the ranks of eligible voters. "The problem is that they need to become aware enough of their responsibility to vote," said Toubel. She criticized the authorities for scheduling registration during the summer, when Tunisian university students are finishing their exams and most of the population is observing Ramadan. She also noted that government voter awareness campaigns, based on celebrity spokespeople, have proven ineffective. "There was never a clear strategy," she added. But she disagreed with the assertion that women and men face differing access to information, saying that the problems are broader: "Tunisians are too emotional. It almost feels like everyone is still numb, or still unwilling to confront our problems."
Kalthoum Kennou, a former president of the Tunisian Association of Judges, has announced her intent to run in the November 23 presidential election — making her the first woman in Tunisian history to do so. "Women are encouraging me more than men," she told me in an interview. "But I’m nonetheless surprised by the number of men showing support."
The role of Tunisian women in the democratic transition has been crucial. Yet male and female Tunisians alike generally agree that they have little faith in politicians. Many considered the October 2011 elections a test of democracy. Almost three years later, many elected officials have failed to keep their promises, and many Tunisians are disappointed.
Yet it also counts as a positive sign that many activists, and especially female ones, are cognizant of the challenge of apathy and are attempting to address it. "This country is ours," Toubel said. She sighed and paused. "And it will still be ours. We have to go on."