Transitions

Tunisian Presidential Candidate Kennou Takes On the Patriarchy

Kalthoum Kennou, the only female candidate in the presidential race in Tunisia, sees her candidacy as a strong message of hope in the midst of what she calls "regressive forces sweeping across Tunisia and the Arab World." Since toppling the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisians have seen their revolution ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages
FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

Kalthoum Kennou, the only female candidate in the presidential race in Tunisia, sees her candidacy as a strong message of hope in the midst of what she calls "regressive forces sweeping across Tunisia and the Arab World."

Since toppling the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisians have seen their revolution marred by the rise of religious extremism and militant activity — though not to the same extent as some other countries of the Arab Spring.

"While terrorism should be fought militarily, that by itself is not enough," Kennou told me. "We should combat religious extremism intellectually and socially. When Tunisians elect a woman president, they will tell the world that they are attached to modernism, progress, and gender equality." Kennou, a 55 year-old judge, is the only female presidential contender whose candidacy met all the requirements and conditions set by Tunisia’s electoral commission. "Contrary to what many people think, Tunisians are willing to give their confidence to a woman," she asserted.

A serving judge since 1989 and a former president of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates, a civil society group striving to reform the courts, Kalthoum Kennou is known as a fervent defender of the independence of the judiciary, a branch of government that was used by the Ben Ali government to serve its interests. (In the photo above, Kennou meets Constituent Assembly president Mustapha Ben Jafaar as a representative of the Association in 2012.) The former regime despised her for her outspokenness and singled her out for constant harassment. From random salary cuts to arbitrary transfers, she saw it all. In 2005, after being based in Tunis for most of her life, Kennou was suddenly transferred to a remote province of Kairouan in the country’s arid heartland.

"But that didn’t stop me," she said. "I was constantly on the road between Kairouan and Tunis, helping my activist friends and participating in protests." Kennou’s defiance of the old regime did not stop at words. She is one of the few judges who actually dared to implement the law against members of the ruling Trabelsi clan and other figures close to the regime. She went so far as to issue an arrest warrant against Moez Trabelsi for corruption. He was the nephew of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s wife.

After the revolution, Kennou continued her struggle for an independent judiciary. She organized protests and took part in strikes to urge the National Constituent Assembly to pass a new law to reform the judicial branch and liberate it from the influence and control of the executive branch.

Today she is standing as an independent presidential candidate. She is not affiliated with any political party. She sees herself as a figure who will bring Tunisians together and put an end to the division caused by post-revolutionary political wrangling. She believes that being a woman is an advantage that will help her in the race to Carthage (the Tunis suburb that houses the presidential residence). "Tunisia needs someone who will reunite its people," she said. "I am independent. I am not the candidate of any political party. I represent all Tunisians. I am sure every Tunisian can see something of himself or herself in me. "

Yet she faces a patriarchal society where roles are still defined by gender. Despite being one of the most liberal Arab societies, Tunisia still has relatively low female participation in the labor force. According to World Bank figures, Tunisian women made up only 25 percent of those employed in 2012. There are few women in leadership positions despite their presence in most sectors of the economy.

As Tunisia braces itself for the legislative elections coming up by the end of this month, the percentage of women nominated by their political parties to lead their respective electoral lists is less than 15 percent. While Tunisian political parties like to claim that they support issues like gender equality and women’ s rights in order to get votes, no political party seems to be prepared to move beyond the slogans.

Women’s groups were recently outraged by recent comments made by Beji Caied Essebsi, leader of the secular political party Nida Tounes, which claims to champion the cause of women in Tunisia. When Essebsi, who is also his party’s presidential candidate, was asked by a TV host to comment on remarks by Mehrzia Laabidi, a female member of the Islamist Ennahda party and deputy speaker of the National Constituent Assembly, Essebssi reacted dismissively. "She’s a woman," he said. "What do you want me to say? She’s just a woman."

Several days later, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a leading women’s group, released a statement condemning Essebsi’s comments, which, the group said, "reflects a discriminatory patriarchal mentality built on exclusion and disrespect of women."

Kalthoum Kennou is well aware of the challenges presented by her own society. "The patriarchal mentality is deeply rooted in Tunisian society and it goes beyond ideological and political affiliation," she told me. "My message to [Essebsi] is that I’m a woman candidate and that I will compete against him as an equal." She said that she thinks it’s time for Tunisian women to stop talking about equality and pass into practice.

"Equality is not just a slogan," she said. "We have to take action."

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions, and tweets @AsmaGhribi. Read the rest of her posts here.

Kalthoum Kennou, the only female candidate in the presidential race in Tunisia, sees her candidacy as a strong message of hope in the midst of what she calls "regressive forces sweeping across Tunisia and the Arab World."

Since toppling the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisians have seen their revolution marred by the rise of religious extremism and militant activity — though not to the same extent as some other countries of the Arab Spring.

"While terrorism should be fought militarily, that by itself is not enough," Kennou told me. "We should combat religious extremism intellectually and socially. When Tunisians elect a woman president, they will tell the world that they are attached to modernism, progress, and gender equality." Kennou, a 55 year-old judge, is the only female presidential contender whose candidacy met all the requirements and conditions set by Tunisia’s electoral commission. "Contrary to what many people think, Tunisians are willing to give their confidence to a woman," she asserted.

A serving judge since 1989 and a former president of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates, a civil society group striving to reform the courts, Kalthoum Kennou is known as a fervent defender of the independence of the judiciary, a branch of government that was used by the Ben Ali government to serve its interests. (In the photo above, Kennou meets Constituent Assembly president Mustapha Ben Jafaar as a representative of the Association in 2012.) The former regime despised her for her outspokenness and singled her out for constant harassment. From random salary cuts to arbitrary transfers, she saw it all. In 2005, after being based in Tunis for most of her life, Kennou was suddenly transferred to a remote province of Kairouan in the country’s arid heartland.

"But that didn’t stop me," she said. "I was constantly on the road between Kairouan and Tunis, helping my activist friends and participating in protests." Kennou’s defiance of the old regime did not stop at words. She is one of the few judges who actually dared to implement the law against members of the ruling Trabelsi clan and other figures close to the regime. She went so far as to issue an arrest warrant against Moez Trabelsi for corruption. He was the nephew of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s wife.

After the revolution, Kennou continued her struggle for an independent judiciary. She organized protests and took part in strikes to urge the National Constituent Assembly to pass a new law to reform the judicial branch and liberate it from the influence and control of the executive branch.

Today she is standing as an independent presidential candidate. She is not affiliated with any political party. She sees herself as a figure who will bring Tunisians together and put an end to the division caused by post-revolutionary political wrangling. She believes that being a woman is an advantage that will help her in the race to Carthage (the Tunis suburb that houses the presidential residence). "Tunisia needs someone who will reunite its people," she said. "I am independent. I am not the candidate of any political party. I represent all Tunisians. I am sure every Tunisian can see something of himself or herself in me. "

Yet she faces a patriarchal society where roles are still defined by gender. Despite being one of the most liberal Arab societies, Tunisia still has relatively low female participation in the labor force. According to World Bank figures, Tunisian women made up only 25 percent of those employed in 2012. There are few women in leadership positions despite their presence in most sectors of the economy.

As Tunisia braces itself for the legislative elections coming up by the end of this month, the percentage of women nominated by their political parties to lead their respective electoral lists is less than 15 percent. While Tunisian political parties like to claim that they support issues like gender equality and women’ s rights in order to get votes, no political party seems to be prepared to move beyond the slogans.

Women’s groups were recently outraged by recent comments made by Beji Caied Essebsi, leader of the secular political party Nida Tounes, which claims to champion the cause of women in Tunisia. When Essebsi, who is also his party’s presidential candidate, was asked by a TV host to comment on remarks by Mehrzia Laabidi, a female member of the Islamist Ennahda party and deputy speaker of the National Constituent Assembly, Essebssi reacted dismissively. "She’s a woman," he said. "What do you want me to say? She’s just a woman."

Several days later, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a leading women’s group, released a statement condemning Essebsi’s comments, which, the group said, "reflects a discriminatory patriarchal mentality built on exclusion and disrespect of women."

Kalthoum Kennou is well aware of the challenges presented by her own society. "The patriarchal mentality is deeply rooted in Tunisian society and it goes beyond ideological and political affiliation," she told me. "My message to [Essebsi] is that I’m a woman candidate and that I will compete against him as an equal." She said that she thinks it’s time for Tunisian women to stop talking about equality and pass into practice.

"Equality is not just a slogan," she said. "We have to take action."

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions, and tweets @AsmaGhribi. Read the rest of her posts here.

Asma Ghribi is a journalist and researcher focusing on Tunisia. Follow her on twitter at @AsmaGhribi.

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