Sara Medini, a political analyst with Tunisian feminist organization Aswat Nissa, was in a meeting at work last week when she glanced at an alert on her phone. What she saw left her at first stunned, then delighted.

” I could not believe my eyes. I thought I misread it, “she said.” I said to my colleagues, ‘He appointed a woman! He appointed a woman!

“We were all delighted. We had goose bumps. It really is a historic moment, but that doesn’t mean they have a blank check.

The decision of President Kais Saied to appoint Najla Bouden, a senior official at the Ministry of Higher Education and lecturer in geological engineering, as the first woman Prime Minister of Tunisia, if not of any Arab country, has made waves in the whole world. .

At home, he was greeted with a mixture of emotions – including relief from those hoping this is a step on the road to normalcy after Saied shocked in July to sack his prime minister and suspend parliament in what many saw as a coup. .

The jury is out, however, on what Bouden’s appointment will mean for Tunisian women.

“The fact that a woman has been nominated is excellent; it’s a step forward [and] he breaks with the stereotype. But that’s not enough. The political program of the government – its government – must follow egalitarian principles, ”said Medini.

“She comes at an incredibly critical time. She has a lot of work to do.

For decades, Tunisia has been seen as a standard-bearer for women’s rights in the Arab world, with a set of family laws – passed just months after independence in 1956 – abolishing polygamy and allowing women to file for divorce.

Women were granted the right to vote in 1957 and were able to run for office in 1959. In 2011, when the country led the first revolution of the so-called Arab Spring, toppling dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, women were on the barricades. .

But some believe that progress towards full equality has stalled. Saied is against reforming laws to give women equal inheritance rights, which late President Beji Caid Essebsi has said he will do – much to the chagrin of conservatives and religious figures.

There have been legislative victories since the revolution, including a 2017 law aimed at cracking down on violence against women. But Medini said there was still a huge amount of work to be done “on a practical level” to ensure the changes were implemented.

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

A young woman holds Tunisia’s 2014 constitution during a demonstration in Tunis last month to protest President Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament and the prime minister’s impeachment in July. Photograph: Chedly Ben Ibrahim / NurPhoto / Rex / Shutterstock

“[The crisis] accentuated the economic weakness of women and thus accentuated their dependence on their families, their husbands, ”said Medini.

“For example, a woman [who] being abused by her husband cannot escape the house or file for a divorce because she does not have the money.

For Halima Ouanada, an academic at the University of Tunis El Manar, some of the reactions last week to Bouden’s appointment were proof of the challenges women in power still face.

“Rather than dwelling on his role as a university professor, on his good international reputation as an academic, after more than 13 years of experience in the management of large-scale projects, the debate turned into thoughts on his gender: the price of his shoes. , his glasses ”, writes Ouanada in Le Temps News

“She was presented as the daughter of so-and-so and the wife of so-and-so … as if she owed nothing to herself, her intelligence and her perseverance.”

Bouden’s emergence in the limelight surprised more than one. Aged 63, she spent her career at the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and as a lecturer at the university.

But Hèla Yousfi, senior lecturer in sociology at Paris Dauphine University, said the appointment was not surprising, given Saied’s own background as a law professor turned politician.

“Kais Saied was brought to power by an extra-parliamentary popular movement, which expressed its total distrust of the political class,” Yousfi said. “So there is consistency there with the appointment of someone from outside the political class.”

It is feared that Bouden has little room for maneuver. Saied has kept in place the emergency measures he introduced in July, in effect ensuring that the prime minister will be solely accountable to him. Some have predicted that she would be a mere pawn of the president.

Yousfi acknowledged the risk, but said it was too early to say how things would play out in the country’s unpredictable political landscape.

“If my experience in Tunisian politics has taught me anything, it is to wait and see,” she said. “No one thought Kais Saied could appoint a woman to head the government. It’s possible [her role could be constricted]: he has an organic conception of power.

“But you can’t predict what’s going to happen. We have to wait for the [political] program, vision, but also what is proposed in terms of institutional roadmap. We’re in limbo right now. We have to wait and see.

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