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Empowerment of Women

Forum on Women in Tunisia and the Arab Spring

Washington, DC, USA - A unique opportunity was afforded UPF-DC office when Ambassador for Peace Mrs. Houda Zaibi Belhassen mentioned she would be visiting Washington, DC in January. Tomiko Duggan asked her if she would share her experiences of the Arab Spring in her native Tunisia to a select audience. A luncheon at The Washington Times was organized for January 25 with Mrs. Belhassen as the keynote speaker.

A professor of women's studies at the University of Tunis in Tunisia, Mrs. Belhassen had previously spoken at a 2008 International Women’s Day program co-sponsored by UPF-DC and Women's Federation for World Peace-USA held at the Tunisian embassy, where her husband, Mourad Belhassen, served as a diplomat.

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Mrs. Belhassen had previously helped to raise awareness of Tunisia in the West in a series of seminars in Canada and the US talking on the situation of women in Tunisia. Tunisia is a forward-looking country that values women’s rights and has a progressive Personal Status Code that protects women and children.

When the revolution for greater freedom began in Tunisia - later known as the “Arab Spring” - Mrs. Belhassen and friends saw the need for an organization that would educate about the importance of women’s role in the electoral practice. The League of Tunisian Women Voters was created to further that purpose and to educate young men and women “to make the dream of a democracy a reality in Tunisia.”

She also participated in training as a national election observer to support fair elections. In 2011, she participated in the “Tunisian women for equality” forum celebrated on the International Day of Women.

She began her comments by mentioning that women’s emancipation began in the 19th century with the teachings of Taha Hardeed, who said that women should have access to education and work, and taught a humanist reading of the Qur'an. Tunisia’s Personal Status Code was established in 1956 after the nation gained its independence. It ended the practice of polygamy and repudiation (where a husband could divorce his wife simply by saying, “I divorce you” three times). Now women have the same rights in divorce as men. It also banned marriage until age 18 for both boys and girls and stated that women should receive equal pay for equal work, among other points.

The League of Tunisian Women Voters (LTWV) promotes voting among the populace and works to register voters. Of the seven million eligible voters, more than 55% have registered, many of them women. Women were trained for 20-25 weeks to learn how to make voting more simple and accessible. Slogans were created to encourage voting, “Take a friend,” or “Take your family to vote.”

She continued with comments on the promotion of women candidates. One month before the elections, programs were held under the title of “Women’s Presence in the Political Process.” As a result of this effort, six women candidates were victims of intense moral defamation. Not all men were comfortable with the increased role of women in the elections, but she feels that through greater educational efforts attitudes can improve.

The LTWV is the first legal organization to monitor elections. Monitors worked in major towns and reported back on the elections.

LTWV has pushed for gender parity in all political parties, not just in numbers but with men and women in alternative roles in each roster of the party. Mrs. Belhassen mentioned that the example of Belgium was studied. It has used gender parity in part of its political process. Yet in Tunisia, no woman heads any political list, and a future goal is to change this situation.

The recent election for candidates to create a new constitution resulted in 49 women filling seats among a total of 417 possible seats. “A surprising result,” she added, “is that 42 were from the moderate Islamic party and only 7 from the progressive liberal party.” She added, “We couldn’t understand why more women from the progressive liberal party didn’t win seats.” She stated that, “We need more women candidates, and many more need to be mobilized.” She said that education is needed on all political agreements and laws.

A lively question and answer session followed. Ambassador Gilbert Galanxhi from Albania and Ambassador Srdjan Darmanovic from Montenegro said they applauded Tunisia’s efforts, reporting that Albania has made great efforts to try to include more women in governing but without as much success as Tunisia with its 27 percent participation of women. They noted that even in the US, only 17 percent of the members of Congress are women.

In answer to two questions concerning the influence of the Islamic party that came out on top in the election, she said, “They have given us assurances that they will not touch the Personal Status Code for women; we will be watching all their efforts.” When she was questioned again about the possibility of trouble from Islamic influence, she answered, “I am hopeful for the future.”

After the program concluded, Mrs. Belhassen was encircled by well-wishers offering enthusiastic comments on her talk and encouraging her organization’s work. A PLO representative said that she was so inspired by Mrs. Belhassen’s comments and that she hopes many other nations will follow suit.

Ambassador Winston Thompson from Fiji was one who thanked her for her talk. Ten embassies sent high-level diplomats, including four ambassadors.

Mrs. Belhassen left with fellow Tunisians Deputy Chief of Mission Tarek Amri and Press Secretary Chahrazed Rezgui, who commented that “if Tunisia is successful in its democratic efforts other nations will be able to do the same.”

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