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The Role of Women in the Arab Spring

Our Other Sisters attended ‘The Role of Women in the Arab Spring’ discussion at the Guardian’s inaugural Open Weekend. We were honoured to listen to Amel Azzouz, the leading member of the women’s office of the Islamic Party Ennahda in Tunisia; Merhézia Labidi, vice chair of the National Founding Assembly in Tunisia; and Parisian-born journalist Nabila Ramdani. The discussion was chaired by the women’s editor for the Guardian, Jane Martinson. 

Tunisian woman. "Regard" courtesy of Wassim Ben Rhouma

The 14th January 2011 was so important for Tunisia.

“Tunisian women enjoy a more comfortable situation than other Muslim countries” Amel told us, because of the revolution in the country last year.

However, patriarchal legacy and dominance has meant that women are often used as instruments by leaders to justify policies, while they are simultaneously sidelined and not fully integrated into politics.

Building blocks

Amel noted that an infrastructure for women’s rights was already being formulated by previous campaigns in the 1980’s and 90s in Tunisia: there were some women who had already broken convention by entering politics.

As a campaigner herself throughout this period, Amel was heavily involved in the student activist movements in Tunisia both when she was studying at University and afterwards.

“Women have [continued to] play a crucial role during this delicate period in political life.”

So why have women not been able to internally participate in politics for so long?


The foundations of the improvements Tunisia has seen throughout the last 14 months were put in place by women.  Amel emphasised the importance of educating the women of Tunisia about their rights.  As a secondary school teacher Amel “taught children how to say ‘no’” passing on a culture of refusal to the next generation.

“The people protesting in Tunisia now have been raised within this context.”

Women played a key role in the 90s.

“The revolution was an accumulaton of suffering and socio-economic and political awareness.”

Leading the way

By the time the 14th January arrived, Amel tells us that women were leading the revolutions.  Since democratic elections in Tunisia women have been able to participate in politics.  Amel spoke excitedly about the electoral campaign in which she was involved.

“I created dialogue with Tunisian citizens.” Amel continues that dialogue, creating a link with “real Tunisian constituents” and ordinary Tunisian women in order to give them a voice.  However, Amel is under no illusions that the institutions in place are perfect. There are only three women ministers in Tunisia and no women in trade unions.

“At the level of decision making women’s presence is still considered unimportant.”

Merhézia Labidi

Merhézia lives in France, working with women from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and her home region. In her own words, Merhézia explained that having a global network of women’s voices at her fingertips, reveals that women throughout the world share the same experiences as Tunisian women and can relate to them.

Merhézia told us about a Tunisian lady who fled to France having been tortured in prison. Out shopping in France the woman came face to face with the man who had tortured her in Tunisia.  With the help of Amnesty International, he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment France: “he is the first man to be punished for torturing a Tunisian woman.”

“This story is proof that Tunisian women have political consciousness but also know how to fight for their rights.”

Ordinary woman

Merhézia told us that when she was elected people were shocked that she was involved in politics, saying she just looked like a ‘mother’ and an ‘ordinary woman.’  This allows Merhézia to relate to and understand women in Tunisia. She represents all of them. She is one of them.

Merhézia talked about two groups of women in Tunisia: the educated elite women who understand their rights and are politicised, and the poor women in urban areas who have no idea what their rights are.

“The majority of women have no social security, no wages and no healthcare. This is not acceptable. Without solution to poverty, the revolution is in danger.”

Women invite Merhézia to their villages so that she can spread their message within the National Assembly. Holding twice weekly workshops in Tunis, female-run organisations are teaching the women of Tunisia what their rights are and how they can fight for them.

Political debate

Following democratic elections in Tunisia, political opinions have become polarised. Merhézia said that: “the left and the right are challenging the new democracy.”  This encourages debate and inevitably involves more people in politics; Merhézia is encouraged by these diverse opinions.

“We work together through our differences”

“The real challenge we face now is how to implement, educate and disseminate a culture of citizenship.”

Nabila Ramdani

Nabila emphasised the key role which women have played in the ‘Arab Spring.’  Women are no longer afraid to challenge the supremacy of men in patriarchal society.  Tunisian women not only had an infrastructure for equality in place before the revolution, but progress for women afterwards in the country has been inspiring: 28% of the Tunisian Assembly Members are women.  She is skeptical about Egypt, however.

“The role of women in the Egyptian interim government is very minimal.”

There are concerns that advancements in women’s rights put in place before the revolution may now be reversed. Laws are being rolled back.  The constitution in Egypt, and indeed in any country, “is a key guarantor of women’s rights.”

In Libya there is a similar situation: of the 43 members of the National Transitional Council, only one is a woman.

“The overthrow of dictatorship does not mark success in itself. Any democratic development must focus on social, economic and political status of women.”


Both Amel and Merhézia agreed that in an Arab society “we cannot be secular, we have to take into account our Islamic identity” and this will play a major role in the shaping of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although Merhézia is the most senior female politician in the Arab world, she remembers first and foremost that she is a Tunisian woman: by putting that first, there is real hope for continued change which will benefit women in the country and beyond.

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