How well did women really fare in Tunisia’s elections?

Duncan Pickard

By Duncan Pickard

Duncan Pickard is a second-year master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School and an intern at the Dubai Initiative of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He observed the October 23 elections and is currently researching election administration, constitutional reform, and economic development in post-revolution Tunisia.

The Tunisian elections have drawn praise from international observers in part because, by law, half of the candidates were women. Tunisia’s “innovative” list system also required that names on ballots alternate by gender, known as a zipper rule. As a result, one-quarter of the seats in Tunisia’s constituent assembly are held by women — far outpacing the average number of women legislators in the Arab world (10 percent) and in the United States (17 percent).

But these numbers place a veil over what could become a formidable challenge to the ability of the constituent assembly to represent the interests of Tunisian women. Of the 49 women elected to the constituent assembly, 42 of them represent Al-Nahda, the moderate Islamic party and leader of Tunisia’s coalition government. That means that only seven legislators out of 217 are women from a secular party.

Furthermore, no women were selected to one of the top three senior leadership posts — prime minister, president of the republic, or speaker of the assembly — during the assembly’s internal elections last week. Three men filled these seats despite the viable candidacy of Maya Jribi, the secretary-general of the center-left Progressive Democratic Party. The Tunisian elections did not meet the expectations for gender parity that one could expect by reviewing the rules under which they were conducted.

A question of representation

The problem with the low number of secular women in the assembly is not that the Islamic-led coalition is expected to undercut women’s rights. In fact, Al-Nahda leaders have said that they intend to extend Tunisia’s long tradition of respecting the social and political rights of women. It should also not be assumed that secular liberalism implies gender parity; men dominate all of Tunisia’s center-left parties, and over 60 percent of graduate students in the Islamic states of Saudi Arabia and Iran are women.

The problem lies in the perception of how the constituent assembly will approach gender parity. Supporters of secular parties anticipate that equal rights of divorce, inheritance, and free public dress (especially in universities), enjoyed under by women under the dictatorship, will now be up for debate in an Islamic-led coalition. When this time comes, who will represent the interests of secular women?

Tunisian women demonstrate on Nov. 2 for protection of women's rights following the Oct. 23 constituent assembly election. (AP Photo)

The argument here is that, in order to achieve the goal of parity envisioned by those who designed the election, women must feel represented by ideology and not just anatomy. In this way, the constituent assembly does not look like Tunisia; certainly more than seven percent of women in Tunisia identify as secular.

Why there are so few secular women

Given a parity principle and a zipper rule in the election design, why did the elections result in such a skewed proportion? The reason is that parties were free to choose who would be at the head of their list, and virtually all parties first chose a man.

For example, all but one of Al-Nahda’s lists were headed by a man. The party platform of Ettakatol, a center-left secular party, called for gender equality in Tunisian society, but the party leadership left the ordering of lists up to their regional representatives. Without any national coordination, Ettakatol put only four women forward as heads of lists. The secular Democratic Modernist Pole was the only party that even tried to achieve gender parity, leading 13 of 27 lists with women.

Because men led most of the lists, a woman could only be elected if a particular party won more than one seat in the district. The only party to consistently win multiple seats was Al-Nahda, hence the overwhelming Islamic representation among female representatives.


The constituent assembly must work proactively to overcome its gender disparity and to allow the concerns of secular women to be heard during deliberations. First, the new legal experts committee should recruit female scholars both inside and outside Tunisia to review draft constitutional texts. Second, the assembly should appoint a disproportionately high number of women to its executive committee. Third, assembly members and political parties should launch an outreach campaign to women around the country. Several power civil society organizations, including the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, could be partners in this project.

Tunisia’s experience also provides important lessons for administrators of list-based elections in Tunisia and elsewhere. Most notably, the parity principle and zipper rule must be accompanied by a requirement that parties top half of their lists with a woman. This requires that parties be required to coordinate their lists nationally and not leave the ordering up solely to regional representatives. Lists running in only one district could be required to lead with a man or a woman based on a coin toss.

Rules such as these would require parties to sacrifice a bit more of their sovereignty to choose their own candidates, but they would be worth the cost in order to achieve true gender parity in national legislatures.

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