The woman, in her late fifties and clad
in a white headscarf and a long blue dress, stood in the middle of Avenue
Bourguiba, in the heart of downtown Tunis, and fumbled in her purse. Looking
exhausted in the intense July heat, she was standing in a line of people in
front of a tent where officials were registering Tunisian citizens for the
parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for this fall. Because of
its strategic location in the center of the Tunisian capital, and perhaps also
because of the ample shade provided by the trees lining the street, this
particular tent has been recording the highest number of registrations in the
city, according the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) employees
who work there.
But that might not be saying very much.
When the ISIE launched voter registration on June 22, the process was scheduled
to end one month later -- but low turnout and a profound apathy among eligible voters
prompted the ISIE to extend voter registration until July 29. The
total number of registered voters is now close to 5 million. Yet that still
falls far short of the 7 million Tunisians who are eligible to vote.
"I don't have an ID card," the woman
asked, smiling. "Can I use my passport to register?"
A younger woman, also standing in line,
asked her if she lived abroad.
"Yes. I try to visit Tunisia every
other summer. But this time I'm back for good."
"Why?" asked the younger woman. "If I
lived in Europe, I'd never come back. Better opportunities out there."
"This is my country. This is home," the
older woman replied. "I want to be a part of this. I want to help decide who my
president will be. I'm tired of being disconnected, of being too far away. This
is the best time to be in Tunisia."
Many women stop by the tent every day
to register or to check the locations of their polling station, said Intidhar
Louati, an ISIE employee who was helping potential voters register at the tent.
"It's no longer a question of women
versus men," she told me. "I see women as active as men, as enthusiastic as men
about registering and voting. Tunisian women have proved over and over that
they have an opinion and that they won't give up their right to express it."
Tunisia is widely considered to be one
of the most progressive Arab countries. That perception owes much to the
country's relatively advanced state of women's rights, which has been guaranteed by law since 1956. Tunisian
women were among the first women in the Arab world to be able to vote, file for
divorce, and to pass down Tunisian citizenship to children born abroad or to a
foreign father. Polygamy has been officially banned since the era
of Tunisia's first President Habib Bourguiba, back in 1956. Both contraception and abortion are legal and accessible and
have been for decades.
Since the revolution
began in 2011, women have not only participated in nationwide protests but have
also shaped events as politicians, ministers, and civil society activists. As
the next elections approach, however, those who wish to ensure full female
participation say that they worry in particular about rural women, who often
don't possess the necessary identification documents or live far away from
registration offices. Some civil society campaigns, said Louati, are targeting
these women by organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns to reach far-flung
president of the French branch of the volunteer association Citizen Commitment,
said that Tunisian women are generally less motivated about politics than men
because they are preoccupied with everyday concerns. "And
if they come from a marginalized area, " Houas continued, "they need
help to realize and understand the importance of what's happening and of their
vote. Politics might sound so distant from their lives. As for men, they have
the chance to discuss politics in cafés or at work." Rural women find themselves isolated,
especially from politics, as they spend most of their time either in the field
or inside the house. Even when they meet with other women, they are unlikely to
Houas's group has
organized campaigns aimed at raising awareness among Tunisians living abroad
about the importance of voting and exercising other civic rights. She explained
that many Tunisians are overwhelmed by the sudden profusion of information
about voting and elections. "Too much information kills the essential
information," she said.
Officials and activists are using the
registration process to target newly eligible voters as well as eligible voters
who failed to register during the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly
elections, the first free elections in Tunisia's history. (The photo above shows a Tunisian woman holding up her voter registration receipt for the 2011 elections.)
"We shouldn't panic about the low
number," said Tunisian activist and artist Leila Toubel. "We're encountering
the same problem as in 2011." Back then, she said, 48 percent of eligible Tunisians chose not to vote.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of more young Tunisians have reached the
voting age of 18, joining the ranks of eligible voters. "The problem is that
they need to become aware enough of their responsibility to vote," said Toubel.
She criticized the authorities for scheduling registration during the summer,
when Tunisian university students are finishing their exams and most of the
population is observing Ramadan. She also noted that government voter awareness
campaigns, based on celebrity spokespeople, have proven ineffective. "There was
never a clear strategy," she added. But she disagreed with the assertion that
women and men face differing access to information, saying that the problems
are broader: "Tunisians are too emotional. It almost feels like everyone is
still numb, or still unwilling to confront our problems."
Kalthoum Kennou, a former president of
the Tunisian Association of Judges, has announced her intent to run in the
November 23 presidential election -- making her the first woman in Tunisian
history to do so. "Women are encouraging me more than men," she told me in an
interview. "But I'm nonetheless surprised by the number of men showing
The role of Tunisian women in the
democratic transition has been crucial. Yet male and female Tunisians alike
generally agree that they have little faith in politicians. Many considered the October 2011 elections a test of democracy.
Almost three years later, many elected officials have failed to keep their
promises, and many Tunisians are disappointed.
Yet it also counts as a positive sign
that many activists, and especially female ones, are cognizant of the challenge
of apathy and are attempting to address it. "This country is ours," Toubel
said. She sighed and paused. "And it will still be ours. We have to go on."
Samti is a former editor at Tunisia
Live, Tunisia's first news
website in English, and has also published in The New York Times. Her Twitter handle is
BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images