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Parity law adopted in Tunisia

by Wael Abdel Hamid, Arab Spring Series // Published April 21, 2011
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"The love of a democracy is that of equality." This quotation from one of the founding father of the Enlightenment period, French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu, seems to be understood today by the Tunisian people.

After the political revolution that struck their country earlier this year, Tunisians are now experiencing a genuine revolution of the mind. In an earlier blog post, I worried about the length of time the Tunisian interim government was taking to implement key measures .However, recent developments have eased my fears considerably.

Indeed, the high commission responsible for planning elections in Tunisia, one of the first institutions of the new political system, decided on April 12 to introduce a decree establishing equality between men and women and full proportional representation for parties for the upcoming July elections. Article 16 of the new law that will govern the next legislative elections mandates that half of the assembly will be for women. This constitutes a major advancement for this Arab country where, despite the relatively good condition of women compared to the rest of the region, sexism and social prejudices still linger.

The fact that Tunisian women already enjoy the best condition of life in the Arab world was mainly due to the fact that the Tunisian independence movement, led by the founding father of the nation Habib Bourguiba, held fast to the key concept of "laïcité", a French word which stands for the factual separation between state affairs and religion. In 1956, the "Personal Status Code" abolished polygamy, established the judiciary divorce, fixed the minimum age of wedding for girls at 17 and instituted a financial independence for women.

If this law is fully executed as apparently planned, now women will hold half of their nations parliamentary seats. By comparison, women hold only 17% of the U.S. Congres and, 15% of Ireland's parliament. France laboriously reached the threshold of only 13% in local elections despite a law designed to boost representation of women.

The European Union, through the voice of foreign office Chief Catherine Ashton, praised Tunisia for this amazing progress:

"It demonstrates that Tunisia intends to ensure full participation of women in political life. By putting these principles at the heart of all ongoing political reforms, Tunisia can be a beacon of innovation for the region and beyond. Now Tunisia has the opportunity to further consolidate gender equality and end all forms of discrimination against women in law and in practice".

The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights also praised Tunisia, judging that the decree "insures women's rights and enhances their status in the decision making positions."  Within Tunisia, the parity law has substantial support. Even the Islamist party Enahda agrees with the rule, making Tunisia the Arab leader on political reforms.

Yet there remains a controversial part in this law. The new rules also exclude every single member of the last decades' governments to run for a seat. The future will now tell us whether this decision is an efficient way to bury all the old skeletons of the past - or an unfortunate decision that will lead to loss of some element of quality that could have helped the new regime.

Still, with an electoral system based on party list proportional representation, the country holds real promise for establishing a fair political system and to present itself as a regional and international model.