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Activists call Tunisia's first female prime minister mere distraction

Tunisia's president has appointed a female prime minister, a first in the Arab world, but he has been both cheered and accused of using her to deflect attention from his policies.
FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

When Najla Bouden was pronounced Tunisia’s first female prime minister in a decree by President Kais Saied on Sept. 29, her appointment was initially heralded as a milestone in Arab politics.

Bouden is the first female prime minister not only in Tunisia but in the wider Arabic world. Until now, she will be joined by nine more female ministers in the 25-member cabinet. However, she will not have the executive control that previous heads of government wielded. Executive, legislative and judicial powers lie firmly in the hands of Saied under another decree made Sept. 22. 

In a country famed for its strong feminist movements and progressive pro-women legislation, the appointment seems on the surface another milestone for Tunisian women.

The United States has welcomed the development. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed the caveat that there should be “a rapid return to constitutional order.”

However, leading feminists, female politicians and civil society members have mixed feelings and some have gone so far as to accuse Saied of “pinkwashing” his politics to curry favor among foreign donor states such as Germany and the United States to secure much-needed funding.

Oumaima Jabnouni, a member of the steering committee of the Tunisian League for Human Rights who has held several meetings with the presidency over recent human rights infractions, told Al-Monitor, “It is not a perfect parity, but it is the first time there have been so many women in the cabinet.”

She stressed that Saied needs to take human rights and women’s rights seriously as well as relations with the international community, saying that Western donor states “have invested into the democratic transition and made a great investment into civil society, elections, security and reforms of system justice.”

Sayida Ounissi, a member of the still-frozen parliament representing Tunisians living in France for the Ennahda party, is sharply critical. She told Al-Monitor, “She is legitimizing the coup." Saied, she said, is "trying to convince us it is progressive. Why is he enforcing this perception of women being like decorations, something pink and fluffy? Is he trying to pinkwash?”  

Many secular feminists welcomed Saied’s July 25 seizure of power that put an end to what they saw as Ennahda’s control.

Saloua Guiga of Femwise, an African Union committee working on women, peace and security, said that she is conflicted about Saied’s regime. “I’m both for and against,” she said. “Political Islam poses the biggest danger for the country.''

Guiga sees Bouden’s appointment as positive but said it's necessary to apply the constitution, which prescribes equality between men and women, something she personally fought for in 2012, when Ennahda proposed a constitutional article that spoke about women as "complements" to men (as opposed to equals).

Historically Saied is not known to be a feminist ally but rather a religious conservative who opposes fundamental feminist issues, going so far to lecture a state ceremony on the occasion of International Women’s Day in 2020 that under Islamic law, inheritance issues do not treat men and women as equals.

Guiga supports some aspects of Saied’s actions but warns, “If we Tunisian women do not agree with something we go into the street and demand our rights. We are a force and we fight.”

Guiga says the constitution still stands and Saied must not go back on his promises: “When he takes a decision he cannot go back; if he says he is with women then he cannot go back.”

The founder of the feminist organization Aswaat Nisaa, Ikrem ben Said, took a different view in her opinion piece titled, “Having a seat at the table doesn’t mean you have a voice.” Ben Saied illuminates the feminist elephant in the room: that idea that criticizing the new prime minister makes one a bad feminist. “For me, this ‘historic, symbolic’ Sept. 29 nomination sounds like throwing Tunisian women under the bus! I asked myself, 'What makes a woman accept such a responsibility knowing that according to the same Decree 117 she could not even choose her ministers?’”

Leading feminist thinker and economist Sameh Krichah takes a more moderate line. “I cannot make assumptions about her as we have not seen what she is capable of,” she said. “I wish her to be independent and free and to do what is best for the country and have the courage to negotiate with the president.”

Saied’s anti-corruption narrative is already being undermined by fears of incompetence. Like many of the ministerial nominees, Bouden is an former academic: both as a geologist and as a professor of engineering. Her previous bureaucratic position in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research involved managing a higher education development project funded by the World Bank.

However, according to a 2019 investigation by Tunisian journalist Khaola Bou Karim for the Tunisian news website Daraj, the project came under scrutiny by both the Ministry of Finance and the World Bank for failing to advance the project and spend the funds appropriately.

Bouden scarcely spoke publicly after her appointment. Her speech announcing the new government was brief. “She focused more on values, the same values insisted on by Saied,” said Krichah, adding, “She only took two weeks to put her government in place, so it is unrealistic that she has a plan.”  

Bouden may not have said much but Ounissi told Al-Monitor that her body language spoke volumes. “Her nomination will make us lose more time in terms of convincing us that we as women have our place in these spheres. All she does is sit in front of her professor and just nods.”

Despite Saied’s effort to author a clean government, he has not eliminated questions about talent, competence and favoritism. With the presence of so many longstanding bureaucrats, it cannot be called revolutionary.

Bouden may well take some of the heat off Saied in terms of international pressure, but she is responsible for rolling out Saied’s coffee shop politics to be tested in the real world. The general labor union UGTT has already spoken with Bouden, outlining the catalogue of changes required to alleviate entrenched poverty and unemployment as well as pull Tunisia’s economy out of its current tailspin.

Jabnouni said the government should be aware that civil society “will continue our monitoring over Decree117. We still are concerned that this decree could still allow a transition into an authoritarian system.”

She went on, "This government will be scrutinized and tested after raising public expectations so high between Saied and Bouden, who will garner the plaudits for successes and who will shoulder the blame of failures."

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