Arab World's First Female Prime Minister in Tunisia


Photo source: Guardian

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

By installing Raoudha Boudent Ramadhane, a politically unknown, as Tunisia’s first woman prime minister in September 2021, President Kais Saied showed his intentions of not taking a long-time grab at power. Earlier, there were howls about an extended coup. This announcement was a breathing room for the entire international community. 

As months passed by since July 2021, Tunisians got concerned about where their democracy was heading, due to a lack of clear-cut political plans. They earlier had been disillusioned about the bickering of the ruling political coalition. However, Saied had failed in delivering what his nation required: economic prosperity. But now, it seemed there was another attempt at breaking the deadlock, as Tunisia has been mostly in political limbo since ousting of Ben Ali in 2011.

Many observers argued that as the country has been the birthplace of Arab spring, the first Arab female prime minister had to be in Tunisia. But, Ramadhane, a 63-year-old professor at the Tunis National School of Engineering, can claim this only in recent history. For hundreds of years, and until the beginning of the 20th century, it wasn’t rare for women to rule in the Arab world, the most famous of which are Balqees, the Queen of Sheba, who ruled present-day Yemen five thousand years ago, and Fatima al Zamil, from the powerful Shammar tribe. History books are also full of names of other prominent, strong-willed women who ruled powerful Arab states.

Hela Yousfi, a sociology lecturer at Paris Dauphine University, reflected that the appointment was not surprising, as Saied himself is a law professor turned politician. She went on to comment in an interview with Guardian: ‘Kais Saied was brought to power by a popular extra-parliamentary movement, which expressed its total mistrust of the political class. So, there is a consistency there with the nomination of someone from outside the political class. It’s consistent with the Tunisian people’s complete crisis of faith in the political class, which has failed for 10 years to fulfil the aspirations of the Tunisian revolution.’

Tunisia has set an example because women have always taken a backseat in politics in the Arab world, after First World War. Due to feminist policies since 1956, the role of women is encouraged in the country. The policies were institutionalised by Habib Bourguiba, who enacted a revolutionary Personal Status Code, (PSC), brushing off opposition from religious and conservative leaders. This law gave women unprecedented rights, unheard of even in Western countries, such as the right to abortion, to prevent polygamy, and the right to divorce. As Bourguiba was a staunch secular himself, he perhaps is often said to be influenced by his second wife, Wassila Ben Ammar, a highly educated daughter of a bourgeois family. During Bourguiba’s ill health, Wassila was the woman in charge, and she took all important policy decisions, including the appointment of Prime Minister Mohammad Mzali in 1980.

At the present, Tunisian women have roles in nearly every profession, and one has even run for president. The 2014 constitution guarantees women and men ‘equal rights and duties’ without discrimination, and by extension, the country has one of the most progressive electoral gender quota laws in the world. Already in the 1950s, women were allowed to vote and run for office.

There have been other recent legislative victories since the revolution, notably a 2017 law aimed at cracking down on violence against women. But, for Sarah Medini, a political analyst, there was still a huge amount of work to be done ‘on a practical level’ to ensure significant changes were implemented.

Although, many argue, after looking at her CV, that she was sworn in as prime minister for her competence, and not because of her gender. She was in charge of education reforms in the previous two governments and has had a reasonable experience with the World Bank. For Valentine Moghadam, a professor at Northeastern University, she will remain an inspiration to women in the Middle East and North Africa, and her appointment is more than a fig leaf. According to her, she can bring analytical and problem-solving skills to the role, as well as a network of contacts.

There were other leading Arab academia too that called for her support. For example, Professor Farouk El-Baz, retired director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and a member of the presidential advisory council that advises Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, believed that her appointment was a ‘welcome first’, assuring ‘Arab populations everywhere that the Tunisian leadership respects education and knowledge’.

Some others on the Tunisian streets, such as retirees, had an opposite viewpoint. They rather wanted a strong man of confidence and integrity, who knows the needs of the people and has the ability to lead the government.

On the political level, President Saied described Bouden-Ramadhane’s appointment as ‘historic and an honour for Tunisia and a tribute to Tunisian women’. But, his critics argue that he made her appointment just to appease those who want him to address the gender gap, ‘by dropping his opposition to a highly contentious law so that inheritance rights are equalised.’

If one talks of Tunisian wages, at the present, they are underwhelming. Tunisian academics earn less than minimum wage salary, which barely satisfies their middle-class lifestyle. Several Tunisian activists, therefore, are calling for a dialogue aimed at radical and real reforms in the sector as well.

When Saied first announced a political purge by suspending the parliament, he even arrested several political opponents, imposed travel bans, and invoked limitations, on businesspeople and judges.

Despite propagating his coup as temporary, he rejected calls for dialogue and faced mounting criticism from political parties, civil society, and media personalities, including some who had supported him.

Also, Saied in September 2021, announced that he himself would take the task of appointing the cabinet, stating that the constitutional provisions won’t apply to him, showing his autocratic tendencies.

Going by the voice of many Tunisian people, they think Ramadhane has some serious work cut out for her. They wonder how a political novice will be able to create social and economic reforms which Tunisia desperately needs.



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