Campaigning: A new experience

Samira Hizaoui

Samira Hizaoui has shown women the way towards politics during Tunisia's first free and democratic elections since independence. Working as head of a nursery school, she is a member of the general federation of municipal workers and of the association for the protection of children’s rights. On the national women’s committee of the Union Générale Tunisien du Travail (UGTT), she also represented the UGTT in the PSI Women’s Committee.

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Samira did not initially plan to run for the elections, but changed her mind and became the Tunisian Workers’ Party (PTT) number 4 candidate on the list in the Ben Arous region. Having been created as late as June 2011, the PTT was new,  as was the democratic election process to the country.

"The independent supervisory body for the elections (ISIE) called for lists of party partners and leaders, as well as members and activists of the UGTT. I was asked to be on the party lists for the elections, and I agreed because it would be a new experience for me. These were the first democratic elections since independence", she reminds us.

"The law required five women and five men on each list, but unfortunately this did not apply to the heads of the lists. The PTT presented 27 lists – there was only one woman at the top of one single list. In general, the same goes for the other parties."

Does this reflect women's true role in the revolution and since?

Women's role has certainly changed. Since 14 January, women demonstrate more. They used to play a decorative role in politics. Women generally played a very significant role, even women without political responsibilities. The presence of women union members was very strong, such as in textiles, where they played a major role. Most women agree to participate in public life. They are thrilled to have women candidates. Nevertheless, there is a lot more to be done. Men still think only of themselves... that is not going to change from one day to the next. They accept women alongside them, but not ahead of

Any obstacles?

Many men wished to obtain women’s votes, and we didn’t encounter any real problems. Even Ennhada encouraged women to stand. This was a political issue. Only time will tell whether the situation is going to be different in practice.

What was your experience at the elections?

Canvassing for the elections was a first for me. It was an entirely new experience. Our union work has not been at the street level. I saw men who saw women engaging in politics for the first time on the street and gave odd looks. Nothing untoward happened to me, I was not beaten up or anything, but men gave me odd looks. People were astonished.

There were a large number of women candidates, so they soon got used to it. I am used to having contact with unionists and workers, but not with the people: students, the unemployed, housewives, tradesmen... Talking politics with them, and political speeches, is something new. In a union, we work behind closed doors, discussing specific union affairs; during the elections, we worked in public places, with hundreds of people. It takes some getting used to! In general, it was a very positive experience. Even though no women were elected, the process was a success.

What is your opinion of the results of the elections?

We were slightly disappointed, and I am not only speaking of the PTT. We have existed only for a few months, but even more established, stronger parties of a certain substance had very poor results. The Communists did very badly in spite of their large number of activists. We were sure the results were going to be different. I’m still recovering, but it must be accepted - and start working for the next elections. The result give too great an advantage to the main winner. In addition, Ennhada was certainly favoured by the former repression by the Ben Ali regime. We are worried that they will pass laws as they see fit. There are many fears, and we need to remain vigilant.

What problems have you observed for women in post revolution Tunisia?

There have been some incidents. Most did not involve aggression, apart from some students who did not accept a teacher without a hijab, and in one school a discussion got out of hand. I am still hoping that this won’t be a problem, but I’m not sure.

What are your thoughts on the new constitution being drafted by the government?

The PTT sees a strengthening of women’s rights as essential, and to have more women in politics. If we had won, the PTT would have worked towards improving women’s rights - the right to work, for example. Ennhada acknowledges women’s rights, and yet some of their representatives are saying women should retire to reduce unemployment. For the PTT, freedom of dress must be according to every woman’s conscience. Freedom of expression and culture are very important, but Ennhada campaigned on aspects of private life.

What are the stakes, as a trade unionist?

The Confederal Congress of the UGTT is coming soon and we wish to contribute. We feel threatened, even though the winning party tells us that nothing will change. The women’s committees will push for women in the executive, ensuring a maximum number of women to reinforce women’s work. The UGTT must be very vigilant to developments, and women play a crucial role in this.

Are you already thinking of the next elections?

The PPT is in the process of reorganisation, to see what works and what does not work, and to change our approach at all levels. We didn't strategise; while the others calculated a lot. What is important for us is to know more precisely what the citizens really want and need.  This is the work ahead, for us and for the other parties.

Tunisia today is no longer the Tunisia of before. Now people are talking. But the changes are not over. There is still a great deal to be done, says Samira Hizaoui.

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(Photo: Maria Wattne)