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A woman prime minister in Tunisia

Dr. Amal Moussa

Published: Updated:

Since the Tunisian President’s announcement of the exceptional measures that sacked the government and froze the parliament, Tunisians and countries concerned with Tunisian affairs have been awaiting the formation of a government that manages internal affairs and talks with international financial and economic institutions.

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For many people, the period between 25 July and the announcement of the upcoming prime minister on 28 September was a long period. However, the President did not care as much about time as about outlining the features of the post-25 July Tunisian project. He had often stated that this new Tunisia will break with the political class that was ruling the country until Article 80 was activated, after years of widespread corruption and political divisions that deepened tensions between the country’s top three institutions.

After much waiting and observation, the President announced the name of a woman as prime minister. Most of the reactions to the news admitted to the President’s wisdom, given the symbolism of his choice. Women’s organizations and modernist elites generally expressed their relief. After all, they had constantly criticized the poor representation of women in ministerial and diplomatic positions and disapproved of the alienation of women from sovereign positions and the poor application of the gender equality principle in the assignment of ministerial portfolios.

The positive reactions to the news of Mrs. Najla Bouden’s appointment as prime minister of a government she will be forming as soon as possible fall in this context. In other words, in response to a long-sought demand. We must also not forget that this is the first Arab woman to be appointed as prime minister, which doubles the symbolism of the event. Women’s issues in Tunisia had made significant leaps since the establishment of the state, which led to harvesting the fruit of women’s excellence in various fields.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied meets with newly appointed Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane, in Tunis, Tunisia September 29, 2021. (Reuters)
Tunisia's President Kais Saied meets with newly appointed Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane, in Tunis, Tunisia September 29, 2021. (Reuters)



Some understood the appointment of Najla Bouden, a higher education professor who supervised for several years the education quality dossier and communication with international organizations, as a positive message to foreign parties that had expressed their concern for human rights and freedoms in the country. The appointment of a woman prime minister, a first of its kind, was enough of an indicator of progress and firm belief in the value and efficiency of women.

The dominating feeling, then, is optimism and positivity. However, the shocked political community has only made minimal, shy reactions. For them, this is an unknown woman with no political history nor media appearances who comes from a non-economic background, while all they demanded was an economist who can bring Tunisia out of its snowball of economic problems that require quick interventions, efficiency, and relations with international institutions.

Nonetheless, despite its significance, such a problem can be solved with the right choice of finance, economy, and investment ministers. The real problem has more to do with the management of the political scene, which is starting to pick up its pieces to oppose the President’s project and choices. In other words: to what extent will the prime minister find a suitable political environment to work through the accumulated problems and resolve them? Also, will this serious academic woman find popular support that agrees to break with protest movements and demands until Tunisia can stand on its feet?

As fate would have it, a woman was appointed prime minister at Tunisia’s most critical political and economic juncture, and this is a fact we must keep in mind, as it will curb criticism and strict evaluations. We insist on this point because the appointment of a woman prime minister is a double-edged sword. If she succeeds, her success will go down in history as a foundational experience in terms of Tunisian women’s political participation. But if she fails, as did her male predecessors over the last decade, her failure will subconsciously be attributed to gender-related considerations, despite the proven excellence of Tunisian women across all sectors.

What is needed is a firm ground that helps this symbolic and unique experience in Tunisia and the whole Arab world succeed. The problem is that such a firm ground was not available to any prime minister for a whole decade, as their tenures all lacked the political stability that would allow them to address outstanding problems.

For this reason, Tunisians must today show their confidence in women in practice, not only in theory, by securing minimum support for the prime minister, even if it means postponing demands, protests, and social demonstrations.

Not only is the President’s appointment of the new Prime Minister a politically strong, symbolic, and important step for the image of Tunisia; it also sends messages of reassurance to those waiting to hear them. What’s more important, however, is to give the prime minister a climate of political stability that allows her to leave an impact that turns the participation of Tunisian women in politics to an exemplary tradition.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

Read more:

Tunisia new PM, first Arab woman tasked with forming government: Who is Najla Bouden?

Tunisia’s president appoints Najla Bouden Romdhane as country's first woman PM

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