Will women gain or lose by Tunis vote

Darine Hajhasin (left) opposes Islamist party, Al-Nahda, while unveiled Khawla Guesim (center) and covered Leila Mansouri (right) will vote for it. (Trudy Rubin / Staff)

The debate that exploded before my eyes, among women gathered at a jobs training center in Tunis, reflected the sharp rift between those who trust the Al-Nahda Islamist party, and those who fear that if it wins Sunday’s elections, it will curb their rights.

The arguments didn’t all reflect the dress-style a particular woman was wearing.

It wasn’t surprising that Leila Mansouri, in a long beige gown and headscarf insisted, “Al-Nahda represents Islam so it represents justice.”

But Khawla Guesim, wearing a low cut tee shirt, sun glasses, and no head scarf, didn’t look like she would support an Islamist party. She insiste: “ True I don’t wear the veil, and I don’t pray, but I will vote for Al-Nahda because there is nothing more fair than Koran to be our constitution. Al-Nahda is more trustworthy than the others.” When someone reminded her that Al-Nahda had a history of terrorism in the 1990s, she denied it; she was too young to remember those days.

Darine  Hajhasin, unveiled, in a long orange tunic, snapped back: “These people are not trustworthy. If Al-Nahda gets power, they will restore polygamy, and men wil be the only won’t be permitted to be the breadwinner. We will lose everything we’ve gained.”  

I heard these debates everywhere I went in Tunis. At one level, they are extremely healthy, in a society that could never openly engage in politics before. At another level, I was struck by how much the advocates of Al-Nahda endorsed the party for emotional reasons, rather than describing its program.

“There is no civic education here,” says Chema Gargouri, the head of the training center. “The voter doesn’t understand what IS voting or why it is important. Many people think if you separate democracy and religion this takes away their identity, and that anyone who wants to separate them is not a Muslim. It’s an emotional vote, not an intellectual vote. It’s not based on the capacity of the political parties.”

She, like every woman I spoke with, is anxiously awaiting the outcome of Sunday’s election.