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Sandro Lutyens

Lifting the veil: women in Tunisian politics

Sayyida Ounissa [Mohamed Ali Trabelsi]

Date of publication: 8 March, 2015

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International Women's Day: Tunisia’s Ennahdha wants to be the first Islamist party to reconcile Islam and democracy. Young Ennahdha women are finding their place in the movement. Sayida Ounissi is one of them.

Her first name means "Miss" in Arabic. Whenever the president of the Tunisian parliament calls the roll, the ranks freeze. Miss Miss Ounissi? "It's too funny," she says.

Sayida Ounissi, 28, is young, smart, bicultural, trilingual, will soon gain a PhD and already is a member of the Tunisian parliament. She is also veiled, Islamist and feminist. A welcome melting pot of attributes for Tunisia's islamist party Ennahdha.


To make sure she is elected, they put her top of the France North list in the 2014 parliamentary elections. After a life spent in exile with her family in the environs of Paris, "Miss" Ounissi returned "home" to the chaotic traffic, the strange sense of punctuality and the democratic transition.

One of Tunisia's rising stars, she wonders on Twitter whether "it is sane to watch House of Cards when you're a young politician yourself". Commenting on the systematic delays of the Tunisian Parliament, she wonders whether Arabs really invented the measure of time.

Fun and comfortable, Sayida Ounissi also fits in well with Ennahdha's ambition to reconcile Islam with democracy. She hopes her side will evolve to be compared to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), German chancellor Angela Merkel's political party.

The journey of a lifetime

It is 1992. Autocrat Ben Ali has been in power for four years, and Sayida just turned five. Guarding nothing but a couple of suitcases, she waits with her mother and siblings in a town near the Algerian border for the man who will help them cross. In Algiers, they will be granted political asylum. They will continue the journey to France, where Sayida's father is waiting. Tortured, imprisoned and put under surveillance, the Islamist militant had previously fled the same way.

In the Parisian suburbs, young Sayida grows amid Islamist exiles from Tunisia. Schooled in the French Republican school system, she studys political science and watches from afar as the Tunisian revolution overthrows Ben Ali in 2011.

Sayida visits Tunisia but remains in France for her PhD. She becomes vice-president of the Young Muslims Forum in Europe, and gets invited to the European Parliament. There she explains what it is to be a young feminist Muslim involved in politics. An uneasy cause, but Miss Ounissi knows how to use the verb.

"The prejudice says that a veiled woman is submissive," she says. "Veiled women must always first deconstruct that idea before they are taken seriously".

Ounissi is a feminist as Westerners understand it. She wants equality in rights and opportunities. Some women's organisations find her illegitimate, she says. The veil weighs in heavily. "One of our missions is to relax people", Ounissi says.

Growing up in France, she heard from all corners that she was not a free woman. "That's weird," she thought, "I don't feel submissive". She was surrounded with "strong militant women", above all her mother, who treated her children equally and without taboos.

Not one woman

Tunisia is generally praised for its gender equality. One third of Tunisian MPs are women. In France, the ratio drops to 27 percent, in the UK it is 23 percent. But the women's fight goes on in Tunisia. "It is a never-ending battle," Miss Ounissi says.

See our full coverage of International Women's Day here

Her recent attempt to establish a cross-party womens coalition failed because not all women agreed. Tunisia's main women's organisation, the Women Democrats, hold a grudge against Islamists. They have a different view of the "free" woman.

"I don't like the expression 'the Tunisian woman'", Ounissi says. She rejects the idea that a woman must have the brown bob haircut, short skirt and a degree in philosophy or literature.

"We're not all the same, we have to use the plural. That's diversity."

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