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The Next Chapter for Women in the Birthplace of the Arab Spring

Article by Charity Wallace December 19, 2013 //   5 minute read

This week marks the third anniversary of the birth of the Arab Spring.  When Mohamed Bouazizi, a mid-20s vegetable vendor from Tunisia, grew so desperate about his future, he set himself on fire in protest of the politically oppressive regime of Zine el Abdine ben Ali. In doing so, it ignited protests around the Middle East and North Africa.  His act led to the demise of the Ben Ali regime and the beginning of a movement that started with great hope and optimism.  People on the street of Bourguiba Avenue and in Tahrir Square felt liberated and emboldened to use their voices to demand change.  Three years after the exhilarating beginnings of the Arab Spring, the region now finds itself disillusioned and grappling with the challenges of forming new and thriving democracies.  Despite often alarming news, there remain bright spots that give reason for cautious optimism and hope – most notably, the women.

I had the great privilege of serving as an International Election Observer with the International Republican Institute for Tunisia’s election in October 23, 2011.  I was struck by the hope and determination of the Tunisian citizens.  Deployed to the rural village of Beja, I watched as smartly dressed Tunisians, young and old, men and women, patiently stood in line for hours to ensure they were able to vote in this historic election.   I have a particularly profound memory of an elderly woman who, after waiting in a long line, was turned away from a polling station as she was not registered at that particular station.  She was told to travel to another town, about 10 kilometers away, to vote.  She was so determined to vote that she traveled on a rickety bus and walked several kilometers to make sure she was part of history --that her voice was heard on this historic day.

Tunisia has fared better than most of the other Arab Spring countries.  They elected a Constituent Assembly in 2011 for the purpose of writing their new constitution.  The Islamic party won the majority of the seats in the Assembly and has wisely been measured in their approach.  The Ennahda party seems to have learned some important lessons from their neighbors in Egypt –stepping down earlier this week following growing disapproval and calls for their resignation.  A new, secular prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, has been designated.  He has the task of leading the country toward a progressive and stable future.  To gain that promising future, the country must maintain rights and opportunities for women.

Studies show that when women are given opportunity and able to contribute to society, countries are more stable and prosperous.  To strengthen the abilities and role of women worldwide, the Women’s Initiative Fellowship at the Bush Institute equips and empowers women from the Middle East and North Africa to become effective leaders, develop an expansive and valuable network of women, and build a strong civil society in their respective countries.  Over the last two years, the Women’s Initiative Fellowship has trained and equipped 33 women from Egypt to develop projects in human rights, media, business, health, and more -- all of which support women and youth in their communities to realize their potential and improve their country.  These fellows cascade what they have learned as part of the program to other women in their networks, thus creating a multiplier effect. 

In 2014, the Women’s Initiative Fellowship is expanding to Tunisia.  Tunisian women have historically been presented with opportunity, particularly related to education and the economy.  But now more than ever, Tunisian women recognize the importance of their active participation in the development of their country during this time of transition.  They are worried about losing their rights and opportunities, and they are eager to develop leadership skills that will help them sustain those rights and build a strong civil society. 

On this significant anniversary, it’s fitting that we look forward to a hopeful future in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Last week, the Bush Institute selected 20 outstanding Tunisian women for the 2014 Fellowship class.  These women represent education, health, business, politics, law and media.  Each woman defined her specific vision for the future of her country and described how she plans to have a significant effect.  Through the Women’s Initiative Fellowship, we are confident that Tunisia’s future will be improved by this dynamic group of women.