“I am a proud feminist,” says young Ennahda candidate Sayida Ounissi, who wants to be the voice of Tunisian youth. She tells MEMO about what it’s like being a young, veiled politician and Islamist party feminist and why dialogue will “cure” the Tunisian society.
As October 26, the date of Tunisia’s first parliamentary election since the country’s new constitution, nears, preparations and campaigning are on the agenda for the country’s Islamist party candidate Sayida Ounissi. The 27-year-old, an elegant and eloquent PhD student, is hoping to become one of the 217 Parliamentarians shaping the next five years of her country’s future.
As a young, well-educated woman she is a top candidate of Ennahda’s electoral list for the governorate of France Nord. Ounissi has experienced nothing but support from her party. “Actually, even the elderly and more conservative within the party were very happy about my candidacy. They support me because I am a rookie.”
Ounissi says she knows that as a young and inexperienced politician she needs to fight hard to make herself heard. “In the Arab world we respect the elderly so much that you, as a young person, really need to be competent to make yourself audible.”
If elected for parliament, Ounissi wants to be a voice for the young, it is her responsibility, she argues. But she is concerned that the upcoming elections will see a low voter turnout. It is a duty of every Tunisian citizen to vote, argues Ounissi.
“The youth need to take on their responsibility and get to know the candidates,” she says firmly. But the newcomer can understand the political apathy among young people. “As a young person I understand very well these disillusions against political leaders, especially among young people. We’ve seen some nasty things since the revolution, when we were expecting leaders to show a certain level of ethics and values.”
Ounissi has been socially involved with Ennahda for as long as she can remember and her parents were political opponents of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. “My parents sacrificed everything for their right to freedom. My dad was jailed and tortured during Ben Ali because he didn’t agree with his policies.” She believes Ennahda gained its strong democratic allegiance because of its many years in opposition to Ben Ali. This, argues Ounissi, also paved the way for Ennahda’s decision to step down from power in the beginning of 2014.
Ennahda had governed for two years but, as the country entered a state of political tumult after a number of fatal attacks, including the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two outspoken opposition politicians, the party handed political power to an interim technocratic government, the first peaceful handover from a democratically elected Islamist political party.
However, “It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” explains Ounissi, who believes it demonstrates the party’s democratic nature. “I think that the last three years have shown that Ennahda is ready to do whatever it takes to ensure democracy even if it means giving up power and that is why Ennahda is the party for me.”
The young politician grew up in France and, before the revolution, was only able to return to her homeland a couple of times. When Ounissi came back she was surprised by the way people reacted to her hijab. “It was surprising to see that there was resistance from a certain elite, and especially the academia, who could not understand how I could grow up in France and still wear the hijab,” she says. “They couldn’t understand how I could not ‘liberate myself’ as they called it. They told me: ‘You had a chance to grow up in a secular country and do whatever you want and still you insist on wearing the hijab?’.”
“I had to explain the concept of freedom,” she says. “Everybody has the choice to decide for themselves. We can all live together in a multi-religious society, having different religious perspectives. As long as we respect each other it doesn’t matter if I wear the hijab and someone else doesn’t.”
Taking a step back Ounissi reflects on the development and concludes that it is a natural consequence after the many years of autocracy. “In a dictatorship everybody has to look the same,” she says. Therefore female role-models are of importance, Ounissi says, pointing out that women such as Mehrezia Labidi, National Constituent Assembly’s vice president, is breaking stereotypes surrounding the hijab every day.
“Many have the idea that a woman in a hijab is automatically someone who is directed by a man, but women like Labidi show that you can be a woman who wears a hijab and be strong and open minded.”
“I can understand people who feel a need to resist, but I think that it is very important to have respectful dialogue and understand each other.” To Ounissi dialogue is key. “The fear created between people can only be cured through a respectful debate; I talk about it using a medical term because it is like a disease. A dictatorship can only be strong if the population is divided, but now we need to bridge this division.”
However, too much time is spent debating the hijab, she argues. But Ounissi is optimistic, she emphasises that Tunisia is now facing the next chapter in its democratic transition, be it with Ennahda or some other party at the helm.
“If parts of society have been repressed and if there has been no place for discussion or dialogue then it will take time to create a respectful culture,” she concludes.