Tunisians voted for what mattered to them!
With all the Social Media and frequency of Blogs I have sent out over the years, my most recent October 27th Blog about Tunisia’s election results received nearly as much attention as any I have ever done. The response to the Blog was overwhelmingly positive and appreciative of the analyses of the elections.
However, there were a few queries as to why I chose to use a photo of a Tunisian woman who clearly is observant by the fact that she was wearing a tight head scarf. The queries, some of which were explicit, asked why I showed a religious woman who probably, by her way of dress, is presumed to be a supporter of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, the Islamic party.
Such queries show the inherent bias that many of us have, not only relating to Tunisia, but our response to seeing someone whose way of dress displays their religiosity…in this case, Islam.
A bit of full disclosure…the woman in the photo, Wasilla, is a friend. I happened to see her Sunday morning after she just returned from voting in Tunisia’s elections and she proudly held up her ink stained finger to show she voted. So, my response to taking her photo was simply a response to being there at this moment, of which she was so proud…proud to say that as a Tunisian, she had the opportunity to vote in a free election! But, the photo and the fact that Wasilla is a “covered woman” left many to read in what they wanted.
As for myself, I like to think I am “color blind”. Having lived in Tunisia for years and having traveled widely over these last thirty some odd years, I have developed close friendships throughout the world, crossing religions, cultures, ethnic groups and languages. I try as much as possible to see people for who they are and not pre-judge them by their religion, language or ethnic background. I have tried to instill this same belief to my son, as well and believe that I have succeeded, seeing that he has friends who cross the specturm of color and ethnic lines. However, I assume it is only natural that as hard as we try, we all carry some inner biases.
The interesting backdrop to the photo of Wasilla, unintended at the time I took the photo and the election results in Tunisia, is that after taking the photos, Wasilla told me she did NOT vote for Ennahda, the Islamic party. Rather, she proudly stated that she voted for Beji Caid Essebsi’s party, Nida Tounes, an avowedly secular party that is an umbrella party representing many of Tunisia’s secular democratic centrists parties. Nida Tounes was the decidedly clear, victor in Tunisia’s elections.
When I asked Wasilla what prompted her to vote for Nida Tounes, she explained that she is observant and lives her life by her religious convictions. But during the years of Ennahda’s political rule, she has seen Tunisia’s economy crumble, the country’s image decline in the eyes of the world and frankly, has not seen benefits for Tunisia.
Wasilla comes from a small town near Ain Draham in the northwest mountains of Tunisia, near the Algerian border. Little has changed in this region over the years, including the fact that governments, past and including Ennahda’s years in power, continue to neglect the region. While Wasilla has managed on her own gumption over the years to come to Tunis, work hard, attend school and earn a Master’s Degree in financial management, she is one of the fortunate ones. She now works as the controller for an NGO in one of Tunisia’s economically challenged areas, an NGO that has projects in more than a dozen areas of Tunisia. Working for the NGO, TAAMS, ( taamstn.org), Wasilla has also had the benefit of advanced training, having been sent to both Amman and Beirut in the past year for continuing education.
So, while Wasilla has worked hard and represents those Tunisians who are determined to do their best and not sit back and wait for a government or a political party to give them something, she notes that “Islam” has nothing to do with how she view politics. How she chooses to practice her religion is a private matter.
Returning to her village regularly, Wasilla is constantly reminded that even during the recent years of Ennahda, the promises have been empty. When she visits her family and the rains come to the region or as one of Tunisia’s few areas where snow falls, seeing the residents disabled and roads turned into mud, clearly Ennahda did not bring promised improvement to the area.
So in the end, Wasilla not only voted for change, but encouraged her family and friends to do the same. Religion was never part of what brought the spontaneity of Tunisia’s Revolution in January 2011. The only reason religion became a political issue is that there are people who wanted to make it an issue.
For Westerners and Tunisians alike, one can look at Tunisia’s elections this past Sunday as yet one more positive step in Tunisia’s singular identity. A country and people that by and large, is truly nationalistic, putting their “Tunisianness” first…over religion, over being Arab and voting for what they feel is best for Tunisia.
For the many Wasillas who remain observant and whose dress may prompt stereotypes and generalizations, it was their reason for choosing who they voted for that represents Tunisia’s success in putting democratization in practice. All this progress in democratization in less than four years since the country’s newfound independence. And for those among us who might see people dressed in a way that suggests their religious inclination, Tunisians clearly showed the world that having a political party trying to dictate through religion is not what they favor.
It is with great pride that I write from Tunisia and share the excitement and sense of accomplishment that many Tunisians are now feeling about their country.
Jerry Sorkin has been involved in marketing and business development for decades, in Tunisia, as well as other MENA region countries, with an emphasis on cultural tourism, residing most of the year in Tunisia. He is Founder and President of TunisUSA and Iconic Journeys Worldwide.
He was among the authors of the 2012 World Bank study on restructuring Tunisia’s tourism economy and serves as the Tourism Consultant on a European Union project in Tunisia on Cultural Tourism. He also has been awarded “Top Specialist” for Tunisia by Conde Nast Traveler magazine for five years in a row and was the initiator and organizer behind-the- scenes of the magazine’s January 2014 article “Tunisia’s Time”.https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-nohG5K079xTXJRWmRRbXE2VHc/edit.
Jerry Sorkin is an Emeritus President of the Washington, DC based American Tunisian Association, though his opinions in this writing are those of his own.