The woman, in her late fifties and clad in a white headscarf and a long blue dress, stood in the middle of Avenue Bourguiba, in the heart of downtown Tunis, and fumbled in her purse. Looking exhausted in the intense July heat, she was standing in a line of people in front of a tent where officials were registering Tunisian citizens for the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for this fall. Because of its strategic location in the center of the Tunisian capital, and perhaps also because of the ample shade provided by the trees lining the street, this particular tent has been recording the highest number of registrations in the city, according the High Independent Authority for Elections (ISIE) employees who work there.
But that might not be saying very much. When the ISIE launched voter registration on June 22, the process was scheduled to end one month later -- but low turnout and a profound apathy among eligible voters prompted the ISIE to extend voter registration until July 29. The total number of registered voters is now close to 5 million. Yet that still falls far short of the 7 million Tunisians who are eligible to vote.
"I don't have an ID card," the woman asked, smiling. "Can I use my passport to register?"
A younger woman, also standing in line, asked her if she lived abroad.
"Yes. I try to visit Tunisia every other summer. But this time I'm back for good."
"Why?" asked the younger woman. "If I lived in Europe, I'd never come back. Better opportunities out there."
"This is my country. This is home," the older woman replied. "I want to be a part of this. I want to help decide who my president will be. I'm tired of being disconnected, of being too far away. This is the best time to be in Tunisia."
Many women stop by the tent every day to register or to check the locations of their polling station, said Intidhar Louati, an ISIE employee who was helping potential voters register at the tent.
"It's no longer a question of women versus men," she told me. "I see women as active as men, as enthusiastic as men about registering and voting. Tunisian women have proved over and over that they have an opinion and that they won't give up their right to express it."
Tunisia is widely considered to be one of the most progressive Arab countries. That perception owes much to the country's relatively advanced state of women's rights, which has been guaranteed by law since 1956. Tunisian women were among the first women in the Arab world to be able to vote, file for divorce, and to pass down Tunisian citizenship to children born abroad or to a foreign father. Polygamy has been officially banned since the era of Tunisia's first President Habib Bourguiba, back in 1956. Both contraception and abortion are legal and accessible and have been for decades.
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