Tunisia made history on 29 September 2021 by appointing the first Arab female Prime Minister. The country that sparked the Arab Spring has taken bold strides for gender equality by naming Dr. Najla Bouden Romdhane as the first female head of government. Prior to her appointment, Romdhane was the Director-General at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and managed a $70m World Bank-financed programme to promote the modernisation of the Tunisian education system. The 63-year-old former geology professor studied geosciences at the National Engineering School of Tunis and later obtained a doctorate degree from École des Mines de Paris in earthquake engineering.

Romdhane’s appointment comes about two months after Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed suspended parliament and fired former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, using emergency powers to seize full control in what some saw as “an assault on democracy”. But in doing so, he has abated mounting allegations of usurping power from the modern elite. He may also have addressed the concerns of a global feminist movement and made Tunisia the poster child for women’s rights in the Islamic world – a much-needed change of strategy after the heavy criticism he received for not supporting equal inheritance for men and women earlier this year. Unlike their counterparts in other Muslim-dominated states, Tunisian women enjoy many freedoms, including: the right to vote; the right to work in any profession and fill nearly half the jobs in law and medicine; the right to free abortions; and, the right to divorce.

President Kaïs Saïed of Tunisia
President Kaïs Saïed has been in office since 2019. Photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

Romdhane’s appointment is significant not only in the Arab world but globally as there are still few female heads of government. According to the latest data compiled by UN Women, there are currently only 10 female Heads of State across the world, and 13 Heads of Government. If the lack of gender diversity persists, the institution predicts that parity democracy will not be attainable for another 130 years. Research on the management of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that female-led countries had better outcomes with New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, Finland’s Sanna Marin and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen winning the most praise.

“I’m absolutely confident that for two years, if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything”

Former US President, Barack Obama. 16 December 2019. Singapore

Romdhane received a warm welcome, amidst the on-going political crisis that has gripped Tunisia since July 2021. Around two million Tunisians took to the streets in support of the President on Sunday 3 October 2021. However, critics were quick to point out that the new prime minister has little political experience and few expect her to do more than follow President Saïed’s lead. Not to mention, Romdhane is a former colleague and friend of Saïed’s sister-in-law – a fact that is adding more fuel to the fire against her. Ironically, Saïed has taken upon the task of creating a cabinet himself – an anomaly in a semi-presidential system of government where that is the responsibility of the Prime Minister. He has also arrested several of his opponents, placed travel bans and frozen assets, thereby bolstering his own power further. Tunisia is still reeling from the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent contraction of the economy – which is what sparked the protests in January 2021 that led to Mechichi’s downfall after less than a year in office.

Street protests in Tunisia
Tunisia is dealing with another political crisis in 2021 as protesters take to the streets to express their disapproval of the government’s management of the pandemic and the economy. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Romdhane comes to the fore in these pressing circumstances. Many hope she will bring a breath of fresh air to Tunisian politics and improve its position in global politics. Others call her appointment illegal. Only time will tell whether she will be able to hold her own in the region’s sole-remaining democracy.

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