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Last updated: January 26, 2015

Agents of change – tapping into the minds of North Africa’s future (female) leaders

Banner Icon A new programme is training young women in North Africa to be the leaders their countries need for a better future. But in these shifting times, is that enough to prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead?

It’s an early winter morning in Brussels, and pale light is streaming through the windows of the francophone parliament where president Julie de Groote is addressing a rather different audience to her usual parliamentarians. “In this society going through transition,” she says, “you show to what extent women can be real agents of change, can make things happen.”

Her audience looks on in silent agreement. The women – and we are almost entirely women – sit taller in their seats. They know that de Groote is not only referring to Europe, but is talking about their countries: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, where they are each involved in navigating huge political and legal transitions. They are politicians, presidents of NGOs, activists and sometimes all three. All the women in the room are here today precisely because they want to be agents of change and because they already are.

THEY ARE HERE as part of the Femmes Leaders de Demain (Women Leaders of Tomorrow) programme, a leadership course designed to give them the skills, support and inspiration they need to shape the futures of their communities and countries. Activist Simone Susskind, the programme’s Belgian founder, has spent a lifetime campaigning for peace in the Middle East. In the wake of the Arab Spring, she turned her eye to North Africa, seeing what she calls a ‘veritable laboratory for democracy.’ It’s an important moment for the region, with considerable changes in the democratic structure in Tunisia, alterations to the family law in Morocco, and new quotas for women’s political representation in Algeria: women’s rights, human rights, democracy are dependent on these new initiatives.

In this context, women leaders have taken on an invigorated importance, hence the programme’s focus. Five young women from each country, as well as Belgium, have been selected for this year-long course. The visit to the parliament is an extra, a chance to meet established female politicians as role models. Previous modules have taken place in Morocco and Tunisia, and they are here in Brussels for module three: ‘Change’.

"All the women in the room are here today precisely because they want to be agents of change"

Tinhinane, slight and trembling, takes to the podium. Her voice is wobbly, and several times she has to stop to take deep breaths. She couldn’t be more different from her animated, passionate self of the night before, when she declared at the dinner table that her goal was to be president of Algeria. Tinhinane’s day job has nothing to do with politics, but in 2012 she was elected to the People’s Assembly in a rural municipality. “I really love my country,” she says, “and I’m ready to sacrifice myself to give the next generation a better future. The world of politics is difficult, but you have to love it – I got involved out of love.”                       

Behind her bold statement lies an acknowledgment of the difficulty for women in politics in Algeria, an arena that has only recently been opened to them. The 2012 decision to create a quota of 30% for women on electoral lists seems to have had a positive impact: 147 out of 462 seats in the Algerian parliament are now held by women. It seems incredible: at 32% it is well above the 2014 global average of 21.8%, and miles ahead of the Arab States at 15.9%. 

But despite admitting that the quota has allowed her to pursue a political career, Tinhinane has reservations about its real implications. She suggests that parties are often purposefully fulfilling their quotas on election lists by selecting women they think are incapable of holding real positions of power; if the women are then elected, they are often given menial positions or even declared incompetent and replaced by men. Selma, a student and feminist activist, agrees: “It’s so that next time, they can say: ‘See, women can’t do it!’” 

“It’s to show society that women aren’t politically mature,” adds Tinhinane, “to break us, definitively.” Farida, member of a feminist organisation promoting gender equality in Algeria, completes the bleak picture: “That’s why people are calling it ‘the parliament of hairdressers’”. 

Yet, this particular type of difficulty in office should come as no surprise, Tinhinane says, given the lack of support and political training that women in Algeria receive. It’s a world where, once elected, women are left to learn alone what it means to be a politician, and all the managerial, communication and self-presentation skills that entails.  With her presidential ambitions, Tinhinane is not satisfied: “I don’t want to just be locally elected – I want to climb the ladder and to climb it you need to have the necessary training.” 

THAT IS WHY SHE, and many of the other women, are participating in the FLD course; to gain the skills that will help advance their political careers. Besma Soudani, lawyer and businesswoman, became a partner of the programme to advise and further this aim. Following the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, Soudani set up the League of Women Voters in Tunisia (la LET) to provide support and education to women who wanted to get involved in politics. As in Algeria, women were climbing the political ranks without adequate preparation. “We’ve got a new constitution,” Soudani says, referring to the 2014 constitutional commitment to gender equality, “and now we need to translate that into our laws and legislation – make it a reality.” On this module of the FLD programme, only one Tunisian was in attendance: it was the weekend of the elections and the others were out on campaign trails back home. 

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Self-presentation and communication in these campaigns are essential, and Tinhinane is not the only participant looking for help in this: for Safae, a local councillor in a rural Moroccan commune, the opportunity to learn these skills has been invaluable. Describing herself as shy, she looks anything but in her fabulous leopard-print headscarf and matching knee-high heeled boots. The programme, she says, has helped her learn to express herself: “From the very beginning I've had a problem adapting to others – I’ve always been very self-contained. This programme has given me an opportunity to open up. I've gained confidence, and learnt how to work collectively.” 

It’s the same language that Susskind uses to describe what she sees as one of the major benefits of the programme: “I’ve seen (the participants) opening up, like flowers. And I’ve seen how they are being enriched, each in their own way, by the experience.”

Started in the early days of 2014, the participants’ enrichment already seems to be bearing tangible results. Tinhinane’s self confidence is one example. On this first day in Brussels she has recovered herself, and stands straight and quivering, looking out at the audience with fierce eyes: “In trying to take a step forwards in an unknown territory – because politics has always been the realm of men – Femmes Leaders de Demain is a guide through the darkness.”

The next day, we move to a residential conference centre just outside Brussels, where the real work of the programme will take place. In a large, airy conference room, the women arrive on the first morning still clutching croissants from the breakfast buffet, giggling and whispering. Hetty Einzig, one of the course’s designers and coaches, introduces the module; whispers die out and everyone becomes business-like. Over the course of the day, it becomes clear that Susskind’s judgment is correct; no one is afraid to voice their opinion. Hard to believe that many of these articulate women were too shy to speak up at their first session in Morocco.

"Self-presentation and communication in these campaigns are essential" 

Central to the spirit and conception of FLD is its emphasis on the self-development of its participants through coaching techniques. Not only do participants receive coaching at the modules, but in between they get to meet one-on-one with the local coaches in their countries, to develop their personal goals. These same coaches are at the module in Belgium, and have each brought a session to contribute. 

Monique Chalude, expert in workplace gender equality in Belgium, leads a discussion on 'Beliefs That Limit Us'. Ahlem Ben Othman, specialist in young people’s development in Tunisia, conducts a session on the ‘Seven Stages of Innovation’. Fatma Boufenik, an economics professor in Algeria, delivers a concise presentation on gender awareness in projects’ construction. Mouhcine Ayouche, head of a coaching training school in Morocco, carries the curious honour of being the only man on the course – a choice insisted upon by the Moroccan participants – and brings an understanding of group dynamics. Discussions, often heated, intersperse the presentations – everyone wants their say on the urgent topics broached: funding, gender, partnerships, influence and values.  This is a pilot programme, the first of its kind, so the sessions don’t all flow neatly; some feel rushed, squeezed by multiple stakeholder demands. Taking into account the wishes of the women results in a sudden unplanned trip into central Brussels to see the sights – this is after all for many their first trip to Belgium. 

The most anticipated activity takes place on Saturday morning, when the women have the opportunity to present their personal projects to one another during an advocacy session. What emerges in their presentations are a range of initiatives that they have created alongside their day jobs, some at the prompting of the programme, others long in the imagining, all motivated by the same passion. Imane could be speaking for many in the room when she says, “As a politician, you’ve got to have a cause that you believe in. Mine is women’s rights and social justice; whether that’s between social strata, or equality between men and women.” This passion has propelled her to tackle female poverty in a Moroccan town with a slowly developing economy. She plans to focus on a working-class area of the city, creating women’s cooperatives that will give them financial autonomy, enabling them to then get involved in politics. 

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This chimes with Hayat’s project, which is already well underway. Along with other locally elected women, she is focusing on increasing women’s involvement in politics in her rural commune. In a district where many women aren’t even registered voters, her organisation runs political training workshops for women, and awareness-raising campaigns aimed at unions, NGOs and political parties to encourage the promotion of women to decision-making positions. Both Imane and Hayat’s projects are not alone in their ambitions; I hear about plans for online feminist safe-spaces, campaigns against domestic violence, hopes for personal re-election, designs for the restructuring of local politics and gender-equality awareness programs for young people. 

WHAT I AM MOST STRUCK BY, in listening to the descriptions of these projects, is just how impressive these women really are: not only are they politicians, but alongside these demanding roles they campaign for the advancement and empowerment of other women. Susskind selected her participants well. If all their projects come to fruition, we could see real, local change in these communities. As the women put all their persuasive skills into their speeches, it’s easy to get swept away in the excitement and optimism that they generate. 

But essential to the success of these projects, of course, are the practical steps that will make them a reality. Hayat may already be there, but many, like Imane, are not. It’s on this front that the FLD programme is slightly weaker. This presenting session is one of a handful of practical skills sessions, another being the earlier talk by Claude Weinber on how to pitch a project to a funder. Other essential practical skills, such as how to conduct a political campaign, run an organisation or conduct diagnostic assessments, are missing. 

Practical steps towards political change take on added significance in the Moroccan context. There, parliamentary power is severely limited by the control of the monarchy: a ‘liberalized autocracy’, it is unlikely to see meaningful systemic change any time soon. Although the family code was overhauled via extensive parliamentary debate in 2004 (it now bans the marriage of minors and allows women to divorce), the debate was still only instigated at the direction of the king. This is only one type of restriction to change. Women activists and politicians in all the countries must also deal with the cultural expectations placed on them. These pressures are found everywhere from the sexism of the party office to families unsupportive of their daughters’ political ambitions. When Safae’s parents heard that she was trying to oust the head of her council, who’d been in power for fifteen years, they actively discouraged her. After she won, they wouldn’t speak to her for six months. 

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This raises the question of whether the FLD programme itself is overly idealistic, importing democratic values and coaching techniques from Europe unadapted to the particular circumstances and needs in these countries. Learning to give a good pitch doesn’t have much point if the people you are pitching to don’t want to listen, or if you face severe social retribution for speaking out in the first place. With its emphasis on personal development, is the programme enough to help these women instigate significant political change, or create projects with lasting consequences?

"I hear about plans for online feminist safe-spaces"

It’s a difficult question to answer, especially at this early stage. It also perhaps gives FLD too much power. The programme didn’t create the participants’ awareness of rights or their desire for change; the women themselves are responsible for these things. They applied for the programme because they recognised a need for what it teaches. Hayat says, “In order for women to enter into politics, they need to be personally as well as politically competent. To continue on my own path, I need leadership skills because I have to give speeches, I have to campaign for a cause, I have to negotiate with and influence people. So I absolutely need to learn how to present myself and work on my personal development.” She uses these same coaching techniques in the training workshops she runs for women. This programme may not be the key to systemic change in North Africa, but it trains women to have the self-confidence to stick to their own principles, and the self-awareness and interpersonal training to help make those principles reality, through partnerships and in collectives, step by step. 

This reality is in the making. The women in Hayat’s commune are gradually learning their rights and how to claim them. The disapprobation of her family only strengthened Safae’s commitment to politics; she is now deputy president of the political party on her regional council, her rise motivated by a desire to “have more power to defend the interests of female citizens.” Tinhinane's hot-headed idealism has been tempered by the programme’s focus on personal goals and realistic expectations: from wanting to be president in five years, she has now set her sights on a ten-year-long game plan. And for the moment, her hopes are high but localised: “I want to change the lives of everyone in my village.” 

The title ‘Woman Leaders of Tomorrow’ looks to the future; both programme and participants are in the early days of making significant change. Yet the figurative tomorrow is looking bright. Despite the obstacles to their projects, the women are unanimously optimistic. Hayat says: “My vision of tomorrow is very ambitious: that there will be equal opportunities for men and women. I dream that in due course, there will be democracy and real social justice.” If these projects continue to gain ground, then perhaps that vision will come true. In the meantime, calling these women ‘agents of change’ is not just hyperbolic flattery – it is already reality. 

*Some names have been changed to respect the anonymity and security of subjects.

Louisa Dunnigan
Louisa is a journalist and editorial assistant with a special interest in women’s rights. Her articles have appeared in The Believer, The Rumpus, The Oxonion Globalist, Bustle, Ladybeard, The Urchin Movement and Finnish feminist magazine Astra Nova.
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