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Mehdi Hasan talks to Tunisian politician Mehrezia Labidi on gender, democracy and the Arab Spring

“The women of my party are not just dolls or decor."

You are the most senior elected woman in the Middle East. What does that feel like?
Very nice but it’s a very heavy responsibility and I feel that I am compelled to succeed as a woman. I don’t need to imitate a man.

One criticism of Islamic governments is the treatment of women. What steps have you made in Tunisia to allay those fears?
For us it was quite normal that a party like mine, the Ennahda party, brought 42 women to parliament – out of 59 [female MPs]. And the women of the Ennahda party are not just dolls or decor, they are women who have contributed to the resistance of despotism.

So there’s no clash for you between political Islam and women's rights?
No, not in Tunisia.

Can you be an Islamist and a feminist?
I am already.

Would you describe the Tunisian government as an Islamic government?
No, no, no – it is just a democratic government. The objective is not Islamising Tunisia. Tunisia is already a Muslim country and what is the use of having an Islamic government?

So you believe there is no clash between Islam and democracy?
Of course. The clash is not between Islam and democracy but between the mentality of democracy and of pluralism, and the mentality of despotism and dictatorship.

What’s your memory of the day President Ben Ali fled Tunisia? What were you doing?
I was flying back to Paris from Kyrgyzstan, and before taking the plane from Bishkek the young people told me: “Madam, there is revolution in your country”. When I arrived in Paris of course I turned on Al Jazeera and they announced Ben Ali had fled. I was crying. I called my mother in Tunis to say “wow”.

How long had you been living in exile in Paris?
Twenty-five years. I left for Paris for studies just before the coming of Ben Ali.

How do you explain the fact the Arab spring protests weren’t lead by Islamic parties?
The logic for me is clear: many young people who contributed to this revolution in Tunisia are sons and daughters of men and women who were members of Ennahda and other political parties. So in a way all political parties contributed to, indirectly, this revolution.

In Tunisia, your party has criticised the Syrian regime. Would Tunisia be prepared to send troops, as a force to stop the violence?
Tunisia has always been willing to contribute to Peace Corps. I think the decision taken by the Tunisian government to cut relations with Syria is quite coherent in a post-revolutionary era. We cannot accept, as a people, being accomplices of someone slaughtering his people.

And if western governments intervened to stop this slaughter, would you object?
My first question would be: under what conditions and for what objectives? The Tunisian government has many reservations about possible western intervention in Syria because the Libyan case was not a very conclusive one.

Was Ennahda supportive of Nato intervention?
Tunisia and all Tunisian people kept silent. Libya is our closest neighbour and we expressed our support to the Libyan people through giving refuge and harbour to people fleeing the violence of the civil war.

Since the Arab spring many in the west want to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Islamists. How worried are you about the rise of extreme people on the Islamist side?
I refuse to play this game of good Muslim, bad Muslim. If we look back on the past two decades, we’ll see that these roles were sometimes assigned to people – sometimes the bad Muslim of today is the good Muslim of tomorrow. As someone who wants to represent all Tunisians, I listen to both sides but I want to remind people that if there is a rule to this game, this rule is called law and democracy.

Do you condemn those who attack cinemas, or threaten restaurants that sell alcohol?
Without hesitation. If we want to build a state based on the respect of the law, violence has to be condemned.

And what about the use of sharia law?
Polygamy is not back, there are no hand choppings. But Islamic legislation has always been one of the material sources of Tunisian law.

Do you vote?
Of course.

Is there anything you’d like to forget?
The sadness or the bitterness I felt when I returned to Tunisia [in 1995] and found my father dying. He used to have a very sharp and very intelligent mind and I found that he was escaping to this illness that makes you lost: a kind of Alzheimer’s. I think he was escaping in this illness to forget that Tunisia was, at the time, governed by dictatorship.

Defining moments

1963 Born. Marries in 1986 and moves to France, where she works as a teacher
1991 Undertakes postgraduate studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle
2005 Teaches at the European Institute of Humanities in Paris
2006 Elected chair of Global Women of Faith For Peace
2011 Elected to the Tunisian parliament for the Ennahda party, representing Tunisians living in France. Becomes deputy speaker

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial