Interview
21 Mar 2019

I dedicate this victory to all the women in my country -- an interview with Souad Abderrahim

In July 2018, for the first time in Tunisia's history, a woman became the mayor of Tunis.

Wysokie Obcasy
AJD Wysokie Obcasy, Global
I dedicate this victory to all the women in my country -- an interview with Souad Abderrahim - NewsMavens
Souad Abderrahim, Wikimedia Commons

The following fragments from AJD's article first appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in July 2018.

"I dedicate this victory to all the women in my country,” Souad Abderrahim declared when the results of the election were announced. She had just become the first woman in history to hold the position of mayor in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Abderrahim won the election in early May, receiving 33.8% of the votes, but to assume the position, she also needed the support of the city council. She got it on July 3, when she received 26 votes, and her rival, Kamel Idir, only 22.

A symbol of modernity and openness

In 2017, political leader and  the Ennahdha Party founder Rached Ghannouchi stated in an interview with Le Monde that there is no place for “political Islam” in Tunisia after the Arab Spring.

“Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution established limits,” he stated, adding that this is good for politicians, because on the one hand it is no longer possible to accuse them of using religion for political purposes, and on the other hand, religion will not be held hostage by politics. In this same interview, he stated that for these reasons, his party is entering the era of “democratic Islam.”

The woman who just became mayor of the capital, Tunis, is a symbol of this political openness and modernity.

“We want to give Tunisian women their rights [....] We always say that a Tunisian woman can do any job, and is an activist on the front lines,” she said in one of her radio interviews.

The 53-year-old Abderrahim, a pharmacist and the head of a pharmaceutical company in Tunisia, described herself as an independent candidate, though she began as a member of the Renaissance Party (Ennahda Movement), whose members identify themselves as democratic Muslims. However, it is sometimes compared to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and called “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history.”

“[This victory] is a source of pride for all women in Tunisia,” she added, referring directly to the title of the first woman sheik in Tunisia. “It is a historic moment.”

"Misogynist objections"

The very fact that, along with the title of mayor, a woman received the traditional title of sheik generated much controversy -- described in the French language press as “misogynist objections.” Foued Bousslama, who in one of his television appearances described himself as a “communications officer” for Tunisia's secularist Nidaa Tounes party, expressed doubt about Abderrahim’s intention to fulfill the functions of mayor.

“We are a Muslim country, unfortunately […] a woman cannot be an imam in a mosque. As she cannot be present on the eve of the 27th night of Ramadan in mosques. This is unacceptable," he said, referring to the ceremonial presence of government officials in the mosque during “Leylat al-Qadr,” the most sacred night of Ramadan.

In the face of internet outrage addressed to the hypocrisy of this type of statement coming from a party calling itself “secular and modern,” party leaders quickly distanced themselves from Bousslama, affirming that his statements were not representative of the views of other party members.

Abderrahimin in turn affirmed, after this controversy, that “each candidate has the right to defend her candidacy,” emphasizing that she was not withdrawing from the election.

The press agencies and other media are stressing that this year’s local elections are a “milestone” in the progress of Tunisia toward democracy since decades of authoritarian governments were overthrown in 2011 by President Ben Ali. 57,000 people took part in the elections, half of whom were women and young people, who were all practically unrecognized in political life before this point.

In Tunisia, the situation of women, despite archaic laws that remain in force, is relatively good. In the majority of areas they have rights equal to those enjoyed by men. They work in many sectors, and in certain areas -- law and medicine -- they make up half of the employees.

Nevertheless, President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi in his speech at Al-Azhar University last year emphasized the need to change the law, so that women would not suffer discrimination in any way.

He spoke particularly about the rule from 1973 that forbade Tunisians from marrying non-Muslims, as well as the necessity of reforming inheritance law.

***

Translated by David A. Goldfarb

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