Campaigning in Tunisia is set to get underway for elections later in the month. The powerful Islamist party Ennahda is a top favorite. It is modernizing its image, for example by nominating a female candidate.
Abderrahim aims to portray the modern yet traditional woman in the Ennahda party
Hundreds of men and women attended the recent gathering of the Ennahda party in Tunis' Palais de Congres. Following a joint prayer, party chairman Rachid Ghannouchi said Ennahda - "renaissance" in Arabic - vowed to build a democracy based on Islamic values. He sought to allay fears that the status of women, which is among the most advanced in the region, would suffer as a result.
"We don't make a difference between the sexes," Ghannouchi said. "Rather, we acknowledge the rights of women in education, public life and also, of course, in equal rights." The supporters were enthusiastic, reacting with thunderous applause.
One woman at the launch of the party's program attracted particular attention: Souad Abderrahim. She had taken a seat between the men on the podium. Her black pantsuit was slim-fitting and modern, with her brown, shoulder-length hair worn down.
Preserving the Arab-Islamic identity
Ghannouchi returned from 20 years in British exile in January
Abderrahim heads the Ennahda list in a Tunis constituency for the elections on October 23. As her party colleagues gave their speeches, Abderrahim smiled and clapped approvingly. But she didn't address the audience directly.
After the official event she introduced herself and explained why she had joined an Islamist party. Ennahda gave many spirited women the chance to actively contribute to political change in Tunisia, she said. She had already fought for equality as a trade unionist when she was younger. But the party was open for all Tunisian women, she said.
"I believe in the sincerity of Ennahda, otherwise it wouldn't have placed a woman like me at the top of their party list," Abderrahim said.
A woman like her? Abderrahim was referring to the fact that she is the sole candidate who doesn't wear a headscarf. At first glance, she appears cosmopolitan and moderate. Ennahda offered to nominate her as a candidate a few months ago. The trained pharmacist, who runs a wholesale company for pharmaceuticals, accepted because she was convinced of Ennahda's program, she said.
"It's important to me that it wants to preserve the Arab-Islamic identity."
Already as a young woman, Abderrahim joined an Islamic student union. The regime of toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had her arrested when she became too critical, she said. She was expelled from the university and could only complete her studies later. For her, the revolution in Tunisia was a sort of "renaissance" which Ennahda already attests in its name.
Turkey as a role model
The legalization of the party on March 1, 2011 marked the beginning of Abderrahim's career as a politician. But the competition is fierce. The country is divided into 27 constituencies, plus six districts for the many Tunisians living abroad. Dozens of lists have been compiled so that in the end 217 parliamentarians make up the constituent assembly charged with rewriting the country's constitution, and deciding on the future power division in Tunisia.
Abderrahim, who's in her mid-40s, is organizing her campaign from Ennahda's brand new headquarters in Tunis' modern Montplaisir neighborhood. Every Tunisian is familiar with the building by now. The new rooms still smell of paint. On the walls, there are pictures of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which Ennahda likes to present as a prime example of how openness and Islam can be compatible.
It appears Ennahda has significant financial means at its disposal. Following the revolution, it quickly opened offices across the country. Critics fear that the funds are coming from the Gulf States in order to undercut secular movements and create strict Islamic structures.
Tunisia's political direction
Tunisia will be the first nation to hold elections since the Arab Spring began
Abderrahim said she wants to do away with the preconceptions of the party and tells a story of how she too was told as a child to fear bearded men, who have commonly been associated with a reactionary Islam.
"Ennahda is a moderate party and the fear of it was fueled by the old regime," she said. "It painted an incorrect picture of us." A spokesman from the party's press department who has been put at her disposal nodded in agreement.
Many citizens admire those Islamists who hung in there, even when they were in prison. Opinion polls show that Ennahda could win 20 to 30 percent of the votes in the October 23 elections. These forecasts mean Ennahda could therefore trump any secular party in Tunisia, even if they don't win the absolute majority. Opponents fear that a religiously motivated shift to the right would then threaten the country.
Tunisian civil liberties lawyer Jaouhar Ben Mubarak considers Abderrahim's nomination pure window dressing. She is simply supposed to make the party appear more open and modern.
"It's crystallized that though Ennahda talks about a secular state, it wants to use the Sharia as the source of the Tunisian constitution," Ben Mubarak said.
Islamic and democratic
Abderrahim considers herself in good hands politically
Abderrahim has had to take a lot of criticism from all sides, even from her own ranks. Female party supporters who wear headscarves object to her liberal dress style. Salafists don't tolerate her candidacy at all. Even her own 14-year-old daughter fears that Ennahda could prescribe what she has to wear or forbid any contact to boys. But her mother doesn't take these fears seriously.
"It's also my task to explain to young people that Ennahda's program will not restrict them in any way," Abderrahim said.
According to the party program, Ennahda wants to remedy the "shortcomings" of late marriage and the high rate of divorce in Tunisia. Abderrahim herself married at a young age and lives with her husband Anouar Landa and their two children in a large, grandiose house with a swimming pool. Her husband supports her, helps with the family and the pharmaceutical business, so that Abderrahim can take care of her political career - a model family.
The living room is decorated with oriental touches. Several sofas grace the large room. On the walls are pictures and mirrors in golden frames. Abderrahim, her husband and several press people from the party sit down. The men listen attentively to what the candidate has to say and why she has found her spot in a religious party of all places. She said she would never join a feminist organization. She sees her interests better represented in an Islamic movement.
"I respect the traditions of Tunisian society and adhere to them," Abderrahim said. "We at Ennahda want to protect these Arab-Islamic traditions."
So does that leave room for democracy? The question agitates her. She speaks quickly and loudly until her press people calm her down.
"Islam and democracy do not rule each other out," she then said. There is also diversity of opinion in Islam and therefore one can't allege there isn't any democracy in Islamic countries.
"We Tunisians want to be the first country in the region to prove that both are possible," Abderrahim said.
Author: Diana Hodali (sac)
Editor: Rob Mudge