Women′s rights in Tunisia: Could first female mayor signal democratic change? | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 11.07.2018

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Middle East

Women's rights in Tunisia: Could first female mayor signal democratic change?

Last week, the Tunisian capital elected Souad Abderrahim its first female mayor in the first city elections since the Arab Spring. Could her victory signify a new direction for Tunisia's formerly Islamist Ennahda party?

Tunisia exhibits the most progressive stance on women's rights in the Arab world: In recent decades women have begun to work outside the home in every career field, last year the Tunisian government made it legal for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and a parliamentary bill is currently being drafted that would guarantee women equal inheritance rights. The push for women's rights can be traced back to 1956, when Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, signed a series of liberal laws called the Code of Personal Status that abolished polygamy and forced marriage, and enshrined legal protections for women in cases of divorce.

Read more: Women's rights in the Islamic world 

Now, some six decades later, a record number of women ran for elected office in last week's municipal elections, the first since the revolution that ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Among them was Souad Abderrahim, who was elected mayor of Tunis after defeating Kamel Idir of Nidaa Tounis, the secular party founded by Tunisia's president Beji Caid Essebsi, in the second round of voting last week. With her victory, Abderrahim, a 54-year-old pharmacist, is now seen as a pioneer for women's rights in the small North African country. "This was a win for democracy and women's equality," Souad Abderrahim told DW in the mayor's office in Tunis Monday. She said the high number of female candidates in the election reflected a "true image" of women in Tunisia.

Watch video 03:46

Tunisia – a struggling young democracy

A country of contradictions

However, while Tunisia has liberal, secular laws promoting women's rights, under the surface, many cultural and religious traditions remain. For instance, it is still taboo for women to live alone and many families don't allow their daughters to travel without permission, particularly in lower-income, more religiously conservative areas where the majority of women are veiled.     

Recent cases have underlined just how sensitive religious topics remain: In March, a Berlin-based DJ was sentenced to one year in prison for incorporating the Islamic call to prayer in a performance; then, in September last year, a TV host stirred controversy after suggesting a female guest should marry her rapist, a traditional belief not uncommon in Arab countries.  And during the recent elections, the spokesman for the opposition party Nidaa Tounis, Foued Bouslema, said that a female candidate is "unacceptable" for mayor in Tunisia due to her not being able to be an imam at a mosque. The statement sparked outrage online, and the Nidaa Tounis party backed away from Bouslema, saying "that the opinions he expresses are his own and do not reflect the official positions of the Nidaa Tounis party."

Abderrahim, who often wears suits and is unveiled, ran as an independent – cultivating an image of herself as a Muslim, a democrat, and a paragon of modernity. Yet in another contradiction, her campaign was backed by Tunisia's traditionally Islamist party, the Ennahda (Rebirth) Party. Founded in 1981 as "The Islamic Tendency Movement" by political thinker Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda had long advocated an Islamist agenda, similar to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, but with milder social stances.

An attempt to 'polish' Ennahda's image?

But now that Ennahda has backed a female candidate who won such a high-profile post, observers wonder where the party is heading. Following the Arab Spring in 2011, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia after decades of exile under Ben Ali, and his party won the most votes in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly. One prominent position for which the party advocated was legalizing the headscarf in public places and schools, which Ben Ali banned during his 25-year reign. And Abderrahim herself came in for massive criticism a few years back when she claimed that unwed mothers were "a scourge" upon society. Despite the rather incongruent messages on women's rights, experts say that Ennahda's support of Abderrahim symbolizes another move away from political Islam for the party and a way to improve its image in Tunisia and abroad.

In an editorial for the Arabi 21 news organization, journalist Ali Saada said that many Tunisians view Abderrahim's candidacy as an attempt to "polish" the party's image. Indeed, Tunisia's fledgling democracy is grappling with issues of youth disenchantment, a reality that was reflected in the recent election's low voting rate: only 33.7 percent of the electorate turned out, and young voter participation was estimated to be even lower. Rafik Halouani, head of the election monitoring agency Mourakiboun, said just after voting day that young Tunisians seemed to "no longer believe in elections as a source of change, which is very serious for democracy." 

Sarah Yerkes, a research fellow and Middle East expert at the Carnegie Center of International Peace in Washington, DC told DW that the Ennahda party has been losing support across Tunisia in recent years and that Abderrahim's candidacy was a way to attract new voters. "By putting forward this female mayor, my guess would be that the party leadership doesn't think their base would be too riled up," Yerkes explained, noting that the Ennahda party in Tunis is more liberal than other parts of the country. That's an important distinction to draw, she said, because a candidate like Abderrahim would not have had an easy path to victory elsewhere. "I don't think that an unveiled Ennahda candidate would have won in the south," she said.

Protests in Tunis

The Arab Spring has resulted in a political system characterized by fluctuating parties and allegiances

Vague platform, broader appeal?

Abderrahim's first step as mayor, she said upon winning, would be to clean up Tunis and implementing an improved waste management system. Since Ben Ali's fall in 2011, the city has been unable to deal with trash in an effective manner. She also wants to plant more trees in the city. Important actions, for sure – but not exactly the most politically charged to-do list. As expert Yerkes puts it: "This is one of the problems with Ennahda overall, as it isn't really clear what their party positions are," she said, describing the party's platform as vague. 

That is likely due to the complex realities of a country in democratic transition. Yerkes explained that Ennahda is torn between Islamist policies that it abandoned, but are still popular among much of its base, and scorn from the more progressive Tunisian society if it advocates policies related to political Islam. The party has to be careful of its image, because if it enacts more Islamic policies, it could hurt Tunisia's image in the eyes of Western governments – and Tunisia desperately needs investment and trade from abroad.

Tolerance more than skin-deep?

In a previous attempt to promote a tolerant image, Ennahda had allowed Simon Slama, a Jewish candidate to run on its list for elections in May. Although he didn't win, Slama said that Ennahda is now a non-religious party. "I chose Ennahda because I found that because of the crisis the country is going through, everyone is turning toward this party," he told the Associated Press. Yet Borhane Bassais, a top official in Nidaa Tounis, slammed his rivals in Ennahda, saying that the Jewish politician's candidacy was a "propaganda operation to make [Ennahda] seem like an open and tolerant party."

Read more: Tunisian women celebrate their rights

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Tunisians despair as hopes after 2011 uprising fade

'Transparency is our slogan'

But Abderrahim did announce during the campaign that "We have chosen transparency as our slogan." Though not officially an Ennahda candidate, she does technically belong to the party and its inner circle. In choosing a line of transparency she may be signaling that the party indeed move away from its Islamist roots and will position itself long-term as an anti-corruption alternative to the Nidaa Tounis party, whose members have often been criticized of having ties with the old regime.

The changes brought by the Arab Spring – however incremental – include themes of transparency and increased democratic participation. That includes women's equal participation in governing. "I think that the Ennahda leadership understands that this is what the majority of the Tunisian public wants, as the party is still quite conservative socially but quite progressive when it comes to gender issues," Yerkes said.

Whether Abderrahim's election is a sign of things to come remains to be seen. The next test for Tunisia will come in 2019, when the country holds parliamentary and presidential elections.


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