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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Tunis elects first female mayor 

Souad Abderrahim ran for the Islamist Ennahda party  

Souad Abderrahim has been elected the first woman mayor of Tunis. EPA
Souad Abderrahim has been elected the first woman mayor of Tunis. EPA

A 53-year-old pharmaceutical manager has been elected the first female mayor of the Tunisian capital Tunis, a move seen as an inspiring development for women across the country.

Souad Abderrahim was chosen by Tunis’s municipal council on Tuesday with 26 votes, while her nearest rival claimed 22.

Ms Abderrahim ran as an independent under the list of Ennahda, a traditionally conservative party, in the May municipal elections — the first since the 2011 revolution. While a number of women have increasingly become more involved in Tunisian politics, the development in Tunis was a particularly significant milestone.

“Abderrahim's victory is one for the cause of women. It's empowering in the sense that women can aspire now to be mayors and have leadership positions regardless of their political affiliation or where they came from,” Oumayma Ben Abdullah, a 27-year-old Tunisian and fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told The National.

Ms Abderrahim defeated a city official who served under ousted dictator Zin El Abidine Ben Ali in a reminder of the scope of changes that have taken place in Tunisia. She first became involved in politics while a student in the 1980s as a student activist, a move that landed her in prison for two weeks when Mr Ben Ali banned her group. The new mayor of Tunis became an member of parliament in 2011, months after his downfall.

“Since the revolution, the situation for women is definitely getting better thanks to a strong civil society and feminist movement which keeps pushing for more rights to women,” said Ms Ben Abdullah.

In her first speech since being elected, Ms Abderrahim said: "I dedicate this victory to all Tunisian women who have struggled to be in such senior positions.

"My first task will be to improve the face of Tunis.”

According to the country's electoral commission (ISIE), women made up 47 per cent of those elected in the recent local polls. More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, ran for office in 350 municipalities, with more than 7,200 positions being contested.

“Having women in municipal councils is how it should be done and is indeed inspirational but it is the minimum right in a country which is a pioneer of women's rights in Tunisia. What is important is to represent all women not only religious or secular women,” said Ms Abdullah.

Tunisia is seen as one of the most progressive and liberal countries in the Muslim world. Last year President Beji Caid Essebsi overturned a 1973 law that banned Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men.

The decision was lauded by human rights organisations. Mr Essebsi had described it as "an obstacle to the freedom of choice of the spouse".

“As a young Tunisian woman I feel free,” Ms Abdullah said, but cautioned that not all of her compatriots would necessarily feel the same.

Despite the appointment of Ms Abderrahim, it revealed surprising fault lines in Tunisia. In a bizarre twist, a spokesman for the rival and secular Nidaa Tounes recently said that a woman could not be the mayor of Tunis, though its officials later said his comments did not represent the party.

Some also said that, while the election was a positive step, they would reserve judgement. Racha O’Haffar, a woman and anti-human trafficking activist, said she would wait to see how Ms Abderrahim handled her first month in the role. “I also want to know her agenda and vision,” she added.

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Indeed, the new mayor of Tunis has at times proved controversial. “It is important to note that not all women are happy about the results. I don’t imagine she will change anything for single mothers for example, she already expressed in the past that she considers them a 'disgrace',” said Ms Ben Abdullah.

Ms Abderrahim is at the forefront of moves by Ennahda to modernise its traditionally conservative reputation. She was one of a handful of women candidates who ran for the party, which also gained prominence when it endorsed a Jewish candidate in the city of Monastir.

The new mayor, who is a member of the party’s politburo despite running as an independent, has rejected the religiously conservative label. "We have chosen transparency as a slogan," she said.

The Ennahda party in 2016 acknowledged the separation of religion and politics, describing itself as "democratic Muslim".

“Congratulations to Souad Abderrahim candidate, just elected mayor of Tunis. She is the first woman to occupy this prestigious position since it was founded in 1885. She will be the first female sheikh of Tunis,” said Ennahda.

Not all buy into the "moderate" label Ennhada is often tagged with. “I don’t really believe it to be honest. Ennahda is trying to market itself as pluralistic and secular to hide its own Islamist identity. We shall see what happens,” said a young Tunisian woman and political researcher, who asked not to be named.

While Tunisia has numerous important problems to contend with, including high unemployment and inflation, it is still widely classed as the most successful country post-2011 Arab Spring. One of those positives has been the boost in females rights – and the women of Tunisia hope that election of Ms Abderrahim is just the next step on the ladder.