Tunis elects first female mayor

The election of Abderrahim comes on the heels of a series of progressive reforms aimed at ensuring women’s rights. 
Tuesday 03/07/2018
Souad Abderrahim, a candidate of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrates after being elected mayor of the city of Tunis, in Tunis, Tunisia July 3, 2018. (Reuters)
Souad Abderrahim, a candidate of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrates after being elected mayor of the city of Tunis, in Tunis, Tunisia July 3, 2018. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s municipal council voted in the first female mayor of the capital Tunis on July 3 in what supporters hailed as another milestone for women’s rights in the country, despite reservations by secularist activists who resented the selection of an Islamist-backed candidate.

Souad Abderrahim, 53, was elected to the post after receiving support from 26 of 60 municipal councillors. Her selection was helped by the abstention of leftists and secularists in the vote. 

“I consider this a source of pride for the Tunisian woman,” Abderrahim told IFM radio in May. “To become the first female sheikh of Tunis can only be recorded as Tunisia making history on this front.”

The election of Abderrahim, who ran as an independent candidate affiliated with the Islamist Ennahda party, comes on the heels of a series of progressive reforms aimed at ensuring women’s rights. 

In September 2017, Tunisia passed a law allowing women to marry non-Muslim men, and President Beji Caid Essebsi expressed support for ensuring equality in inheritance between men and women, a position echoed by a recent presidential commission.

Despite the reforms, the prospect of a female mayor in Tunisia’s capital city was not universally welcomed. Prior to the vote, some detractors criticised her candidacy as a ploy by Ennahda to present a more tolerant image. Others argued that, as a woman, she was unable to assume the title of “sheikh” traditionally granted to mayors or oversee special religious events.

“If a woman were to serve as sheikh of the city of Tunis, it would be contrary to religious traditions. We are an Islamic country,” Nidaa Tounes leader Fouad Bouslama told Tunisian media in early May.  "...This is unacceptable.”  That statement was denounced by the party’s central committee, which said his views did not represent Nidaa Tounes, the country’s main secularist party that heads the governing coalition.  Ennahdha also said it had no problem with a woman overseeing mosque events on special occasions, such as during the fasting month of Ramdan.

Others opposed Abderrahim’s selection because her family hailed from the southern region of the country, not the capital city Tunis.  Such reservations were broadly dismissed as an "obsolete form of regionalism."

Abderrahim’s election comes after May 6 polls that were largely disappointing for Tunisia’s two leading political parties. While Ennahda outpaced Nidaa Tounes 28.6% to 20.8%, both parties were beaten out by independent candidates, who took 32.2% of the vote. The poll also saw low voter turnout, at 33.7%.

Those results, analysts said, were a reflection of voters’ growing disenchantment with the country’s political elite, long derided for failing to reverse years of economic decline and social marginalisation, especially in rural and interior areas. 

“Politicians went so far in marginalising the citizens and ignoring their big and small dreams that they got a thundering slap from the voters who stayed away of the polling stations and delivered a low turnout,” wrote Abdelhamid Riahi, editor-in-chief of the Al Chourouk daily newspaper, at the time.

“It is a resounding message of voters’ apathy. Will this message get satisfying answers before it is too late?” he said. 

The one positive feature of the municipal elections was strong participation by youth, who, despite voting in low numbers, made up 37% of winning candidates. 

Maher Boubaker Hadhri, 28, who headed the “Youth of El Mourouj” electoral list in southern Tunis, told The Arab Weekly that young people’s engagement -- both as voters and candidates -- is critical to presenting an alternative political vision.

“Running an independent list for the municipal election was a new experience. We noticed that young people are indeed absent from the political life but I think it is rather an absence from the political parties and not a withdrawal from politics,” Hadhri said.