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.

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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.

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Dark silhouettes in Tunis' Souqs

From a time when ͞the walls had ears to post-revolution struggles seven years later, Tunisians are proud to have won their freedom of speech.

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Café Le Parlement

"Now, at least we can speak freely," proclaim Tunisians on the streets. Cafes, such as Le Parlement in Tunis, have become a forum for discussions and debates spurred on by the revolution.

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Bullet hole in Bardo

Bardo,Tunisia's National Museum, was the scene of one of the two terror attacks in 2015, which left 24 people dead and the country's crucial tourism economy in tatters.

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The scene of the attack

Twenty tourists were killed In Bardo, and another 38 in the resort town Sousse. Tunisia also has the highest number of "Islamic State" recruits, and has fought against an Islamist insurgency in the country's border regions.

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Post-revolution political assassinations

The murders of secularist politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid shocked the country in 2013; Tunis routinely sees demonstrators calling for justice.

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Between football and apathy

Competing football club graffiti in Tunis suburbs. Some young Tunisians have pointed at the political apathy and disengagement, claiming that society focuses more on football rivalries than post-revolution politics.

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Fighting for women's rights

A landmark law, which came into effect in February, made violence against women a criminal offence. Wafa Fraouis has been involved in women's issues since she was 15-years old. She was a member of the committees drafting the post-revolution constitution, enshrining gender equality in Tunisia's future. She is now director of Beity, the only shelter for vulnerable women in Tunis.

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A tantalizing glimpse of a better life

For many Tunisians, the only option to escape creeping poverty is the dangerous journey to Europe. Over 6,000 Tunisians reached Italy's shores in 2017 alone; over a third came in the space of two months, the sharpest increase since the 2011 revolution.

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Discarded and forgotten

Inside a cafe, a group of men sit around plastic tables covered with coffee cups, as heaps of discarded cigarette butts pile underneath. "This is what unemployment looks like," says one of the regulars inside. At least three visitors in the small cafe have been deported from Italy.

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Escaping from their past

Marwan, a regular at this cafe, says many Tunisians leave to escape prison sentences, provide for their families back home, or cut links with the past completely. "We departed together with five boats; three made it to Lampedusa." He spent four years in northern Italy, dealing drugs and saving enough for a house and marriage back home.

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The final nail in the coffin

Hundreds of Tunisians who have tried to take the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean have perished. Unmarked graves have popped up along Tunisia's coastline.

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.

Tunesien Umsturz Proteste 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. 

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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."

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'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.