The municipal council of Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, elected its first ever female mayor on Tuesday, July 3. Souad Abderrahim garnered 26 municipal council votes in this second round of elections in the city, surpassing the 22 cast for her main competitor, Kamel Idir of the Nida Tounes party, after having won 33.8 percent of the popular vote during the May 6 municipal elections.
The 53-year old Abderrahim, a member of Tunisia’s moderate Islamic Ennahdha (renaissance) party, ran as an independent candidate in the municipal elections. In her acceptance speech, Abderrahim, who considers herself a secularist, dedicated her victory to the women of Tunisia and “all women who have struggled to be in such senior positions.” Her priorities as mayor will include planting trees, improving infrastructure such as waste disposal services, and cleaning up the capital.
Tunis’ new mayor holds a degree in pharmacy and heads a major pharmaceutical company in the city. She got her start in politics during her university studies in the 1980s as an activist with the Tunisian General Union of Students (UGTE). After a two-week stint in prison in 1985, she disappeared from the political scene for several decades. Following the January 2011 revolution, she was elected to the newly created Constituent Assembly of Tunisia as an MP representing Ennahdha. She ran against ten male contenders — and won.
The Ennahdha party came in first in the May 6 elections, but failed to achieve a majority, winning 21 of 60 possible seats in the first municipal elections since the 2011 revolution. Despite low voter turnout, particularly among Tunisian youth (a dismal 33.7 percent nationwide), the elections mark a significant step in post-revolution Tunisia’s democratic process and ongoing efforts to decentralize power. The new Tunisian constitution, approved in 2014, allocates to municipalities greater powers than they previously held in an effort to decentralize authority and empower local authorities to take a leadership role in issues of regional development. Progress has been stymied for years, however, while the date for post-revolutionary Tunisia’s first municipal elections was pushed further and further back: elections were postponed four times between 2015 and 2018.
Abderrahim’s election as Tunis’ first female mayor, not surprisingly, has been controversial. The position of mayor, or Sheikh al-Medina, is not a gender-neutral term. Sheikh means male leader of a Muslim community. The word has religious connotations even though the post, in the mayoral context, has no official religious obligations. In particular, critics have pointed out that the mayor of Tunis traditionally attends the prayers with the President on the 27th night of Ramadan, at which women are not allowed. Communications’ Officer Foued Bousslama of the secular party Nidaa Tounes stated during the May elections that women were not “suitable” for the role of mayor. He told the Middle East Eye, “[W]e are a Muslim country, unfortunately a woman cannot be an imam in a mosque, as she cannot be present on the eve of the 27th night of Ramadan in mosques. This is unacceptable.”
Despite some misogynist criticism of the new mayor, many have celebrated Abderrahim’s election as another step towards gender equality in the country. The Tunisian election commission (ISIE) reported that women comprised 47 percent of elected candidates in recent city council and other local elections. The high percentage of female candidates is due to a law passed by the Tunisian parliament in 2016, which mandates gender parity in local elections. That means parties are required to nominate an equal number of male and female list candidates. Tunisia is also one of the few countries that uses gender quotas in some elections. Women’s rights have advanced in other domains as well. In February 2018, the nation’s first law criminalizing gender-based violence went into effect.
Tunisia presently embodies one of the Arab world’s most progressive stances on women’s rights. Since gaining independence from France in 1956, first president Habib Bourguiba codified principles of gender equality in the first constitution. The new 2014 constitution has taken gender equality a step further.
Article 21 declares, “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Tunisian women have the right to divorce and gain custody of their children. In contrast to these new gains for women’s rights, however, polygamy, which is permitted under Islam, has been banned in Tunisia since the Personal Status Code adopted in 1956.