Souad Abderrahim, the first female mayor of Tunis since 1858, is an Islamist-backed moderate making ground-breaking strides, but one who has courted controversy.
Souad Abderrahim sits at the table of her wooden desk in Tunis. The elegant woman is surrounded by files and documents, all waiting to be signed. Her large office sits within the building of the Municipal Council chambers in the heart of the Tunisian capital. The walls are adorned with prints and paintings depicting Tunisian traditions. From the window, to her right, there are views of the Kasbah, right up to the bay.
She has returned from a forum to support women in rural areas, where she discussed projects to develop new sources of income and establish commissions to guarantee equal opportunities between men and women. “Women” is the word that she will repeat the most during the entire interview.
Ms Abderrahim only started to become involved in politics in 2011 after the uprising that ousted the country’s autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The 54-year-old manager of a pharmaceutical company has made history for women in the North African country just seven years later. In May, she was elected to become the first-ever female mayor of Tunis and the first since 1858, after a run of 32 male mayors.
Her campaign was supported by Islamist party Ennahda, beating Kamel Idir, a former high-ranking official and president of Tunisian football team Club Africain backed by the secular Nidaa Tounes party. She was the first mayor appointed by an elected city council, and not on the authority of notable families, as was the case until July 2017.
Now, the mayor, known officially as the ‘Sheikh of the Medina’, the term for a male Muslim leader, is trying to use her platform for further women’s empowerment in Tunisia.
She is far from the classic image of the Ennahda party. She does not wear a veil and she defines herself an independent candidate.
“I have being saying this since 2011: our aim is the freedom of all women, the veil is a religious and personal choice,” she says.
“I am not interested in political propaganda, I am interested in the results and the confidence of the voters, and putting women at the center of public debate.”
She has faced criticism from her political opponents and her gender has been specifically targeted. Before her mayoral victory, Foued Bouslama, one of the leaders of the Nidaa Tounes secular and modernist party, said “we are a Muslim country, unfortunately here a woman cannot be an imam in a mosque, she cannot be present on the eve of Ramadan night in the mosques”.
But Ms Abderrahim has vowed to attend the celebrations of Laylat Al Qadr, the holy night of Ramadan, in the capital, where the mayor receives the sitting president in the city’s Zeitouna Mosque. “Nothing can forbid me to do so, neither the law nor religion,” she says.
Tunisia has made great strides on gender equality, which has been enshrined in the constitution since independence from France in 1956. Women have started to work outside the home, last year the Tunisian government legalised the right for women to marry non-Muslim men and a law that would grant women equal rights to inheritance is under discussion.
Yet, in large areas of the country, women still remain excluded from public life and are considered second-class citizens. In many areas, emancipation remains taboo. Girls cannot live alone nor can they travel without family members’ permission. But for the mayor, an individual who comes from outside of Tunisia’s wealthy northern elite, she is focused on helping women from all over the country.
“Under Tunisian law, there is equality between men and women. All government decrees that forbid women to travel have been abolished, of course we admit that the situation of Tunisian women in the cities is not the same as the situation in the internal regions,” she says.
“So our steps will all be aimed at economic support for women to liberate them politically and socially.”
But Ms Abderrahim has also courted controversy for her comments about certain sections of Tunisian women, specifically single mothers. Speaking to Arabic radio station Monte Carlo in 2011, she said that single women who have children out of wedlock “should not be protected by law”.
Criticism has been directed at her and her conservative leanings on the role of single women by prominent members of Tunisian civil society. Women are concerned about her Islamist ties and her assertions about single mothers jarred with her stated wider mission of empowering women in the country.
Tunisian actress and playwright Leila Toubel was quoted by French newspaper Libération as saying: “I do not know if I have to applaud a woman because she is a woman regardless of her retrograde statements. We should remember her statements when she said that single mothers are ‘infamous’ and ‘ethically, they do not have the right to exist’.”
Ms Abderrahim refuses to respond to the criticism, saying that it comes with the job. “We have long struggled for freedom of expression. Everyone is free to think what they want,” she says.
For the mayor, she is not focused on being the face of Ennahda, but rather on what she can do as the rare female voice in North African politics, voted in Tunisian despite social and economic difficulties, and a figure who has broken the glass ceiling for other Arab women seeking their own say in their respective countries.
“The message is that people are giving their trust to women. We must change the mentality, challenge obstacles and break taboos. That’s why I want to give a huge role to women,” she says.
“I think women are writing their own story, not the ones someone else has dictated to them.”