Souad Abdel Rahim: I Support Expanding Freedoms While Respecting Customs

2018-10-03    |   

Souad Abdel Rahim: I Support Expanding Freedoms While Respecting Customs

Since entering the faculty of pharmacy in Monastir, Tunisia in 1984, Souad Abdel Rahim has been affiliated with the General Tunisian Union of Students, with its close ties to Islamists (Ennahda). Her political work began when she served as a delegate of the Ennahda party in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly from 2011 through 2014, where she headed the committee of Human Rights and Freedoms and Foreign Relations. In 2017, Abdel Rahim joined the party’s political bureau, and was later selected as the party candidate in the municipal elections that took place on 6 May 2018.

With her elegant appearance and impeccable hairstyle, Abdel Rahim met with The Legal Agenda on 14 September 2018, in her mayoral office in the Kasba neighborhood of Tunis. The nature of the meeting was more spontaneous than official, as she preferred to sit around a conference table rather than meet in her office. She spoke with a smile that very much reflected the confidence and acumen with which she had managed to embarrass the rival “modernizing” party (Nidaa Tunis) — which opposed her candidacy for the position on the grounds that she is a woman — and win the post of mayor. She also expressed her opinions freely and openly on thorny subjects like gender equality in inheritance and the issue of marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslims.

There is no denying that Souad Abdel Rahim is exceptional on multiple fronts. Not only is she the first woman to become the “shaykha” of a Tunisian city; she is also the first woman to be elected through a direct and democratic process.[1] She now runs the largest municipality in the republic of Tunisia.


The Legal Agenda: What difficulties did you face during your electoral campaign, both as a woman and as a political actor?

Abdel Rahim: Generally speaking, a woman faces the same difficulties that a man does. What makes things harder for a woman is the condescension that is typically directed towards her, and the way she and her capabilities are belittled. Many women candidates have been the target of sarcastic comments about their appearance or dress, which causes them stress and embarrassment. We have seen women withdraw from elections as a result of such cases. Even if a woman has faith in her own personal capabilities, the pressure she is under during political battles remains immense, sometimes to the point that it becomes unbearable.


The Legal Agenda: What difficulties do you face today, as “shaykha” of Tunis?

Abdel Rahim: In truth, all the difficulties that I face today are due to my administrative position as shaykha of Tunis and not because I am holding that office as a woman. After the electoral campaign season leading up to 6 May 2018, I see great value in my role and my position locally. At the same time, I am being celebrated internationally as well: I was chosen by the City Mayors Foundation in London as the only candidate from the African continent to be considered for the World Mayor Prize. I am in competition with 26 women mayors from all around the world. My success is a testament to the success of the democratic transition process, as well as changing social attitudes in Tunisia.

The problems that do exist are administrative. For example, the precarious state of the municipality and its districts. Most notably we have a lack of material resources, worn infrastructure, and intense population pressures. Meanwhile, wages are taking up a larger portion of the budget and we are unable to hire new employees for municipal positions. So we must implement our strategy with almost no human resources.


The Legal Agenda: Gender parity on the electoral lists has not resulted in actual parity in terms of offices held, as the results of the municipal elections show. What comments, suggestions, and approaches do you have in terms of developing a culture of parity in Tunisia?

Abdel Rahim: In my view, Tunisia has taken a serious step towards real social parity, not only parity in the legal sense. I was criticized by political elites, but Tunisians voted for me. Today, about 19.5% of municipalities are headed by women, because of how the Tunisian people voted. This is the lesson that the political elites must learn from the Tunisian voters: that women must be given the opportunity to exercise their rights and duties in public affairs. Moreover, political calculations have stood in the way of granting women their right to parity in a real and practical sense.


The Legal Agenda: You took a number of conservative positions regarding rights and freedoms during your political activity within the National Constituent Assembly.[2] What is your position today regarding the report of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee?[3]

Abdel Rahim: I support the right to chose the legal system [that one has to abide by], and I have stated so explicitly in many interviews.[4] I support a legal system that gives citizens the right to choose between a civil inheritance system, which offers total equality between the sexes, and the Islamic system of inheritance, which specifies that “the male is given the share of two females.” Legislative choice is an effective guarantee that expands freedoms while implementing the statutes of the Constitution. It also provides a guarantee to whomever wishes to apply Islamic law in their life. Ennahda members in the Constituent Assembly explicitly ratified freedom of conscience and belief and equality in the 2014 Constitution. The legislative choice approach permits us to reconcile with our Arab-Islamic identity while facilitating the expansion of freedoms in Tunisia at the same time.


The Legal Agenda: There was a controversy over your leading the municipality of Tunis. Some people, including the communications director of Nidaa Tunis, Fouad Bouslama, criticized the notion that a woman could hold this position.[5] Since 1858, according to custom, the shaykh of Tunis has been present for all ceremonies and occasions, especially religious ones like the recital of the Quran and Eid prayers and so forth. What are your views and position on this?

Abdel Rahim: In reality, all of the examples cited are merely obligations of protocol and custom; they have no legal basis. I favor commitments to customs as they are. When custom dictates that a woman wear hijab when entering a mosque, she should do so. Likewise, when there are barriers between men and women during prayer, that must be respected. I was present in al-Zaytuna mosque on the 27th night of Ramadan, among the rows of women in the prayer room. I am not in this position to change protocol or violate traditional, common, generally recognized boundaries. Nothing prevents a woman from entering a mosque and respecting religious rituals. In fact, her presence helps her to break the psychological barriers that oppose women’s presence in the mosque. But this remains within a framework of respect for customs.


The Legal Agenda: In many municipalities, there are contradictory opinions about the permissibility of a marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim — for example, the case of the mayor of Kram, Fethi Laayouni.[6] What are your comments on the subject?

Abdel Rahim: I spoke with Fethi Laayouni, the mayor of Kram, on the matter of forbidding a marriage contract between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim. He said that it was not based on ideological justifications but rather on a legal basis: namely, although the 1973 ministerial decree banning marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim has been withdrawn, Article 5 of the Personal Status Code has not been revised accordingly. That article states that “both spouses should be free of legal impediments.” Actually, my reaction was that it is necessary to expand freedoms. If a Tunisian woman chooses to marry a non-Muslim, that is her business, and her will to do so. Everyone must bear responsibility for their own actions. Within the municipality of Tunis, no case of denial has been registered.


The Legal Agenda: What message have you adopted today? And what can Ennahda add to this message, or do to help accomplish and implement it on the ground?

Abdel Rahim: My basic message to Tunisian women, and to Arab women in general, is for them to have faith in their capabilities, and not to relinquish their rights. There were voices of opposition and rejection raised against my assuming the office of mayor, as though the mayor is an imam of prayer. They ignored the fact that above all, this position is a civil and administrative office. Its essential aim is to provide services to the residents of the capital. There were also “local” voices fueling sedition and rejecting my taking office on the basis that I was born in Sfax. They ignored the fact that I grew up in Tunis and attended school here. In the city’s history there have been mayors from Kairouan as well as from the north. At the time, amidst all the controversy about a woman becoming mayor of Tunis, there was even the suggestion that I resign the office, as though it would be easier to make a woman give it up than a man. And yet there had been an agreement in place between Nidaa Tunis and Ennahda, that whoever won the elections would assume the office of mayor. It was only upon seeing the results of the municipal elections that the voices were raised against me. But I held firm to my legitimate and legal rights, on the basis that I had won the election and that the agreement with Nidaa Tunis had been in place.

In terms of the Ennahda movement, I will say that this movement believed in my abilities, assisted and supported me in the municipal elections, and ran my electoral campaign. In 2011, my presence as a member of the National Constituent Assembly was a message from Ennahda to Tunisian women who were apprehensive about Islamist movements as though they are necessarily hostile to women’s rights and freedoms. I had this apprehension myself. This is why I tried, with my presence and through the role I played, to break down these misgivings, to lessen antipathy and fear towards Ennahda, and to affirm that the movement has not, and will not, interfere in form or substance with women’s matters. I accepted this on the basis of the movement’s clear agenda.


The Legal Agenda: Given your position, how do you see your role in pushing for increased rights and freedoms for women in the city of Tunis?

Abdel Rahim: Today I work to affirm the presence of women, in terms of parity as well as on the basis of equal opportunity with men, in the municipality of Tunis. There are positive signs: 12 of 15 committees in the municipal council are headed by women. We are working so that women have an active and effective role in public affairs. This is our ambition, and we will achieve it.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] Conventionally the mayor of Tunis is referred to by the title of “shaykh.”

[2] One example of the conservative positions she has taken comes from 2011, when she made a statement on Monte Carlo International Radio criticizing those advocating for single mothers. She stated that “single mothers are a disgrace to Tunisian society and should not be granted a legal framework that protects their rights.”

[3] Wahid Ferchichi, “Tunisia produces outstanding report on individual freedoms and equality: What are the freedoms of the Second Republic in light of contemporary trends in human rights?,” The Legal Agenda, 12 June 2018.

[4] The Shura Council of the Ennahda movement announced its total opposition to the principle of gender equality in inheritance. This can be seen in the council’s statement issued 26 August 2018, which states that “the initiative for inheritance equality, in addition to contradicting aspects of religion and the statutes of the Constitution and the personal status code, also raises numerous concerns regarding the stability of the Tunisian family and pattern of society.”

However, the Executive Council of Ennahda, which is the institution responsible for implementing the Shura Council’s decisions in practical terms, refrained from mentioning either the Shura Council’s decision or the issue of inheritance equality in its statement issued 6 September 2018. Instead it merely affirmed the principle of compromise that has held the ruling parties of Tunisia together since 2013. This statement reads, “The Executive Bureau of the Ennahda movement affirms the country’s need for continued dialogue, and to implement a policy of consensus between the different political and social factions. This will provide the opportunity for building common ground to help us overcome the country’s current political crisis, and restore the harmony necessary between state institutions as well as the success of the democratic transition.”

Hence, Ennahda went back, avoiding taking a clear position on the thorny issue of inheritance equality. Many members of the movement have confirmed to The Legal Agenda, through in-depth conversations, that they are not entirely satisfied with the Shura Council’s statement. They affirm the possibility of the movement adopting a position similar to “legislative choice,” which Souad Abdel Rahim mentions in this interview, in presenting a law offering optional equality of inheritance to the Tunisian Assembly of Representatives.

[5] “Fouad Bouslama: A woman cannot hold the office of shaykh of Tunis because it contradicts our Islamic traditions,” Bab Net, 9 May 2018.
[6] “The Legal Agenda denounces the mayor of Kram’s orders forbidding Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslims: A flagrant assault on law and institutions, and the use of authority in populist political rhetoric,” The Legal Agenda, 17 August 2018.

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