Abderrahim runs the gauntlet for Tunisian women
On 3 July the municipal council of Tunis elected Souad Abderrahim as the cityʹs first female mayor. Abderrahim, a 53-year-old pharmacist and former MP from the Muslim Democratic party Ennahda, is also the first elected female mayor of a capital city in the Arab world and only the twentieth woman worldwide.
Abderrahimʹs historic victory, however, came after a campaign marred by overt sexism. On 8 May, Foued Bouslema, a spokesman for Nidaa Tounes, Ennahdaʹs primary political rival, claimed that Abderrahimʹs candidacy was "unacceptable" in a Muslim country because as a woman "she cannot be present in the mosque on the eve of the twenty-seventh night of Ramadan."
While not an official duty, the mayor of Tunis – as the honorary "sheikh of the city" – traditionally attends a religious ceremony at the cityʹs Ezzitouna Mosque on Laylat al-Qadr, the most sacred night of Ramadan. These comments provoked considerable backlash on social media, forcing Nidaa Tounes, a secular party, to distance itself from Bouslema. Tunisʹ municipal council likewise rejected Bouslemaʹs sexist criticism, with 5 secular councillors joining Ennahdaʹs 21 representatives to elect Abderrahim mayor by 26 votes to 22.
Blazing a trail despite popular resistance
However, it is unclear to what extent Tunisians at large agree or disagree with these sentiments. Abderrahim was elected mayor by the city councillors, not directly by the people and the May 6 municipal elections – in which the Ennahda list that Abderrahim headed received 33 percent of the vote – featured very low turnout. If many residents of Tunis agree that a woman is unfit to lead the city, then Abderrahim may face considerable popular resistance in her historic first term as mayor.
A recent survey of nearly 500 residents of Tunis provides some insights into how her constituents felt about Abderrahimʹs candidacy ahead of the mayoral election. The majority of those polled – 54 percent – supported a woman as mayor, disagreeing with the criticism that "Souad Abderrahim should not be permitted to be sheikh of the city because she is a woman." This suggests that most residents of Tunis oppose the sexist criticism Bouslema levelled at Abderrahim, in line with Tunisiaʹs more progressive stance on womenʹs rights and its relatively high rate of women in parliament.
At the same time, a sizeable 36 percent of the sample agreed or strongly agreed that Abderrahim should not be allowed as mayor because of her gender. This is a surprisingly large percentage given that social desirability biases generally discourage survey respondents from openly embracing sexist sentiments.