Souad Abderrahim greets supporters after she was elected mayor of Tunis in July. (Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Souad Abderrahim is not like the past 32 mayors of this North African capital. They hailed from wealthy, influential families. She’s a self-made businesswoman. They were political appointees. She was elected in the first-ever mayoral vote last month.

And, oh, yes, they were all men.

Abderrahim has become that rarity in the Arab world: a woman holding a top elective position. Even in Tunisia, where women’s rights are more advanced than in most other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, her rise is widely seen as a breakthrough for women and has renewed hopes for greater gender parity.

“I am only one among many women who have struggled for years for equality,” said Abderrahim, seated behind a large wooden desk in the spacious mayor’s office. The 53-year-old entrepreneur was playing down her newfound fame with little success.

Abderrahim’s victory reflects a gradual shift in attitudes toward women in the Arab world. Saudi women were recently permitted to drive. In Lebanon and Jordan, laws that exonerated rapists if they married their victims were repealed last year, following Tunisia’s lead.

“She has clearly broken a huge glass ceiling,” said Nesrine Jelalia, executive director of Al Bawsala, a nonpartisan activist group. “A woman elected as mayor of a capital where no woman has ever held that position since 1858? This is huge for Tunisia.”


Abderrahim waves after her election. (AP)

In other ways, too, Abderrahim represents change. She’s the capital’s first mayor with a middle-class background and roots in the south of the country. Tunisia has long been ruled by wealthy northern elites.

She’s also the capital’s first Islamist mayor, the candidate of a political party inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed as an extremist group by some regional powers but moderate by others. At a time when the Brotherhood and its branches are under attack across the Middle East, Abderrahim’s ascension is widely seen by diplomats and analysts as an effort by her party — Ennahda — to portray itself as more tolerant.

Abderrahim does not look like most of the party’s female members. With copper-colored hair and a taste for fashionable Western clothes, she does not wear a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf.

“It’s a positive message for future generations who think that Islam is opposite to the freedom of women,” said Miriam Ben Romdhan, 34, a supervisor in a private company. “She is Muslim, she doesn’t wear the hijab, she laughs, she’s funny. She’s a reflection of the Tunisian woman.”

An activist's reawakening

In a region where women have long been treated as inferior to men, Tunisia has been somewhat of an exception.

After the country’s independence from France in 1956, gender equality was enshrined in the constitution. Polygamy was abolished, and a minimum age for marriage was codified. Women had the right to file for divorce and get an abortion, eight years before American women could do so legally. Women had access to higher education and jobs in typically male-dominated fields such as the military and engineering. They could open bank accounts and own businesses.

In college, Abderrahim studied medicine and was an outspoken leader of the student union. After graduating, she married a pharmacist, had two children and launched a small business selling medicine, living a quiet life under Tunisia’s dictatorship.

But when a populist revolt spread across the country and the region in 2011, triggering the Arab Spring uprisings, Abderrahim joined hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets, marching with her old student union comrades.

After Tunisia’s longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was driven into exile, political and religious freedoms blossomed, and Abderrahim helped launch a group to seek reparations for political activists oppressed by the former regime.

“My political life started after the revolution,” she said. “People reminded me of the activist I used to be in university. It was like a return to my old days.”

Abderrahim linked up with Ennahda. In 2011, she was elected a member of the country’s constitutional assembly. Three years later, she started a group involved with women’s issues and briefly worked as a television political analyst.

By then, the party was facing criticism from many Tunisians because of its conservative leanings and failure to cure Tunisia’s economic woes. To gain more popularity, Ennahda declared in 2016 that it was separating politics from religion, forsaking the idea of political Islam usually embodied by Islamist parties.

Now, Abderrahim is the party’s most visible face.

“It’s a political play by Ennahda,” said Moez Attia, the head of Kolna Tounes, a nonprofit group working on political education. “Ennahda understands that to exist, it has to change the ideology and perceptions of people in Tunisia.”

Abderrahim said she joined the party to send “a positive message to Tunisian women who have a huge phobia of Islamist parties.” At the same time, she said, she wanted to guarantee that Ennahda would not “change the nature of Tunisian society.” Religion, she said, is between individuals and God and should not be politicized.

In the election, her opponents claimed she couldn’t fulfill a key mayoral role of presiding over some ceremonies in mosques that have been the purview of men. One of Abderrahim’s first acts after winning was to pay a visit to Tunis’s main mosque.

“There is no judicial or religious obstacle that will prevent a lady from visiting the mosque,” Abderrahim said.

Leading after the revolution

At the mayor’s palatial complex on a recent day, brides, grooms and their entourages arrived every hour as they have done for decades. But this would be the first time a woman would preside over their weddings.

When Abderrahim emerged, wearing a red pantsuit and ornate jewelry, she was received like a rock star — especially by women. Some let out ululating wails. Others walked up to hug her. Many at the complex, including men, pulled out cellphones and took photos.

“Before the revolution, we never imagined a lady could become the mayor of Tunis,” said Lassaad Haj Ali, the brother-in-law of one of the grooms. “She has opened the door for other females to become mayors of other places.”

A day later, as she made the rounds of the capital in her ­chauffeur-driven black Audi sedan to swear in her four elected deputies, she offered inspiration to the two who were women. When she met Arabaya Hamami, Abderrahim urged her “to take control” and “strongly say what you think.”

Hamami nodded and smiled.

“She knows I have ideas and proposals,” Hamami said after the mayor left. “She was pushing me to be active.”

Since the revolution, there have been improvements in women’s rights. Tunisia was the first Arab nation to repeal the “marry the rapist” law, and last year, the parliament passed a landmark law that makes domestic violence a criminal act. A few months later, women were legally allowed to marry non-Muslims.

But in other areas, Tunisian women remain second-class citizens. Few hold top decision-making positions in political parties, government or businesses.

Most contentious are the country’s inheritance laws, under which daughters can inherit only half as much as sons. President Beji Caid Essebsi is seeking to repeal the law, but the religious establishment says equal shares are against Islamic law and the Koran.

For many women, this is the key battle, and some question whether Abderrahim, now Tunisia’s most visible female politician, will support them. They are wary of her Islamist links.

They remember when Abderrahim publicly said in late 2011 that single mothers with children out of wedlock were a disgrace and should not be entitled to protection under the law. They also note that she has not publicly spoken on the inheritance issue. Many Ennahda loyalists reject equal inheritance.

Indeed, not all women have embraced the new mayor.

“My concern is she will take advantage of her position and impose her own ideas for one group and exclude others,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a women’s rights activist.

In an interview, Abderrahim said she was in favor of giving Tunisians the choice upon marriage of whether to have equal inheritance rights. She said that her comments on single mothers were “misinterpreted” and that she had apologized. “I have never said we should exclude them,” Abderrahim said. “I defend all women who are victims.”

She expects more challenges, she said, and more criticism. In the meantime, she said, she’s focused on doing her job — trying to improve the city’s infrastructure and making it environmentally friendly.

As she stood to head to another meeting, she glanced at a gold-framed document hanging on the wall. It lists the names of every mayor since 1858, when the office was created, and it is a daily reminder of her achievement.

“They will add my name eventually,” she said, nodding toward the document and smiling. “Now I have entered history. And no one can delete that.”