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Female mayor 'unacceptable', says official for Tunisia's secularist party

Televised comments about Ennahda candidate Souad Abderrahim's bid to be mayor prompt accusations of double standards and misogyny
Souad Abderrahim has been a leading figure in Ennahda since 2011 (AFP)

A spokesperson for Tunisia’s Nidaa Tounes party has provoked outrage by suggesting that an Ennahda party candidate in the running to become Tunis’s first female mayor is “unacceptable” because she would be unable to attend a mosque during Ramadan.

Ennahda, a traditionally conservative movement whose leaders describe themselves as “Muslim democrats”, won a 25 percent share of the vote and 21 out of 60 council seats in Tunis in Sunday’s municipal elections.

The party’s mayoral candidate is Souad Abderrahim, a 53-year-old pharmacist who has been a leading figure in Ennahda since winning a seat in the constituent assembly formed after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.

On Sunday, she earned the highest number of votes among council candidates in the capital and now faces a contest against Kamel Idir, the candidate for Nidaa Tounes and a former president of Tunis’s popular Club Africain football team, for the leadership of the city.

Municipal councillors are expected to elect their mayor by mid-June.

Within Ennahda, Abderrahim has often been presented as a symbol of the party’s openness and embrace of modern values.

But, speaking to the M Tunisia television station on Wednesday, Foued Bousslama, who described himself as Nidaa Tounes’s communications officer, questioned Aberrahim’s suitability to be mayor.

"We 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," he said.

Bousslama was referring to Tunisian tradition which requires the mayor of the capital and other dignitaries, including the president and prime minister, to attend Tunis’s main mosque on the evening of "Leylat al-Qadr", the most sacred night of Ramadan.

The comments shocked many Tunisian internet users and saw accusations of misogyny and double standards levelled at Nidaa Tounes, which defines itself as “secular and modern” and quickly distanced itself from Bousslama.

On Thursday, the party, which was founded by President Beji Caid Essebsi, issued a press release stating that "contrary to what Foued Bousslama declared, he doesn't occupy the post of communication officer" and, consequently, "the opinions he expresses are his own and do not reflect the official positions of the Nidaa Tounes party".

In an interview with radio station Jawhara FM, Abderrahim said: "It is the right of every candidate to defend their candidacy. Thus, I will maintain my candidacy as the first mayor of the Tunisian district [...] in the absence of a consensus, the vote in the city hall of Tunis will have its last word and I will submit to it.”

The row threatens to put the power-sharing agreement in place between Tunisia’s two main parties since 2015 under more strain despite the claim by Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi in the wake of Sunday’s vote that "the consensus [the coalition government formed between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha] is the main winner of the municipal elections".

Hafedh Caid Essebsi, executive director of Nidaa Tounes and the son of the Tunisian president, has already rejected any prospect of a coalition between the parties at a local level.

"After the municipal results, Nidaa Tounes will not return in coalition with Ennahda," he said.

This story originally appeared on Middle East Eye's French website.