Her participation in the country’s political scene, her candidacy with the Islamic Ennahda Movement and her election as a member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) have raised a widespread debate among political elites. She is Souad Abdurrahim, the controversial figure in Ennahda and its only unveiled woman.

Her participation in the country’s political scene, her candidacy with the Islamic Ennahda Movement and her election as a member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) have raised a widespread debate among political elites. She is Souad Abdurrahim, the controversial figure in Ennahda and its only unveiled woman.

Souad Abdurrahim, a pharmacist and drug company owner, emerged as a winner in the October 2011 elections on Ennahda’s list at Tunis second electoral district—also known as “ the district of death,” where  leaders of major political parties competed. Abdurrahim was a wining card for Ennahda, thanks to her public speaking skills and the fact that she presented a moderate image of a political power regularly accused by its opponents of being a threat to individual freedoms in general and to women’s rights in particular.

Ms. Abdurrahim, some people say Ennahda used your  during the NCA elections to reassure Tunisians in general and women in particular given that you are unveiled. What is your response to that?

Being a candidate in the NCA elections was not for marketing reasons. I was the top name in Ennahda list at Tunis second electoral district or the “district of death.” The competition was tough because leaders of major political parties were also candidates there, but I accepted the challenge and won.

Being an Ennahda candidate simply meant that it would deal with everyone, even unveiled women, and would not impose hijab. Tunisians were apprehensive about the rise of Islamist movements to power, which is justifiable because we all fear the things we do not know. Islamists had not come to power before and what made people apprehensive might be the conflicting statements issued by Ennahda leaders. However, these statements did not reflect the general approach of Ennahda but rather indicated various political currents and different personal philosophies inside it.

Thus, being there was a strategic choice for Ennahda to mainly reassure ordinary Tunisians, avoid division of the Tunisian society according to a manner of dress that linked Islam to wearing hijab and to prove that we all as Tunisians had one thing in common, identity, regardless of religion.

The Ennahda bloc inside the NCA has the largest number of women, but they are ineffective at the decision-making level and are mostly sidelined. Why?

I believe that women have always been part of the public life, but their effectiveness was limited. Tunisia has recently adopted the 50-50 principle in elections and Ennahda female members might have been nominated according to certain criteria, but later on their political performance proved to be below the desired standard. However, their performance levels have varied as some of them proved very capable while others have not. Therefore, I hope that they are replaced with men because their deliberations inside NCA harm the image of women.

Ennahda female members are characterized by being very disciplined and always in line with the Party’s institutions, but I sometimes express my personal opinions because I do not recognize party discipline. I am an independent woman and I express my opinion freely even if it is against the general approach of my bloc.

Discipline in party work can be a double-edged sword since it makes the bloc’s position firm and unified on one hand, but silences opposing voices on the other. Such opposition, I assure you, is rising inside the committees, meaning that NCA  female members for Ennahda, who keep silence during the general sessions, are in fact greatly active inside the committees.

Do you agree with those who say Islamist women have profited from the 50-50 principle for which modernist and leftist women campaigned and struggled?

I cannot judge whether those women are activists or not, but what I can say for sure is that inside the very structure of Ennahda is a bureau established to follow up women’s work over the few past years. As everyone knows, Ennahda was smothered just like the leftist movement during the 1970s and I am not worried about ideologies or political beliefs because what concerns me is the status of women as a whole whether this issue is advocated by leftists or Islamists.

As regards the issue of Islamist women profiting from the sacrifices of leftist ones, this is the game of politics and it is part of democracy and I would like to point out that Ennahda was the first to embrace the 50-50 principle in elections.

Why do not we hear women inside Ennahda advocating women’s rights and criticizing the marginalization of their role in politics?

As far as I know, NCA female members for Ennahda have fiercely criticized the modest number of women in high government posts, and demanded more rights for them. However, some female members do not prefer the idea of defending women’s rights and generally speaking I can say the NCA female members for Ennahda do not have the experience possessed by modernist women in the field of public relations and public speaking. However, they will gradually gain the required experience in that field and in political and human rights activities. Therefore, I encourage them to attend public gatherings and speak directly to people to improve their performance.

Many NCA female members for Ennahda advocated the draft constitution article that stated that women were complementary rather than equal to men. How do you respond to that?

I believe that this article has major flaws; however, every person has the right to express their opinions freely. I believe that the word complementarity has undergone great dispute despite the fact that the principle of equal rights of men and women is stated in the same article as the principle of “complementarity inside the family”. There maybe controversial words or phrases in the draft constitution because it is a constitution for all Tunisian men and women and not for the majority. Thus, when the next constitution is proved to be tailor-made for Ennahda and its ideology, I will be the first to vote against it.

I was also the first to call for removing the principle of complementarity because it ruffled the feathers of certain parties and associations and was interpreted as offensive to women. We are well aware of the traditional manly character dominating the Tunisian society and the word “complementarity” was deemed by some people a violation of women’s rights and a repressive step backward.

What do you think of the Minister of Religious Affair’s rejection of CEDAW on the ground that some of its articles are inconsistent with the Tunisian society’s traditions and values?

Tunisia ratified CEDAW years ago, but with some reservations. This is a normal thing, which exists in all democracies as reservations are expressed on some articles deemed inconsistent with national laws. If we want to talk about CEDAW, I suggest addressing it away from political calculations.

Generally speaking, CEDAW supports women’s rights and it should not be rejected all together. Our traditions prohibit us from certain practices even if such practices are permitted in 100 international agreements ratified by us. So, there is no reason for rejecting CEDAW just because some of its articles are inconsistent with our traditions.

What is your position in regard to the poor female representation in the current government?

Female representation in government was poor even in the first government. However, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali promised that they would avoid that mistake during the reshuffle. We saw that the circumstances surrounded the reshuffle were difficult but I personally condemned the poor female representation in government and in high positions in general. I said everyone is complaining about equal rights of men and women, but when it comes to assignment of posts, women are sidelined; even if a certain post is assigned to a woman, it is only a mere title.

In general, how do you assess the status of women after the revolution?

Tunisian women have always been active since the days of fighting the French for independence, but since the revolution more women have been present at the front lines and they have broken the fear barrier. In 1991, for example, we were only three women in the front line of a rally held against the war in Iraq, but now tens of women take part in every rally. Tunisian women have became active players in civil society and they take part in all public affairs although the Tunisian society is still dominated by the traditional manly character because revolutions change regimes but not mentalities. However, we will keep fighting to promote the status of women and we will demand horizontal equality in the next elections, which means that half of the heads of electoral lists should be women.

What is your opinion in regard to the Personal Status Law?

This Law is undoubtedly a gain for Tunisian women and I dare anyone to say otherwise; therefore, it should not be amended. Regarding some of the principles deemed contrary to Sharia such as adoption, I would like to refrain from giving my opinion.

What about polygamy?

I am undoubtedly against polygamy, which is not imposed in Islam and is an insult to women. And Tunisian women will not accept it.

What about forcing little girls to wear hijab?

It is a phenomenon that will have its time before disappearing and I believe that making girls aged five and six wear hijab constitutes a child abuse.

What is your opinion in regard to the statement issued by an extremist leader of Ennahda Habib Ellouze in which he supported female circumcision?

His statement was a reply to a question, but it provoked Tunisian women because Ellouze is a public figure and his opinions count. He could have refrained from answering the question because female circumcision is something unknown in our traditions, customs or culture.

What is your view on Femen Tunisia?

I believe that it is an abuse of women and femininity and it is refused (by us) just as making little girls wear hijab; it is a phenomenon unknown to our culture. We have 100 methods to fight for our rights and to express our opinions rather than nudity.

How did you deal with your son after he appeared in the disgraceful ‘Harlem Shake Dance’ video?     

First, I support youth events, but young people should be advised and supervised and that is why I gave my son and daughter the permission to go. However, things went too far and I blamed him for that since I felt that he embarrassed me, but at the same time I was convinced deep inside that he wanted to mold his personality apart from the image of his mother; an NCA member. I believe that it is his freedom and right, which I would not violate and I apologized in the media for the things that went too far not for the dancing itself.