By Jonathan Mitchell
By Jonathan Mitchell
Tunis,November 1, 2011
The female figurehead of Tunisia’s victorious Islamist party has said that its brand of Islam would help rather than hinder the advancement of women across the Arab and Muslim world.
Souad Abdel Rahim, whose stylish appearance in smart suits and silk blouses, worn without a hijab or headscarf, has made her a key element of Ennahda’s rise to prominence, told The Daily Telegraph: “The doors are open for women now.”
She said the victory of the party in last week’s parliamentary election, in which it won 90 out of 217 seats, sent a message to other moderate Islamist parties across the region that they should provide a “framework” for women to advance themselves.
“We can sense that there has already been an impact. Even in Saudi Arabia, women can now vote,” she said, referring to a recent decision by the king to open municipal elections to women for the first time.
Ennahda was suppressed under the secular dictatorship of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in a popular revolution in January.
Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, returned from London after two decades in exile in triumph, but his electoral victory rested on his insistence that the party would preserve Tunisia’s liberal traditions and respect democracy.
The country allows alcohol, encourages beach tourism, and many if not most women, at least in the cities, do not wear headscarves. Polygamy is banned, and women can initiate divorce, have an abortion, and have legally protected equal rights in jobs, salaries and education.
Under election rules, women had to make up half of the candidates of all parties, including Ennahda.
Mrs Abdel Rahim, a successful businesswoman who owns her own pharmaceutical company, led the party’s list of candidates in the electoral district of Tunis 2. Her flamboyant style set her apart even from the growing number of women involved in politics in the Arab world.
She had a long record as a political activist, dating back to her time with the student union in her university days during the mid 1980s.
She was originally intending to stand as an independent, but then came to the conclusion that Ennahda’s brand of democratic politics rooted in social conservatism fitted her own beliefs.
Ennahda was surprisingly popular among women voters, who were reassured by both its position in favour of women working and its “family values” social message.
“It may be that women from Ennahda are closer to Tunisian women than secular politicians,” she said.
Tunisia’s elections are regarded as an important test for the Arab Spring, which has also brought Islamists to the fore in neighbouring Libya and Egypt. Libya’s interim president, Mustafa Abdul Jalil has already said the country would have Sharia law as its basic source of legislation, including making polygamy easier and banning non-Islamic banking.
Egypt has a long history of radical and sometimes violent Islamist movements, but the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt and is regarded as more dogmatic there than Ennahda, is also trying to promote a moderate, democratic face.
Mrs Abdel Rahim said that Arab women need a “similar framework” to the rights they possessed in Tunisia to gain a better position in Middle Eastern societies and that he hoped Ennahda’s brand of liberal Islam will help them to achieve this.
Asked why she does not wear the hijab, like many in the party, she said: “It’s a personal freedom. I’m in agreement politically with Ennadha, though that does not mean that I have to follow everyone else.”
While Mrs Abdul Rahim represents the more liberal side of the party, it is not without its hardliners, though the party’s internal management system has kept divisions between the party’s various factions at bay. Secularists fear that the self-declared “moderate” leadership is a stalking horse for a more aggressive brand of Islamism further down the road.
“Ennadha is moderate rather than liberal,” she herself insisted. “Its roots are in Islam. It is inspired by it. But it is moderate and civil.”