Selma Elloumi Rekik and Abir Moussi want to fight against creeping fundamentalism that has threatened Tunisian women's freedoms and improve economic prospects for unemployed youth. Their chances of winning are slim and they're up against two dozen men for the job. But the race is wide open ahead of the first-round vote Sept. 15.
They're running in the hastily organized election to replace Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia's first democratically elected president who died in office last month, throwing the small North African nation into political uncertainty.
"There is a clear change in the mentality of Tunisians, who now trust women, and now accept that the country could be led for the first time by a female president," Elloumi, 63, told The Associated Press in an interview.
The centrist businesswoman entered the political scene in 2012 alongside Essebsi, served as tourism minister and created her own political group called Al Amal, or Hope. Her goal, she says, is to "give back hope to young people who no longer have confidence in the political class and to improve the condition of women, especially rural women, who are sidelined by society."
Both she and Moussi consider themselves from the "Bourguiba school," referring to Tunisia's first president after independence from France, Habib Bourguiba. He championed a landmark 1956 family code that gave women unprecedented rights, and today, Tunisian women hold more university degrees than men and have a significant presence from medicine to law and beyond.
In most Arab countries, women still struggle to secure equal political, legal, economic and marital rights as men. Issues like equal inheritance, the right to have an abortion or the right of a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim remain taboos for strictly religious reasons.
Moussi, 44, is known as the "steel lady" for her tenacity and firm opposition to Tunisia's Islamists, who have become an important political force since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution lifted restrictions on their activities.
She wants to push moderate Islamist party Ennahdha out of the political scene and change the constitution to ban parties based on religion, calling political Islam "antithetical to democracy." Her candidacy is marred by her past positions in the RCD party of autocratic former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, overthrown in the 2011 uprising, but she told Tunisian radio she still has "serious chances" of winning. She has suggested re-opening legal cases against Ben Ali, who has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, saying he was subject to "unfair trials."
Both candidates prioritize the fight against terrorism after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks that devastated Tunisia's tourism sector and rocked its fragile democracy. They also both stress the importance of economic diplomacy to boost foreign investment and create jobs. Tunisia has 15 percent unemployment, and the rate is higher among young college graduates struggling for opportunity. Tunisia's post-revolution leaders have failed to bring prosperity, and the economy will be the new president's biggest challenge.
Despite Tunisia's relative female-friendly political climate, many adhere to more traditional views of a woman's place. Essebsi had hoped to see a law passed giving women equal inheritance rights, overturning the current system based on Islamic Shariah law that entitles daughters to only half the inheritance given to sons. But the measure was highly controversial and drew street protests by thousands of fundamentalists, who remain a potent force.
Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni religious institution in the Muslim world, released a statement dismissing calls to amend Tunisian inheritance and marriage laws, saying they could lead to instability in Muslim societies.
Still, some men embrace the idea of a women in power. Last year, a woman from Tunisia's moderate Islamic party was elected mayor of Tunis, the capital, in a first. Prominent male politician Jomaa Rmili, who joined Elloumi's party, told The AP: "I think it is time, through elections of course and in a democratic way, for the Tunisian people to vote to choose a woman as president."
Associated Press writers Noha El Hennawy in Cairo and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.