Throughout the ancient medina of Tunis, sleepy-eyed shopkeepers thrust open their doors for another day of commerce. The narrow walkways are empty but will soon be flooded with shoppers -- locals as well as thousands of tourists. They will be tantalized by an array of goods, including pottery, sweets, traditional clothing and copper plates with scenes from the Sahara desert.
While women prepare to sell carpets made by hand, they are also active in other realms of Tunisian life. More women than ever before are entering the halls of parliament as a result of last month's election.
Tunisian women have been active in public life and the work force for decades. Hela is a 25-year-old electrical engineering student from Tunis. “If you are a woman, you can do anything,” she said. “You can go to school. You can become a doctor. You can became a lawyer. You can vote. You can drive your car. Women have the same right of owning their own properties and running their own business. In Tunisia, you can see women everywhere, in every field, in politics including ministers and ambassadors. They are very active in the government.”
Tunisian history took a dramatic turn when a charismatic leader named Habib Bourguiba helped his country gain independence from France in 1956. As the first president, he was determined to foster a modern society based on a relaxed interpretation of Islam. He reached out to trade with Europe and implemented a serious of measures that earned him the title 'liberator of women.'
Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York specializes in women's issues. She says Mr. Bourguiba single-handedly changed the role of women in Tunisian society, much as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did in modern Turkey. “Tunisia is a country that has been able to push through a lot of these progressive policies on women because it had a very autocratic leader that believed in them and pushed it on its people. Women are now reaching a status in society where they feel comfortable running for office and society feels comfortable putting them there.”
President Bourguiba outlawed polygamy and restricted the tradition of arranged marriages. He considered the hejab [veil worn by Muslim women] demeaning and banned it from schools. He also encouraged equal education for men and women.
Although fundamental Muslims resisted such swift change, his government cracked down on those who tried to mix religion with politics. During his three decades in power until 1987, his government often dealt severe punishments to Islamic opposition leaders. The government continues such crackdowns, particularly in the long shadow of violence brought about by Islamic militancy in next-door Algeria.
Today's leader, President Ben Ali also upholds women's rights. He has set aside more than 20 percent of parliament's seats for women.
Isobel Coleman says despite such advances in countries like Tunisia, Arab women in general still have a long way to go. The literacy rate of women in the Arab world is around 50 percent. She says that statistic masks the real gains women have made. “I think there are gross stereotypes of women from that part of the world -- that people view all Arab women as veiled and submissive,” she said. “That is simply not true. If you look around the region, whether women are veiled or not veiled, there are women playing a very important and outspoken role in political and economic reform throughout the area in Morocco and Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, Qatar and even in Saudi Arabia.”
Kareen Jabre monitors the participation of women in politics for the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. She says that Tunisia is leading a general advance. “We know that over the past five years the Arab world has been increasing steadily in terms of its percentage of women in parliament,” she said. “In 1990, we had an average of 3.4 % of women in parliament and today we have an average of 6.9 % which means three percentage points more.”
She acknowledges the role of women differs from one state to the next in the Arab world. Yet she says throughout the region, the question of women participating in politics is no longer ignored. In fact, the trend within many Arab governments is to encourage women to enter business and politics, as they have in Tunisia.