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Tunisia's Women—Defying the Odds

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The author, secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action, writes that Tunisia is finding its own way while Islamist movements gain power in the region.

“Mais Madame il n’y a plus du visibilite.” Madam there is no more visibility (ahead) said the president of the National Assembly of Morocco. He was shelving our plans to hold a legislators’ workshop, Empowering Women and Maternal Mortality, for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Elections were coming and, for the first time in a region that relied on the predictability of dictatorship, he was not sure if he would still be the president.

The winter wave of Islamist victories swept over North Africa and he is not.

We were able to shift the venue to Tunisia, itself facing elections after a tumultuous year of protests and revolution. A solid record on feminism with progressive programs allowed us to go forward with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Elections on October 25, 2011, as anticipated brought in the Islamist Ennahda party as majority; a new minister took charge and the Ministry’s title was now changed to Ministry of Women and Family Affairs.

Tunisia, however, defied the odds. The Ennahda claimed for itself the office of prime minister, but in a show of real leadership graciously agreed to let the presidency of the republic go to an internationally known and erudite activist Dr. Moncef Marzouki, who headed the second largest party. “When the president offered me Ministry of Women, some said it’s a token but I thought what represents Tunisia more than our women,” says Hon. Dr. Sihem Badi, who left a comfortable physician’s practice in France to rise to that challenge.

For symbolic punch, we opened the workshop this year on March 8, International Women’s Day. Legislators from 20 OIC member countries, women and men, came to celebrate the new Tunisia and to uphold their commitments to women. We were heartened to hear Ms. Halima Gueni, MP from the Islamist Ennahda, promise that “the new government will try to make even more progressive laws and include even more women than before.“ The upside to being locked away on a rainy cliff hotel, was that work was done, the presentations were lucid and well researched, the debate heated but productive. All parties from Tunisia took part and the final Tunis Plan of Action was everything that we and our collaborator UNFPA had hoped it would be.

President Marzouki received us earlier that day at the Palace, still a little dazed that he, a former political prisoner, was now its elected occupant. To our concern over any retreat on women’s empowerment, Marzouki assured us that “Tunisia remains committed to all its human rights protocols and conventions including CEDAW and to protecting women’s rights.“ The day began in the shadow of a public challenge to that commitment, when a Salafi, member of an extremist Islamist movement, had taken down the national flag to replace it with the Salafi banner at the University of Manouba and viciously beaten up the young woman who had courageously tried to stop him. Tunisia reacted in absolute horror and closing of political party ranks in honoring her publicly and restoring the flag.

I stayed on to call on Hon. Mustapha ben Jaafar, the third leg of the troika, the president of the Constituent Assembly, a steady hand over the negotiations on a new constitution. The preamble had been in debate for some time with a deadlock on whether to advance the Shari’a as the sole source of the law or retain the multisource preamble of the 1956 Tunisian constitution, the most progressive in the Muslim world. At stake are women’s rights, minority rights and rights of the secular; at stake is also the economy based on tourism requiring a liberal open attitude to culture and religion. During our workshop the president of Turkey was visiting and parallels to the Turkish model discussed—a religious party with a practical modern philosophy. The final agreement with Ennahda, relying on the Islamic principle of ijma—consensus—to retain the preamble as is, has strengthened that model.

Accountability and justice are the two unspoken questions hanging in the air. Tunisians point out the military barracks where the remaining members of the former ruler Ben Ali’s family are “guests” of the government. How to get back the funds sent abroad, punish those responsible without dragging the country down a spiral of vengeance, will require sagacity on the part of the three men in charge and patience by Tunisian citizens.

In a city tour the day before two elements of national character stand out, ones that may allow the new Tunisia to succeed. “It’s a down-to-earth country, we are all middle class,” said Sonia, director, international cooperation. Azer our driver zipping around Revolution Square added, “We protested for three days, Ben Ali left and we went back to work.” Getting its young, educated workforce back to the routine is key to the future. “Jobs and not just in serving drinks on a beach; we need investment in agribusiness, in health tourism,” says Badi. Quality health-care is free for all Tunisians and even others from the region. “It is as good as Europe,” affirmed a West African legislator from our group, heading into town for her annual mammogram before boarding the flight home.

The second factor pulling Tunisia in the right direction is a pride in public institutions. The Greco-Roman mosaic museum will be the largest collection of that period in the world; seeing them up close before they are glassed off was an amazing experience, but what touched me more was to the see the guards and the construction workers showing off their pre-Islamic heritage in the former palace, which was now their public space. An impromptu tour of the medina by a mendicant included a tour through the bedroom of the ousted Ottoman Bey. “The Bey slept here, now my cat does,“ he said with obvious glee as he shooed her off the velvet bedspread.

Of the public institutions the most impressive is the system of education. The leadership and their voters were educated through the same schools and universities; it is the ladder up, particularly for women. “I got high marks in my baccalaureate in a rural public school in the South of Tunisia and so qualified for medical school,“ says Badi, ”fulfilling a dream of my mother, whose family did not educate her.”

The increasing turmoil of the region, though, is seeping in—Libyans with cash and weapons, Qataris and Saudis with segregated holidays, prices of milk, sugar and other staples rising as refugees buy up supplies to take back over the border. Tunisia watches the upcoming elections in Libya and the growing wars in the Sahel with anxious eyes. “Stability and continued progress towards democracy in our neighbors is crucial to our transition,” says Marzouki.

A small country, without the blessing or curse of oil, Tunisia has a chance to find its own way, “to show the world what being democratic, modern and inclusive can truly be,” hopes Badi. “But for today it is enough, I am back from an eighteen year exile, Ben Ali is now chased from the country in exile. And the sister whose face I had forgotten, tonight we went to a concert together. I am happy.”

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