TUNISIA: "A COUNTRY THAT WORKS"; Tunisian Women Executives Face Different Problems Than in U.S.
Tunisian entrepreneur Leila Khayatt admits that one of the most surprising things that has happened to her since she opened her own business occurred in 1995 in Beijing, where she was a member of the Tunisian delegation to the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women. After her delegation had finished its presentation to the assembled women, a Belgian woman delegate approached them.
"You Tunisian women already have achieved the things we European women have come here to fight for," the Belgian delegate said, "such as equal pay for equal work."
In fact, listening to Mrs. Khayatt, who made the economic portion of the Tunisian presentation at Beijing and who is chairman of Tunisia's National Chamber of Women Heads of Enterprises, an American visitor can only conclude that Tunisian women's problems are different from women's problems in the United States, and in other Arab countries as well.
For example, there is no government affirmative action program in Tunisia, not because the country condones any sort of discrimination against women, but because it also does not condone any sort of discrimination against men. Tunisia's constitution forbids any sort of legal distinction between the fights of men and women.
Thus distinctions between inheritance rights or marriage rights of men and women are strictly prohibited under Tunisia's secular personal status laws, regardless of what any Islamic leader may say on these matters. Tunisia is not the only Muslim country to ban plural marriage, but it may be the only Arab country to do so. The only existing cases of Tunisian men with more than one wife result from marriages contracted before 1956, when Tunisia became independent and adopted its present constitution. Polygamy was legal when Tunisia was a French protectorate, and Tunisia's moderate authorities have tended to ignore plural marriages contracted in the period of colonial rule. But none have been tolerated since this overwhelmingly Muslim state achieved independence.
Similarly, when the writer described the kinds of sexual harassment cases that have arisen in the United States since American women have entered police, fire fighter, construction and factory jobs that traditionally have been male preserves, Mrs. Khayatt looked astonished. Finally, collecting herself, she said with visible anger: "Such cases are absolutely not possible in Tunisia. Our country is moderate. Muslim moral principles here protect women from such problems."
Strangely, however, at the same time Mrs. Khayatt was insisting with vehemence that such harassment is unthinkable within the workplace, an English-language weekly newspaper, the Tunisia News, was carrying a column complaining about the harassment of women driving their cars or walking on the sidewalk by male drivers or passersby. Apparently sexual harassment by acquaintances is unthinkable in Tunisia, but harassment by strangers remains all too common.
In fact, it seems that gender problems that exist stem from uncertainties created by Tunisia's extremely rapid evolution under its first president, Habib Bourguiba, and now under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from a traditional Islamic society to a secular Muslim country like Turkey.
In both Tunisia and Turkey the population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the laws are modeled on those of Western nations where church and state are separate. Similarly, the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship are identical for all, regardless of gender, religion or ethnic background.
Tunisia's National Chamber of Women Heads of Enterprises, which Mrs. Khayatt heads, has 1,000 members, a large organization in view of the fact that Tunisia's population is less than 9 million. Nevertheless, says Mrs Khayatt, "we still have a lot of work to do in view of the fact that we estimate there are 5,000 women business owners." She adds, however, that most of the businesswomen who have not joined the chamber head very small businesses and have little time for anything but their work and families. The chamber's main activity is conducting courses and workshops to train women managers and staff members, and also to inform them of their rights and Of the Tunisian government incentives available to all private entrepreneurs.
"There are government structures that offer loans and credits," she explains. "There also are concessions mandated through credit facilities, and donations to companies so long as they fulfill certain conditions. There are even tax deductions available to those who enroll in the kinds of courses we and other institutions offer."
There also are assistance loans from other countries such as France, Holland and Italy for women entrepreneurs. Asked if any such special incentives are extended by U.S. institutions, Mrs. Khayatt pointed out that direct U.S. foreign aid programs to Tunisia have been phased out. The only remaining U.S. assistance comes in the form of business loans from OPIC, which encourages U.S. investments in developing countries. However, she added, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Mary Ann Casey has taken a personal interest in the Women Heads of Enterprises organization and recently held a tea for members.
The organization has been affiliated since 1992 with the World Congress of Women Business Owners and it has a full international schedule. The Tunis Chamber has participated in expositions in Dubai, Italy and twice in France, and next will be involved in Greece, Lebanon and, through a parallel organization, in Russia. Mrs. Khayart also was scheduled to represent the organization at the 44th conference of the World Congress of Women Business Owners in Los Angeles Oct. 22 to 25.
Other Muslim countries represented in the Congress include Algeria, Egypt, Malaysia, Morocco and Turkey.
Although Mrs. Khayatt maintains that in Tunisia as in other traditional societies, "the mentality remains far behind the actual law," in fact her plans for the organization and her concerns for the future sound virtually identical to those expressed by her male counterparts in Tunisia's private sector and its government. She is concerned with helping Tunisian businesses get ready for the GATT agreement and Tunisian membership in the World Trade Organization. Tunisia also almost certainly will be the first southern Mediterranean country to be accepted into associate status with the European Union.
That will be a boon to companies like Mrs. Khayatt's company, which manufactures plastic-backed colored fabrics used to make furniture upholstery, shoes, and other goods such as handbags and suitcases.
Mrs. Khayatt's concerns focus on strategies to raise the skills of Tunisia's work force, almost half of which consists of women, and also to utilize the best and latest computers and manufacturing equipment to cut costs and raise quality standards. She also is deeply concerned that some of Tunisia's future trading partners among the highly industrialized countries may adopt dumping practices to capture markets for their products by deferring profits until they have driven local competitors out of business.
In short, a conversation with this dynamic woman entrepreneur, whose father was for 15 years Tunisian ambassador to France and also was Tunisia's foreign minister, and whose husband is a former member of parliament who now is an elected member of the municipality council for one of the capital area's three governorates, is a lot like a conversation with any business executive in this modernizing country which is about to plunge into free market competition with the world's major industrial powers.
She insists that young people who are not trained in career skills are at great risk in a free-market economy, and that employment of women in such an economy "is not a luxury but a necessity." She also considers a major role for women in the work force "a bastion against extremism in any society," both because it provides families with increased disposable income and because, in her view, women play a moderating role in any activity in which they are engaged. She is concerned, however, that although "many achievements have been made" since large numbers of women entered Tunisia's paid work force, "women's presence in decision-making bodies is negligible."
When the interview turns to personal concerns, it appears that Tunisian career women have more in common with their American sisters than at first meets the eye. "No," assures this mother of three who recently became a grandmother for the first time, "my husband has no problem with my career." Then, with a smile she adds, "He has no problem at all so long as his meals are ready when he comes home and the house is as orderly as if I had been there the whole day." Similarly, despite the demands of a growing business, Mrs. Khayatt notes that when a child falls ill at school, or emergencies arise, the school calls the mother, not the father.
That demanding phase is largely behind Mrs. Khayatt and her husband now, however. One of their sons is in business. Another is in French studies at the university level. And their only daughter, who represents a U.S. medical products company in Tunis, has taken time off for the birth of her first child.
There will be no "empty nest" syndrome in Mrs. Khayatt's life, however. In her capacity as chairman of Tunisia's Chamber of Women Heads of Enterprises, she has put the resources of her organization behind her country's campaign to attract foreign investment, specifically including American investment, that will strengthen Tunisia's ability to compete on world markets when the last protective trade barriers come down.
And in her own capacity as a woman entrepreneur, she is seeking to strengthen her company to take advantage of the coming opportunities to increase its international exports. "It is a time of opportunities for those who are prepared," she explains with a smile. "Right now there is an opportunity for someone to become `a Tunisian Christian Dion.'"
Clearly Mrs. Khayatt, and some 4,999 fellow Tunisian women entrepreneurs, are ready to seize any such opportunities that may be headed their way.
Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.
Photo (Leila Khayatt)…