Women of Merit: Tunisia Is a Different Arab Country as Far as Women's Emancipation Is Concerned. since Independence in 1956, the Country Has Worked Tirelessly to Move Women from the Traditional Subservient Role to Their Current Status of Partnership with Men. It Is an Example to Other Countries

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Today, Tunisian women can rightfully take pride in the fact that they have transcended the stage of emancipation and claiming rights, to that of full-fledged partnership with men in managing the affairs of the family and society, as well as in political life."

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These words, spoken by no other than Tunisia's First Lady, Mrs Leila Ben Ali, sum up beautifully the political and social standing of Tunisian women today.

It has been a silent revolution, radical even, especially considering the environment in which it has taken place - the Arab world - where the popular image of women (as held by the outside world) involves the burkha and the veil, and four wives outdoing themselves to minister to their man, the king of the family.

Not so in Tunisia. There it is one man, one wife, decreed by secular law! And any infractions are met by the full force of the law.

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Yet an Arab country, Tunisia started out 54 years ago, by a conscious policy of the first post-independence government under President Habib Bourguiba, to emancipate its women as a necessary tool for national development.

Even in those early days, the government was firmly convinced that there could be no prosperity or development without women's participation, especially when half of the population were women.

That policy has worked so well that today the First Lady, Mrs Leila Ben Ali, a woman comfortable in her own skin, can say with pride: "In Tunisia, we no longer speak of women's liberation, as women are now full-fledged partners of men ... Tunisian women are now one of the main pillars of social progress."

That is what it should be, and why not? For, "no nation can prosper with half of its population marginalised" as Mrs Ben Ali often says. This, of course, ignores the fact that Tunisia itself was built on the foundations laid by a strong woman leader, Elishat (who the Greeks called Elyssa Didon), the founding queen of Carthage, the once powerful city-state that is now part of Tunisia.

The exploits of Elishat in the establishment of Qart-hadasht (or New City, which the Greeks called Carthage) have passed into legend, but no one can forget the woman who stood tall and strong on the shores of what is now modern Tunisia, and saw Qart-hadasht rise and rule the seas and the world around it.

That is the tradition that built Tunisia. It therefore came as no surprise when the first Act passed by the first post-independence government in August 1956 was to ban polygamy and make men and women equal in the country.

The Code of Personal Status, passed on 13 August 1956, was groundbreaking in the context of the wider Arab world where polygamy was the norm, and equality between men and women was somehow unknown.

But Tunisia pushed on. Fifty-four years later, with an even more pro-women-emancipation president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, at the helm for the past 23 years, the Code of Personal status has been amended and re-amended to make women transcend mere equality with men to become effective partners in national development.

This has made Tunisia a different Arab country. For example, one of the new amendments to the Code of Personal Status has created a national fund in which payments of alimony and child support to divorced women and their children are put. Payments are made from this fund based on binding court decisions in favour of divorced women and children born in the marriage, when difficulties arise in executing the judgements.

Another amendment has imposed a severe penalty for domestic violence and sexual harassment. Yet another amendment demands that there should be no discrimination between men and women in all aspects of labour.

Other amendments have allowed the following: (1) Child support automatically paid to divorced women who have been granted custody of their children. …