Tunisia: "A Country That Works"; Tunisian Women Executives Face Different Problems Than in U.S

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Tunisia: "A Country That Works"; Tunisian Women Executives Face Different Problems Than in U.S


Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


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.

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