Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: Progress through Moderation; Hayett Laouani Opens Port Doors to Women

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: Progress through Moderation; Hayett Laouani Opens Port Doors to Women

Article excerpt

TUNISIA: Progress Through Moderation; Hayett Laouani Opens Port Doors to Women

Hayett Laouani entered her career almost by accident. The daughter of farmers who were thrown off their land from 1960 to 1969, when Tunisia briefly turned farms into socialized cooperatives, her family may have had trouble feeding their children, but they let nothing stand in the way of educating them. In its socialist experiments, Tunisia lost 10 years of economic progress, Hayett says, but its education and health sectors did not suffer. Hayett was part of the first generation of girls who learned side-by-side with boys in integrated schools.

After graduation Hayett married early and, despite strong disapproval from her husband's family, who wanted her to stay home, found an administrative position in a small shipping agency. There she saw men with little education doing work she knew she could do as well, if not better. As a 19-year-old woman, therefore, she plunged into a man's world where, in many cultures, women still are considered bad luck when it comes to boats.

She worked as a shipping clerk, boarding ships, checking cargo, and moving around docks at all hours, in the midst of men with "X-ray eyes," she said. She found that older coworkers were as over-protective as her family, but some of the dockworkers were not.

For example, in the early days a huge heavy door barred entry to the port late at night. The watchman would let her pass but categorically refused to open the door for her. So this diminutive woman took great pride in opening and shutting the heavy port door by herself.

In the 1970s, 20 years after Tunisia's independence, most shipping and stevedoring concerns were owned and managed by French companies, with the required 51 percent Tunisian ownership. Hayett only made a third of the salary of a teacher in her shipping management position but every day was interesting. On the side she started a small carpet factory in a garage, further infuriating her in-laws who wanted her to stay home with her sons.

The resulting bad feelings led to her divorce. Now it was even more important to succeed in business to support her children.

Hayett only hired girls over 20, and gleefully overpaid her workers, giving them raises when the business made good profits and thus raising eyebrows among her competitors. She had little time to sleep during this period of her life, working in two businesses, spending time with her boys and extended family, and scrupulously guarding her personal reputation.

When a Tunisian manager of the shipping company died in 1978, she became a full owner of the small company and set about improving marketing and thereby increasing the stevedoring work. Her company moved a lot of cargo and gave good wages to employees, once again angering competitors and state-owned companies. Doors began to close to her as she applied for the necessary licenses to do her work. Four years passed as she watched less experienced and less educated men easily obtain a license that was always denied to her. She thinks she may also have made enemies as she spoke out against the construction of a brand new port with huge warehouses using an outdated design that didn't take into account the modern use of containers, which make warehouses unnecessary.

She also encountered serious legal problems that tied her business and heart in knots for two years. …

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