Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: Progress through Moderation; the Equal Rights Evolution of Tunisian Women

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: Progress through Moderation; the Equal Rights Evolution of Tunisian Women

Article excerpt

TUNISIA: Progress Through Moderation; The Equal Rights Evolution of Tunisian Women

Many, if not most, countries in the world have a public or private agency devoted to the needs and status of women. It is probably safe to say -- and to guess why -- none have a similar body concerning men. Yet it is hard to imagine that many countries have acted as vigorously as has Tunisia on its more than three-decades-old commitment to improve the education, employment and equality of women.

Nor is this solely a matter of idealism: "Tunisia's wealth lies in its human resources," notes Prof. Zakia Bouaziz, director general of CREDIF, the Center for Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women. "It would be sacrilegious to neglect 50 percent of our wealth."

As so often seems to be the case in this forward-looking country, Tunisia began to implement its reforms immediately upon winning independence from France in 1956. That very year it passed the Personal Status Code outlawing polygamy and repudiation (whereby a husband may divorce his wife simply by announcing his wish to do so).

Three years later, in 1959, Tunisian women achieved political autonomy as well when they gained the right to vote. Reforms continued with the legalization of contraception in 1961.

When President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed power in 1987, he identified the status of women as one of the major components of his new social program. The following year saw the signing of the National Pact, in which the principle of equality and nondiscrimination between Tunisian men and women was made explicit, and was incorporated as well into the platforms of the country's political parties. In 1991 schooling was made compulsory for all Tunisian children up to 16 years old.

The Nationality Code was amended in 1993 to allow Tunisian mothers as well as fathers to pass on Tunisian nationality to their children. Also that year, the concept of marriage as a partnership rather than a patriarchal relationship was introduced in the Personal Status Code. In 1996 this concept was extended to joint ownership of marital property.

A visitor to CREDIF headquarters in Tunis quickly realizes that the concepts enumerated above are not merely vague generalities. CREDIF (the acronym is French), established by Law No. 90-78 of Aug. 7, 1990, is the research component of Tunisia's commitment to develop and utilize the abilities of Tunisian women. CREDIF's mandate is "to encourage and conduct research on women and their status in Tunisian society as it relates to their contribution to development"; "collect facts and documents...and distribute them so as to improve women's rights and enlarge the field of their participation as human beings and as citizens"; and "assist the government with the development of policies and programs aimed at improving [women's] condition."

To this end, CREDIF compiles and publishes statistics on such topics as "Women and Men in Rural Tunisia" and "Tunisian Women in Figures." The latter provides information on education and illiteracy rates, reproductive health and fertility, employment, and public and social life. One learns, for example, that the number of women in Tunisia's civil service has increased from 15,263 (14.4 percent) in 1977 to 97,025 (37.3 percent) in 1994. Or that while 60.1 percent of the students at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences were female in 1996, women constituted only 23. …

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