Tunisia's Oasis of Openness as Neighboring Nations Struggle with the Rising Influence of Islamic Militants, Tunisians Revel in Steady Economic Growth and Social Reform, Including More Rights for Women Series: POINTS OF THE COMPASS. Part of an Occasional Series. First of 2 Articles Appearing Today

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EACH day well before dawn, calls to prayer begin wafting from the minarets of Tunis, a gentle reminder that this is a country under Allah.

Then, as the city shifts to a bustle, the mix of boys and girls, men and women setting off to school and work looks much like what one would see in Western cities: As many girls as boys maneuver the sidewalks leading to class, and nearly as many women as men await the buses that will take them to offices and factory floors.

A few mostly older women head off to market in this Sunni Muslim region's traditional veil and kerchief - but these garments are much less the political and ideological statement the Shiite chador has come to be than proven protection against the city's heat and dust. At the same time, a few women hurry along in smart suits, briefcases firmly held in hand.

Tunisia certainly is not distant Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from driving a car - and where an absolute, royal hand guards against any easing of conservative Islam.

But neither is it neigboring Algeria, where a smoldering civil conflict pits underground Islamic militants against the government, the Army, and the country's often Western-inspired elite, and has lead to more than 2,000 deaths since January 1992. Nor is it nearby Egypt, where tourists face militants' antiforeigner attacks, and where only harsh repression of Islamists, through jailings and executions, has maintained stability.

Tunisia, in fact, is something of an oasis, marked by steady economic growth and social reform, in a region shaken and torn by Islamic militancy. As neighboring countries continue to confront an often violent movement, some Tunisians cautiously conclude that while battles remain, Tunisia has essentially won the war for a modern, open society. As evidence, they point to the central factors that have created Tunisia's success:

r Universal, broad-based education, including recent measures to reach dropout and delinquent youths.

r A strong family-planning program.

r And, perhaps most important of all, development of women's rights.

All these factors combine to form a kind of model for others in addressing the extremist threat.

"It's no mystery why Islamic extremism hasn't caught on in Tunisia," says Yadh Ben Achour, dean of legal studies at the University of Tunis and a widely respected specialist in Arab-Islamic jurisprudence. An emphasis on education and a government preoccupation with "the demographic challenge" since the country's independence in 1956 are among the factors he cites. "But Tunisia's real fortune is that it is the only Arab country to have attempted and pursued a fundamental reform of the legal status of the family and the rights of women," he adds.

Tunisia's personal rights code - which bans polygamy and a man's right to unilaterally divorce his wife, declares women legal adults at marriage, and establishes women's inheritance rights - is "unique in the Muslim world," Mr. Ben Achour says.

Developing a sense of identity and opportunity in women has been the key to making the country's family-planning program work, he says. Slowed population growth in turn has made economic and social progress possible.

"All this allows people to have a sense of hope for the future," he adds. "That explains a certain immunity to a movement that harkens to the past."

For many analysts here, the clues to Tunisia's success lie as much in the country's past as in measures taken since radical Islamic leaders first began gaining important followings in the 1980s. In a battle closely linked to the search for cultural identity in a rapidly changing world, Tunisia's long tradition of openness, these analysts believe, make it less susceptible to a vision of society that refuses new and often foreign influences.

"A long tradition of reform, going back as far as 1840 and beginning in education, has developed in Tunisians an understanding of the need to keep their eyes open to what is happening elsewhere in the world," says Mohamed Charfi, Tunisia's minister of education. …


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