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Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity

Over the next couple weeks, NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road Trip across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves as they write new social rules, rebuild their economies and establish new political systems. Steve and his team will be traveling some 2,000 miles from Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, across the deserts of Libya and on to Egypt's megacity of Cairo. In this story, he looks at the changing role of women in the new Tunisia.

A year after the Arab Spring revolution, Tunisia's future is still being written, and it will be authored in part, quite literally, by Ferida Lebidi.

Two decades ago, Lebidi was in law school, but she was blocked for years from taking her exams and was even imprisoned because of her political activity.

"I know the meaning of being stripped of my freedom," she said after welcoming us into her law offices in Tunis.

Now she's one of the women benefiting from the fall last year of Tunisia's longtime ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first of the revolutions known as the Arab Spring. She's a newly elected member of Tunisia's constituent assembly, responsible for the committee drafting the "rights and liberties" section of the new constitution.

And she's an Islamist.

She's a member of Ennahda, the religious party that resisted Ben Ali for years, and that won the largest share of votes in the October elections.

Lebidi was dressed both stylishly and conservatively, with a dress, jacket and close-fitting head cover, or hijab, all in matching hues of lavender and pink.

Over tiny glasses of Turkish coffee, she spoke of her ideas to reform Tunisia's death penalty law, deleting many of the crimes to which the death penalty applied under Ben Ali's dictatorship, but also adding crimes to the list.

Under her interpretation of Islam, adultery is a capital offense.

New Rules For A Changing Society

Lebidi is one of many people rewriting the rules of their societies after the revolutions of 2011.

Tunisia, Libya and Egypt — which all overthrew their longtime rulers last year — share a common heritage, strewn as they are with ruins and relics from ancient Phoenician, Greek, Roman and early Islamic times. They share a common geography: the Mediterranean Sea, our traveling companion on this Revolutionary Road Trip, often disappearing from view as we move inland through olive groves and long stretches of desert. But it always reappears out the car window, in brilliant shades of sapphire to the horizon.

The three nations also share a common story and the drive to add one more layer of history to all the others — a layer of democracy.

In Tunisia, much of the early debate has centered on the role of Islam in the new government, and much of that debate focuses on the role of women.

It's not surprising to see many women on a commuter train traveling through the suburbs of Tunis; women benefit from decades in which this country has allowed girls and women free access to both education and jobs.

It's an oversimplification to focus only on the way they dress, but clothes are one part of the story. In our train car, many women wore tight jeans, designer sunglasses and long hair. Others wore traditional Muslim headscarves, or veils — clothes that until recently were actually banned in Tunisia.

Differences Among Women

We got off the train at a seaside village, on a street where all the houses are painted white with matching blue shutters and trim. We were looking for the home of a particular woman, who spotted us from a second-floor window and beckoned us upstairs. We arrived in a living room dappled with sunlight, the home of Khadija Sharif, who described herself as a "militant of women's rights."

Sharif, who wore a short-sleeved shirt, is a sociologist and university professor when not working as an activist, as she has for decades.

"I am a grandmother, but I continue to struggle," she told us. "I thought with the revolution I finished."

As post-revolutionary Tunisia prepared to elect a new constitutional assembly, Sharif was part of a women's group that urged authorities to include equal numbers of women among the candidates.

Many women were elected, but Sharif was dismayed that many of those successful women came from an Islamist party. She now says she hopes the Islamist women remember that more liberal women fought for the power that the Islamists now enjoy.

The constitutional assembly made an early, important decision: that the constitution would not be based on sharia, or Islamic law. But many vital questions remain unanswered, and religion remains a big part of the debate.

A Radio Station Changes Its Tune

You can hear a consequence of that debate by turning on the radio and listening to Zaytuna, a state-owned radio station where the programming has always been religious, but has abruptly become more conservative.

The station suddenly changed program directors. For a short time after the revolution, the director was a woman. But she soon lost her job. Conservative activists barged into her office, and videotaped themselves lecturing her on how she was unqualified.

The director finally left her post, saying the government didn't protect her.

When we met her over espresso, we learned she has a Ph.D in religious anthropology from the Sorbonne in Paris and that she has taught for 20 years at the most prestigious religious university in Tunisia.

I am a grandmother, but I continue to struggle. I thought with the revolution I finished.

She suggested that when the activists called her unqualified, they really meant that she's a woman with a scholarly open mind.

At a street cafe in Tunis, beneath the arches of a French colonial building, we arranged to meet with the activist who drove her out of a job. Over shawarma sandwiches, we talked with Adel Elmi, who arrived wearing a black suit, white shirt, no tie, a white cap and a close-cropped beard.

Elmi is the head of a nongovernmental organization that until recently was called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a title that echoes the names of official government agencies in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Elmi has now won government recognition of his group under a less threatening name: the Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform.

Setting New Guidelines

"We're against pornography," he said. "We want at least minimum respect for Islam ... no miniskirts, no half-naked women in ads, no pictures of Marilyn Monroe."

And definitely no gay rights. He organized a protest against them recently.

As for that religious scholar who directed the radio station, Elmi insisted he didn't force her out; he just met with her and talked.

Tunisians may face a lot of tough conversations as they decide what kind of country they want and what they can tolerate from their neighbors.

Tunisian women walk through the narrow streets of Tunis' medina, or marketplace. Compared to women in other Arab countries, Tunisian women have had access to education and job opportunities for decades.
John Poole / NPR
Tunisian women walk through the narrow streets of Tunis' medina, or marketplace. Compared to women in other Arab countries, Tunisian women have had access to education and job opportunities for decades.

The fight over Islam may in time affect the futures of many Tunisian women, who right now enjoy a degree of freedom that's rare in the Arab world. Not only may they dress in many ways, but they may also seize many of the opportunities available to men.

We could see that when we traveled to Kairouan, a walled city well over 1,000 years old. Many of the old brick walls still stand. Parts of the city were used as a backdrop for shots in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Kairouan was the first major beachhead for Islam as it spread across North Africa. Tourists and pilgrims come to its Great Mosque, with its square brick minaret that is said to have influenced the shape of mosques all over North Africa. Many are lured into the carpet shops nearby.

Working For $2.50 A Day

A mile or two away from the Great Mosque, just off a muddy street that somebody must've paved once, we went to see where some of the carpets are made.

We chatted with a woman named Souad, one of four women on a bench in a dim room, perched in front of a steel frame, weaving a carpet. Strings stretched across that frame like strings of a harp. Souad knotted a little length of wool around a string, clipped it with scissors and moved on at blinding speed. If she completes the daily quota — 1,000 knots per day — she's paid about $2.50.

She has four children, the oldest a daughter who's studying food technology at a university, seeking a gateway to a better life.

Asked if it was important that her daughter get a degree, Souad said, "Of course, of course! Why am I working here? I'm working here to support my daughter and pay her expenses."

Souad weaved carpets right through Tunisia's revolution in 2011. It didn't affect her much, except that the carpet business dried up.

Why am I working here? I'm working here to support my daughter and pay her expenses.

Then in October, her husband brought her a strange piece of paper. She couldn't read it, but learned it was a voting card for Tunisia's first free election. She thinks she voted for the party of Tunisia's new president.

She hasn't been able to follow the news since then. But Tunisia's political debate may in time affect her daughter, whose opportunities now are better than for many women in the Arab world.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.