Perhaps the most accurate yardstick with which to measure the development of a society is the status given to women. Western visitors who arrive in the predominantly Muslim Tunisia are in for a big surprise. In today's Tunisia, there is absolutely no distinction between the legal and professional rights of men and women. In many other areas, such as custody of children, divorce settlements, entitlement to assets, child support, maternity leave and parental responsibilities, Tunisia is far ahead of many Western countries.
Women make up 25% of the working population. The textile industry, which depends on skilled labour, is a large employer. An increasing number of educated women are making a big impact in medicine, the legal profession, the media and business.
Businesses headed by women range from small-scale enterprises to multi-million dollar industries. The National Chamber of Women Heads of Enterprises has over 2,000 members but the chairperson of the organisation, Leila Khayatt, estimates that there are at least 5,000 women business owners.
There is no doubt that the status of Tunisian women is unique in Africa and the Arab world. "The emancipation of women in Tunisia began in 1956 when Habib Bourguiba, who was then the President, banned polygamy and insisted on education for girls," says Professor Zakia Bouaziz, Director of CREDIF (Centre for Research, Documentation and Information on Women). "But after the change of 1987, President Ben Ali moved swiftly to clear up the ambiguities, implement directives and add other clauses to truly empower women and put them in such a position economically and culturally that there can be no going back on the rights they acquired.
"As a result, the young women of today do not even think in terms of equality; they have taken it for granted. What they now want is to use their potential to the full both for their own fulfilment and that of the nation. We try and help them do this."
CREDIF was set up by a directive from the President to act as a link between the government and women at all levels of society. It has now grown into a crucial research centre serving the whole of francophone Africa, the Maghreb and the Gulf. International organisations such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, WHO and several NGOs work through the organisation.
At the national level, CREDIF has been collecting a vast and invaluable data base on the situation of women in Tunisia. Studies involve such diverse themes as...