By MARY-JANE DEEB
Tunisian women enjoy more rights than most Muslim women because of personal-status laws that Tunisia’s first president enacted 50 years ago, according to a symposium panelist who spoke at the Library on Nov. 30.
The symposium celebrating women’s emancipation in 1956 in Tunisia featured three Muslim women: Alifa Chaabane Farouk, a Tunisian ombudsman; Hayet Laouni, a successful entrepreneur; and Mounira Charrad, a college professor. Joining them was former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The African and Middle Eastern Division co-sponsored the event with the embassy of Tunisia. Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum presided. A webcast of the event is available at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_
A graduate of the Ludvig Maximilian Universität in Munich, Alifa Chaabane Farouk is an ombudsman in Tunisia, Africa and the Francophone countries. Farouk said that even before newly independent Tunisia promulgated a new constitution, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, in 1956 created a set of personal-status laws that gave Tunisian women more rights than Muslim women had in any other Muslim country except for Turkey.
Those laws empowered Tunisian women, she said. Today, 42 percent of the labor force is female, and 10,000 Tunisian women head Tunisian companies. More than 40 percent of the country’s medical doctors are women; women also account for 27 percent of municipal councils, 15 percent of the Senate and more than half of university enrollments, Farouk said.
Hayet Laouni, a Tunisian businesswoman who founded several companies, spoke about becoming the first woman to work in the shipping industry, the first woman to become president of the Chamber of Shipping Agents in the mid-1990s and the first to become president of the Harbor Warehousemen in Tunis. Her various business enterprises include a joint venture with the Danish ship owners Maersk-Tunisia; an agricultural development company, SCDA; and an international trade company, EXECO. She is now a member of the Tunisian Senate.
Mounira Charrad is a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas in Austin. She is the author of “States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco,” which won the 2002 Distinguished Book Award in Political Sociology from the American Sociological Association.
Placing Tunisia’s personal-status laws in a cultural and sociological framework, Charrad said women’s rights are defined differently in the West than they are in Muslim countries. In the Muslim world, she said, women’s rights are defined in terms of four criteria: marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.
When the present Tunisian government allowed a woman to pass on her citizenship to her children, this created a seismic cultural change in the society, Charrad said. Traditionally, citizenship, as well as all other legal rights, was passed on through the father’s side. By permitting citizenship to pass through the mother’s line as well, the law challenged the entire patrilineal concept of the family, she said.
When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took the microphone, she said she was late because “I did have an appointment today with a Senate leader, which I thought was important [to] keep because we are undergoing analyses of our situation these days in Iraq.” She is the only woman on the Iraq Study Group, which released its report on Dec. 6.
She then commented on the panel’s presentations and said that the percentages quoted for Tunisian women’s participation in various fields of endeavor “are not dissimilar to the percentages in the United States.”
O’Connor said that she had been interested in the progress of Tunisian women for some years. “I became increasingly aware of the progress that Tunisia was making in a region where women did not have many opportunities,” O’Connor said.
“We live in such challenging times these days. It is a time of tension in…the Middle East and North Africa, and to talk about the United States or America there is not a very popular thing to do these days. This is another reason why I am so glad that you chose to come here to the United States and make this presentation today, because our nations are friends,” O’Connor said.
Mary-Jane Deeb is chief of the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division.