Leïla Ben Ali, wife of the Tunisian president, opened the conference The Tunisian Woman, Partner with Equal Rights in August. The subject of the conference, which honours the ‘national celebration of the woman’, was the role of the woman in the labour process and in the (economic) development of Tunisia. The general tenor was one of considerable satisfaction with the achievements of the woman since the Transformation, as the start of the period of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule is called.
But ever since its independence in 1956 Tunisia has been an exception in the Arab and Islamic world when it comes to the liberties and rights of women. Former president Habib Bourguiba forbade polygamy and repudiation and made separation legal. He raised the marriageable age for girls to 17 and ensured that without exception girls had access to education.
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali succeeded Bourguiba in 1987. He also sees the importance of emancipation and women’s rights. He did not undo the innovations that Bourguiba had implemented. In fact, he expanded on them. Since 1993 men and women have had equal rights and duties within marriage with regard to the children. Since that time there have been social facilities for divorced women. The ban on any form of discrimination against women on the work floor is now part of the law. It has been possible for a woman to be elected to parliament since 1997.
This makes the Tunisian woman quite a bit better off than women in neighbouring Algeria - where a change in family law in 1984 made polygamy legal again - and Morocco - where three years ago legal changes that favoured women were nipped in the bud.
A series of recommendations for further developing the roles of women followed from the workshops during the conference. Leïla Ben Ali called on Tunisian women to show even more initiative and courage so that they can take part in the information society and the modern global economy.