- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

NABEUL, Tunisia

“We have graduated from equality to partnership,” said Rafia Ben Ezzedine of the Tunisian women who helped bar the path to Islamic fundamentalism in this North African country.

“Our present status is not a gift. We have worked for it and still do,” she added.

Mrs. Ezzedine is the first female appellate court judge in Tunisia — and in the Arab world — and an example of the gender evolution in a country that has stunned the Arab world with its liberal concepts of women’s roles.

Statistics tell the story: Thirty-six percent of judges in Tunisia are women, as are 31 percent of the country’s lawyers, 51 percent of doctors and 58 percent of university students.

Ten years ago, the number of women heading commercial enterprises was 1,000; now it is 10,000. They include the head of the Tunis Stock Exchange and the main French-language daily newspaper. Women earn the same salaries as men and have the right to choose to have an abortion.

Western chanceries consider Tunisia’s treatment of women as the most successful reform in this pro-Western country, and a rampart against Islamic fundamentalism.

“Here, women would never allow any encroachment on their rights, now deeply embedded in society,” said a World Bank official.

Mrs. Ezzedine, a mother of two, is driven 40 miles every day from Tunis to Nabeul to preside at court sessions. En route, she reads the documents of the cases she will hear.

She believes that being a judge is not just a profession, but a mission.

“We must respect the dignity of the accused, who have yet to be definitely condemned,” she said.

At the Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women in Tunis, Saida Rahmouni is categorical. “No development in any country is possible without women,” she said.

The center analyzes the problems of women in education and their careers and makes recommendations to relevant authorities. “Our women have been liberated. Now we are integrating them in political, social and economic life,” she said.

Nassima Ghannouchi, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Tunisia’s parliament, said women “have achieved a lot, but we should continue to advance.”

“We cannot afford to stagnate.”

Twenty-two percent of Tunisia’s lawmakers are women, and the proportion is expected to increase to 30 percent in the next election in 2009. Such a growth is relatively easy. The Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the governing party, simply makes sure the required number of female candidates is on its ballots, and their victory is virtually guaranteed.

“When I was a student, I never dreamed of political life,” said Monia Derouiche, a member of parliament with a French doctorate in pharmaceutical science. “I have been stimulated by the whole atmosphere, and the president,” Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

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