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Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity

Workers at a carpet-making business in the town of Kairouan are paid about $2.50 a day. Many carpet buyers are tourists, but the number of foreign visitors has dropped since the revolution. (NPR)

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.

I am a grandmother, but I continue to struggle. I thought with the revolution I finished.
Khadija Sharif, a women's rights advocate in Tunisia

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.

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.

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.

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos

Workers at a carpet-making business in the town of Kairouan are paid about $2.50 a day. Many c...

Women talk with a police officer in Tunis.

Women in a range of styles pose for a picture near the entrance to the old medina, or marketplace...

Lawyer Ferida Lebidi heads the commission writing the "rights and liberties" section of Tunisia's...

A woman walks through the marketplace in Kairouan, where some street scenes from Raiders of t...

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne with David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

MORNING EDITION is taking a road trip from Carthage to Cairo, a Revolutionary Road Trip through nations of the Arab Spring. And this morning we're taking you to Kairouan, Tunisia. This is a walled city well over a thousand years old, and in fact many of the old brick walls still stand. You may have glimpsed this city, because parts of it 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. We're in fact standing at the base of a giant minaret of what's known as the Great Mosque here. And this city symbolizes the power, the cultural power of Islam in this region. Islam has re-emerged as a political force since Tunisia's revolution in 2011. And, among other things, that may well affect the rights and the futures of many women here in Kairouan and beyond.

Well away from the Grand Mosque, off a muddy street that somebody must've paved once, a woman named Souad sits in a dim room. She's one of four women on a bench, perched in front of a steel frame, weaving a carpet. Strings stretch across that frame like strings of a harp.

Souad knots a little length of wool around a string, clips it with scissors, and moves on at blinding speed. If she completes a daily quota, thousands of knots per day, she's paid about $2.50.

How many children do you have and how old are they?

SOUAD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I have four, she says. The oldest is a daughter, who is studying food technology at a university, seeking a gateway to a better life.

Is it important that your daughter get a college degree?

SOUAD: (Through Translator) Of course, of course, why I'm working here? I'm working here to be able to support my daughter and to pay for her expenses. It's very important for me that she gets a degree.

INSKEEP: Souad weaved carpets right through Tunisia's revolution in 2011. It didn't affect her much, except that the carpet business dried up. 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 right now are better than for many women in the Arab world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

INSKEEP: The call to prayer at Kairouan's Great Mosque is an important sound in Tunisia, but so is the sound of doors closing on a commuter train.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS CLOSING)

INSKEEP: We rode a train the other day into the suburbs of the capital city, Tunis. Many women were on board, not surprising since they benefit from decades in which this country has allowed girls free access to both education and jobs. Many in our train car wore tight jeans, designer sunglasses and long hair. Others wore traditional Muslim headscarves, or veils, clothing that until recently was actually banned.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAKES SQUEALING)

INSKEEP: We got off the train at a seaside village. 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.

KHADIJA SHARIF: I am Khadija Sharif, militant of woman rights and human rights.

INSKEEP: Did you say militant?

SHARIF: Yes, militant.

INSKEEP: Sharif, by the way, is wearing a short-sleeved shirt. She is a sociologist when not working as an activist, as she has for decades.

SHARIF: I am a grandmother, but I continue to struggle I think with the revolution that I finish.

INSKEEP: She thought she was finished. As Tunisia prepared to elect a new constitutional assembly last year, 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 a moderate Islamist party.

SHARIF: And who succeeds? It's Ennahda, you understand?

INSKEEP: Ennahda is the name of that Islamist party. An assembly committee is now drafting a section of the constitution on rights and liberties. It's led by an Islamist woman, representing that Muslim holy city, Kairouan. We went to meet her and found her wearing a hijab, or tight-fitting head covering, as part of a matching outfit in shades of lavender and pink.

Is it important that a woman is in charge of this process regarding rights and liberties?

FERDIA LEBIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I know the meaning of being stripped of my freedom, she replies. Her name is Ferdia Lebidi. She's a lawyer, though it took extra time to earn her degree because she was imprisoned for political activity under Tunisia's old dictatorship.

What are the major questions that you face regarding rights and liberties of Tunisians?

LEBIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: She explains three basic principles for her work. One, is following the objectives of the revolution. The other two both involve Islam. Lebidi dismisses fears that she would ever force women to veil themselves, or make them stop going to work.

LEBIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: But her view of Islam does call for some changes in the law, such as imposing the death penalty for adultery. Her party, Ennadha, is by no means regarded as radical. It agreed not to base the entire constitution on a sweeping idea of sharia, or Islamic law. But religion does now factor into a vast number of debates over what Tunisia should become.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

INSKEEP: OK, so we're on the road in Tunisia and we've tuned the radio to Zaytuna, that's a state-owned station that traditionally has played religious programming. But in recent months there's been a change at Zaytuna, and that's the beginning of a story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

INSKEEP: After last year's revolution, Tunisia's interim government placed a woman in charge of programming at the station. But she soon lost her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

INSKEEP: Conservative activists barged into her office and videotaped themselves lecturing her on how she was unqualified.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

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

When we met the former director over espresso, we learned she has a Ph.D. in religious anthropology from the Sorbonne, in Paris. She's taught for 20 years at the most prestigious religious university in Tunisia. She suggests that when the activists called her unqualified, they really meant she's a woman with a scholarly open mind.

To learn more, we've come to a street cafe in the center of Tunis. We're beneath the arches of a gorgeous French colonial building. We've ordered shawarma sandwiches, they've just arrived here, wrapped in paper; they look delicious, and we're planning to meet with Adel Elmi. He is the head of an NGO, an unofficial organization, that was originally called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a title that echoes the names of official government agencies like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

He's the guy who pressured the radio director to leave her job. He's lately registered his organization with the government with a less threatening name: the Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform. We're against pornography, he says when he arrives. We want at least minimum respect for Islam. He says he wants to clean up Tunisia - no miniskirts, no half-naked women in ads, no pictures of Marilyn Monroe.

ADEL ELMI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: ...definitely no gay rights. He organized a protest against them the other day. As for that religious scholar who directed the radio station, Elmi insists he didn't force her out; he just met with her, and talked.

Tunisians face a lot of tough conversations - and tough questions - about what they'll find acceptable in the years ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Steve's trip from Carthage to Cairo continues tomorrow. He'll visit the Tunisian village where a fruit seller in a single act of defiance set himself on fire and set the Arab Spring in motion.

We'll meet one activist who joined the movement and helped to bring down Tunisia's last ruler. Now, he's worried that Islamists are putting the future of his country in jeopardy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I respect this people as citizens that have the right, for example, to exist. But I don't respect their ideas because we want our country to let's say to advance, not to go back in history.

MONTAGNE: The Road Trip, Carthage to Cairo, continues tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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