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Tunisia: A Leader Of Women’s Rights, But No Female Leaders?

Even the most news-naïve Americans know drastic events are currently occurring in Tunisia and Egypt. News of protests and rallies are plastered all over American media. Tunisia, which is in North Africa, holds a special place in my heart. Having spent a significant chunk of time there in the past, I’ve been following news fairly regularly.  Since gaining its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has made significant strides in strengthening their education system, economic standing and revolutionizing social and gender roles. The social progress has indeed made Tunisia a leader among the Arab world in promoting women’s rights.

The Tunisian government requires women be educated alongside men, and women enjoy full legal status, which allows them to own their own businesses and apply for their own passports, among other things. Tunisia is the only Arab nation where abortion is not only legal, but women can obtain a government-subsidized abortion without their husband’s permission. Family planning programs are widely established and have made contraception readily available throughout the country. Tunisia is also the first Arab nation to outlaw polygamy. As of 2004, women constituted over 30 percent of Tunisia’s university professors, 58 percent of university students, more than 25 percent of its judges and 23 percent of members of parliament and police. In 2006, Tunisia’s main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, elected their first female leader. These achievements, at least to me, are very impressive.

But, throughout this history of change, one glaring pattern kept popping out at me; Tunisia’s male leaders precipitated much of this social change. The men in charge were the people who enacted legislature and pushed change. How is this possible? It can’t be. So, I decided to do some research: where were all the women while this change was happening? They had to play an integral role alongside the country’s male leaders. I figured the Women’s Rights Movement in the US was laden with female leaders: Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, Alice Paul, Margaret Sanger, the list could go on for pages, so a similar list of female Tunisian leaders needed to be out there as well, right? After fairly extensive internet-digging, I still came up empty-handed re: female leadership in Tunisia.

How is it possible Tunisia is a leader of women’s rights in the Arab world, but there are so few female leaders behind the women’s rights changes? How do female leaders emerge without any female leaders working for change?

Recently, hundreds of Tunisian women joined together at the Tunisian Capital to rally against Islamist resurgence. Groups such as the Association of Democratic Women and the Tunisian Women’s Association for Research and Development are working hard to defend women’s rights. Tunisian women are scared. After decades of slow social progress, they want to make sure their rights won’t be revoked. I don’t blame them. Amidst the current chaos and looming threats will we start to see emergence of female Tunisia leaders within the women's rights realm? In terms of fighting for women's rights and progression of gender roles, do great female leadership need to be spurred by impending tragedy?


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