Tunisia's Oasis of Openness

As neighboring nations struggle with the rising influence of Islamic militants, Tunisians revel in steady economic growth and social reform, including more rights for women

EACH day well before dawn, calls to prayer begin wafting from the minarets of Tunis, a gentle reminder that this is a country under Allah.

Then, as the city shifts to a bustle, the mix of boys and girls, men and women setting off to school and work looks much like what one would see in Western cities: As many girls as boys maneuver the sidewalks leading to class, and nearly as many women as men await the buses that will take them to offices and factory floors.

A few mostly older women head off to market in this Sunni Muslim region's traditional veil and kerchief - but these garments are much less the political and ideological statement the Shiite chador has come to be than proven protection against the city's heat and dust. At the same time, a few women hurry along in smart suits, briefcases firmly held in hand.

Tunisia certainly is not distant Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from driving a car - and where an absolute, royal hand guards against any easing of conservative Islam.

But neither is it neigboring Algeria, where a smoldering civil conflict pits underground Islamic militants against the government, the Army, and the country's often Western-inspired elite, and has lead to more than 2,000 deaths since January 1992. Nor is it nearby Egypt, where tourists face militants' antiforeigner attacks, and where only harsh repression of Islamists, through jailings and executions, has maintained stability.

Tunisia, in fact, is something of an oasis, marked by steady economic growth and social reform, in a region shaken and torn by Islamic militancy. As neighboring countries continue to confront an often violent movement, some Tunisians cautiously conclude that while battles remain, Tunisia has essentially won the war for a modern, open society. As evidence, they point to the central factors that have created Tunisia's success:

r Universal, broad-based education, including recent measures to reach dropout and delinquent youths.

r A strong family-planning program.

r And, perhaps most important of all, development of women's rights.

All these factors combine to form a kind of model for others in addressing the extremist threat.

``It's no mystery why Islamic extremism hasn't caught on in Tunisia,'' says Yadh Ben Achour, dean of legal studies at the University of Tunis and a widely respected specialist in Arab-Islamic jurisprudence. An emphasis on education and a government preoccupation with ``the demographic challenge'' since the country's independence in 1956 are among the factors he cites. ``But Tunisia's real fortune is that it is the only Arab country to have attempted and pursued a fundamental reform of the legal status of the family and the rights of women,'' he adds.

Tunisia's personal rights code - which bans polygamy and a man's right to unilaterally divorce his wife, declares women legal adults at marriage, and establishes women's inheritance rights - is ``unique in the Muslim world,'' Mr. Ben Achour says.

Developing a sense of identity and opportunity in women has been the key to making the country's family-planning program work, he says. Slowed population growth in turn has made economic and social progress possible.

``All this allows people to have a sense of hope for the future,'' he adds. ``That explains a certain immunity to a movement that harkens to the past.''

For many analysts here, the clues to Tunisia's success lie as much in the country's past as in measures taken since radical Islamic leaders first began gaining important followings in the 1980s. In a battle closely linked to the search for cultural identity in a rapidly changing world, Tunisia's long tradition of openness, these analysts believe, make it less susceptible to a vision of society that refuses new and often foreign influences.

``A long tradition of reform, going back as far as 1840 and beginning in education, has developed in Tunisians an understanding of the need to keep their eyes open to what is happening elsewhere in the world,'' says Mohamed Charfi, Tunisia's minister of education.

The country's historical path has also been important. Tunisia threw off the colonial shackles without experiencing the violence of Algeria's traumatic war for independence from France, for example, and was thus spared the baggage that accompanies a deep grudge toward the former colonial power. Nor did it live through any demagogic pan-Arab leaders, like Algeria's Ben Bella and Boumedienne, or Egypt's Nasser, who raised false hopes of Arab unity - hopes whose disappointment has fed, many observers believe, a search for new glory in Islamism.

Yet Mr. Charfi and others point out that openness alone is not enough. Egypt, too, has a long history of interaction with the outside world.

``You look at Egypt, another country with a long history of contact with other ways of living, and you realize that tradition offers insufficient explanation,'' says Mohamed Moaada, a Tunisian sociologist and president of the opposition Social-Democratic Movement.

Tunisia's own tough anti-Islamist repression, including jailings, prosecutions, and prohibition of politically motivated religious groups, has played an important part in securing the country's calm, though certainly at a price to the democratic process and basic liberties. (See story, right.) Yet some observers point to the experiences of neighboring countries and conclude that repression alone can't guarantee success.

``The repressive measures are there, but that policy would have never succeeded without the other fundamental factors standing behind it,'' says Ben Achour. It's the other factors that make Tunisia fundamentally different from its neighbors and explain its divergent experience. Islamists' first target

At the Cofat electric cable plant in the Tunis suburbs, a work force of 900 - 80 percent female - assembles and tests cable systems destined for General Motors' Opel cars. What makes Cofat stand out, aside from its increasingly complex and high-quality product, is its president, who is a woman.

``The woman who succeeds in Tunisia is not just accepted, but respected and looked up to,'' says Salma Rekik, who manages Cofat as well as several other subsidiaries of the Chakira electric group. ``That is a priceless advantage for us in confronting the extremism that is shaking our region.''

Noting that women are the ``first targeted, the first attacked'' by religious zealots, Mrs. Rekik says ``the movement didn't go far [here] because Tunisian women, raised with certain rights, wouldn't accept a move backwards.''

While women here generally praise Habib Bourguiba, the country's president from 1956-87, for his pathbreaking policies on women, population, and education, many note that progress for women didn't stop with his presidency.

``Under President [Zine al-Abidine] Ben Ali we have continued reforming the legal texts governing marriage so that it is an institution that reinforces the woman instead of marginalizing her,'' says Neziha Mezhoud, minister of women's affairs. Over recent years the government has amended a clause requiring a woman's ``obedience'' to her husband to read ``mutual respect'' - even though at the time some observers said such a reform constituted a ``provocation'' of Islamists.

Similar concerns were also raised about Tunisia's equivalent of the Equal Rights Amendment for women in the workplace, and over a reediting of school texts to better portray women's equality, but in both cases the government pushed through the changes.

Taken together, these measures for women's equality have helped make women more active - and demanding - members of Tunisian society. ``Women here know a desire to participate is not hopeless,'' says Rekik, who has helped develop a 1,000-member national businesswomen's council, which welcomes everyone from home-based seamstresses to company presidents. ``We like to remember that the prophet's first wife, as a shopkeeper, was a busineswoman.'' Pushing liberal arts

At Bourguiba High School in central Tunis, the hallways are art galleries for the works of students, not necessarily artists-in-waiting, who are learning the importance of a well-rounded education.

Bourguiba is one of four pilot high schools for Tunisia's gifted students: Teenagers battle for a slot at a school where the week's class schedule is four hours longer than in conventional high schools, and where participation in clubs, focusing on everything from philosophy and physics to theater, photography, and the environment, is expected.

``Our school came out of a reform that raised the age at which students select a specialization,'' says Zalila Nozha, the school's principal. ``We want to prepare open-minded students with broad interests.''

Tunisia wants to form an elite for its emergence as a developing nation. But behind that goal is another aim: to discourage the kind of close-mindedness that many officials here say favors religious extremism.

``We in Tunisia believe we can reconcile Islam and modernity,'' says Education Minister Charfi, ``but we must form well-rounded youth with a good foundation in math and letters, science and history. That's what will encourage them to open their eyes to the world.''

Even as he set about a broad reform of Tunisia's education system after becoming minister in 1989, Charfi says he was struck by the large number of engineers who at the time were emerging as leaders in Algeria's now-illegal Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front. ``The child who specializes in mathematics at 12 years old risks missing the grand ideas that have shaped the world,'' he says.

Unlike Turkey, where public schooling is secular, Tunisia's state schools require Islamic instruction. But Charfi freely admits that today's official religious teaching reflects a ``rereading'' of the Koran that offers a ``better-adapted comprehension of ancient texts.'' The goal, he says, is ``thinking that reflects the 20th century, and not the Middle Ages.'' War on poverty

Across one side of a semidesert valley, olive groves, vegetable fields, and bare earth form a patchwork that tells of a rural Tunisia struggling to hold on. Along the other side, a sprawling collection of poor brick-block homes, appearing to grow right before the observer's eyes, baldly proclaims the Tunisia that will be.

Douar Hicher is a community of 200,000 in the northern suburbs of Tunis. Here, and in poor suburbs like it that have mushroomed to accommodate a rural exodus, a new battle against radical Islamism is being waged.

Douar Hicher is the site of Tunisia's first Center for Social Defense and Integration, education centers designed to retrieve the young dropouts and petty delinquents who abound in such rootless suburbs - and whom the government considers highly susceptible to the Islamist mystique.

In art and theater classes, electronics and photography shops, small groups of children and adolescents, either too young, unable, or unwilling to find a job, work with teachers whose purpose is broadly two-fold: to develop a skill or pastime, and to awaken a sense of individual worth.

``These youngsters belong to a category that risks being manipulated,'' says Chedlya Ben Aleya, director of the part drop-in center, part continuation school.

``Our aim is to integrate them into society and help them develop the responsibility and maturity to resist all forms of extremism.'' That, she says, could be crime, drugs - or radical Islam.

Along with school dropouts, the Tunisian government is addressing other social ills, digging new sewers, raising street lights, paving roads, and building playgrounds.

While most officials here seem to believe the overt Islamist threat has been doused, a campaign to keep any cinders from flaring up continues - especially with worrying instability in Algeria and Egypt.

``The fundamentalists are pretty much silenced here now,'' says Mohamed Gsouma, a social worker involved with the integration program. ``But the kind of dogmatic thinking that favors their rise certainly isn't eradicated, so to cut off their path, we have to keep working the ground.''

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