I’m sitting in a waiting lounge at the Cairo International Airport in September 2015 with a looming 22-hour layover to ponder over when a fashionably dressed woman takes the seat next to mine. I catch a whiff of her perfume. With her long, flowing hair, designer sunglasses, expensive-looking watch, perfect make-up and designer handbag, she reminds me of a character straight out of the hit TV series, Sex and the City.
“Sarah Jessica Parker,” I think as I watch her manicured fingers work her iPhone.
She’s Arabic but everything about her refuses to fit into the image I’ve conjured up about how an Arabic woman should look and behave. Where is her hijab? Where is her subdued personality?
I’m deeply fascinated by her persona and simply have to find out who she is.
Turns out, she’s a dermatologist based in Nairobi.
But why wasn’t she like any other Arab, I pry.
“Because I’m Tunisian. We do things differently there,” she says matter-of-factly.
A DIFFERENT COUNTRY
She goes on to narrate how baffled she once was when she was prevented from going out with her male friends when they toured in Dubai. Apparently, she had to be chaperoned to spend time with her friends.
“That would never happen to me in my country,” she says.
Tunisia is sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea on one end and the more conservative neighbours of Algeria and Libya. A French protectorate until it gained independence in 1956, Tunisia’s nature, as captured in Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly by Prof Safwan Masri, is exceptional in many dimensions.
The book, launched on June 25, 2018 at the Columbia Global Center, Nairobi, explores the factors that have shaped the country’s unique experience. The author traces its history of reform in the realms of education, religion and women's rights.
The story of the dermatologist is the story of Tunisian women, who, for instance, started driving long before their Middle Eastern counterparts in Saudi Arabia, who were only allowed behind the wheel last Sunday.
“And to this I often ask: to drive where? To the airport so that they can be stopped from leaving the country unless they bring with them permission from their male relative, including their sons?” asked Prof Masri, a Jordanian who lives in New York and Amman, but who is fascinated by the story of Tunisia.
On independence in 1956, Tunisia embarked on liberal social reforms and began to modernise its economy under Habib Bourguiba and later Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, though it remained a one-party State with a dictatorial presidency.
But one man changed the course of Tunisia’s history in December 2010 by setting himself on fire in front of a local municipal office in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor, was protesting against corruption, poverty and political repression. He was infuriated because local officials repeatedly demanded bribes and seized his goods. His actions sparked a revolution, which came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution, and which eventually forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down in January 2011.
The Jasmine Revolution inspired a series of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, marking the birth of the Arab Spring, a term Prof Masri takes issue with.
“There was nothing Arab about the Arab Spring. Tunisia is not exclusively Arab. There are 22 countries in the Arab League and not all have Arabic as their first language. Tunisians see themselves as African, Oriental, Arab, Mediterranean, Muslim,” he says.
HISTORY OF REFORM
In Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, Prof Masri writes that within four short years of the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians “passed a progressive constitution, held fair parliamentary elections and ushered in the country’s first ever democratically elected president”.
He argues that Tunisia has a history of reform and this set it on a separate trajectory from the rest of the region.
“The country has been consolidating its path towards democracy.”
There are a number of lessons to be gleaned from Tunisia, which is as distinct as it is similar to the other countries in the region and in the Arab World.
Prof Masri, in comparing the Tunisian revolution to the neighbouring Egyptian revolution, says the Egyptian protests were local. However, Egypt did not progress to democracy and is now in the throes of a military dictatorship. According to him, Egyptian protesters knew what they did not want. But they could not agree on what they wanted.
He also argues that the victory of Islamists in Tunisia was not an accident. They were well organised and had weak links with the earlier regimes. But both fell out of favour with the public.
In Tunisia, civil society intervened to get the Islamists to step down, but in Egypt there was a bloody military coup during which many members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed.
“The military was very strong in Egypt with weak unions but this was the opposite in Tunisia. Unions were strong and military not very powerful."
According to Prof Masri, the one thing that Tunisians held onto from their colonisers was education.
“The legacy of the French in the domain of education went beyond language and co-education,” he said.
And in his book, he writes that the French administrators created a 20-year plan for Tunisia’s education system, which aimed at implementing universal primary education over the course of 10 years. It also created different educational tracks in secondary school.
President Habib Bourguiba, who came to power immediately after independence, recognised the value of education and invested in it and “set in motion policies that would shape Tunisia education systems for generations to come”.
According to the author, education reforms were part and parcel of Bourguiba’s progressive reforms.
Tunisia embraced bilingualism in education (Arabic and French) and had a curriculum which “ensured that all students - whatever path they ended up pursuing after primary school - received a solid, well-rounded, modern education.”
Today, Tunisia enjoys high literacy and school attendance rates.
Religion was taught in a very different way compared to other Arab countries.
Apart from the history of Islamic thought, the students were also given sociological and historical contexts which “encouraged them to form their own opinions and not simply accept absolute truths.”
The author also points out that the trademark of Arab education worldwide has been one of intellectual despotism - discouraging individual thinking and repressing creative thinking – but not so in Tunisia.
The Tunisian approach cultivated nationalism while focusing on a broader liberal and visionary education agenda.
Religious practice in Tunisia is also protected by Article 6 of their constitution – Freedom of Belief, Conscience and Religious Practice, Neutrality of Mosques - which reads, in part, that the State “…guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, the free exercise of religious practices and the neutrality of mosques and places of worship from all partisan instrumentalisation.”
This in itself is an anomaly in the Arab world.
Tunisia has been long regarded as among the most progressive Arab countries in terms of respecting women’s rights. As Saudi Arabia finally allowed women to drive, Tunisia was way ahead, having legalised abortion in 1965, made access to contraceptives easier since 1966 and adopted an amendment to the electoral law that required political parties to have at least half of their electoral lists headed by women, in local and regional elections.
Reports also show that 91 per cent of Tunisian women, between the ages of 15 and 24, are literate.
In November 2015, the Tunisian parliament passed a law that allowed women to travel with their minor children without getting permission from the children’s father.
Some scholars argue that though Tunisian women enjoy a range of rights, the code that enshrines them still has some regressive provisions, especially on inheritance.
“Women's emancipation was key in Tunisia. Emancipation of women was argued from an Islamic standpoint,” says Prof Masri.
The Jasmine Revolution also marked the beginning of a revolution in the gay community in Tunisia in terms of freedom of expression.
People suspected of engaging in homosexuality (some simply because they were acting “too feminine”) were often subjected to bodily examinations and were often punished for their preferences. But there have been gains in this area and activists’ efforts were buoyed by the Jasmine Revolution.
In one milestone in LGBT rights in 2016, human rights minister Mehdi Ben Gharbia announced the country’s commitment to end forced bodily examinations of suspected homosexuals.
In another sign of progress, the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival took place in January 2017, the first such event in Tunisia and the Maghreb. The four-day celebration, sponsored by a Tunisian NGO, Mawjoudin (We Exist in Arabic), featured 12 films with LGBT themes from North Africa and the Middle East.
“Gay rights are debated in Tunisia more than they are debated in any other Arab country. The president is looking at decriminalising homosexuality,” says Prof Masri.
So what will prevent Tunisia from retrogression?
“Women. They will not allow for the rolling back of the gains they have made in the last century or so,” says a confident Prof Masri.
There is much to write home about Tunisia, which abolished slavery in 1846 using Islamic teachings as a justification. They did this way before France and the USA.
As Lisa Anderson says in the book’s foreword: A good part of Tunisia’s seductiveness is that the country invites hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Prof Safwan M. Masri is the Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University. He holds a senior research scholar appointment at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
A scholar of the contemporary Arab world, Masri’s work focuses on understanding post-colonial dynamics among religion, education, society, and politics. His writings on education and current affairs have been featured in the Financial Times, Huffington Post, and Times Higher Education.
In Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, he explores the factors that have shaped the country’s exceptional experience.