TUNISIA: A COUNTRY OF VARIOUS LANDSCAPES
TUNIS (JP): “Japanese? Chinese? Korean? American? English? German?” is always the greetings of shopkeepers in Tunisia. When we answered “Indonesian”, they would immediately respond: “Abdurahman Wahid!” Only one man got it wrong and said “Habibie”. Many Tunisians know about Indonesia but they do not know where it is.
A man working at an international phone kiosk thought Indonesia was a country in Europe. Tunisia features a variety of beautiful landscapes. The southwestern part is the Sahara Desert but traveling to the north the landscape changes into green areas, covered with olive, date and orange plantations. Tunisia exports olives, olive oil, dates and oranges to Europe and America. In the east lies miles of white beaches bordered by a very bright blue ocean under bright blue skies that match the color of the sea.
The breath-taking seaside and pleasant weather make Tunisia very popular for tourists from Europe and North America. In fact, tourism is a major source of income after agro-business, which is part of the reason why Tunisia’s GDP is more than double that of Indonesia’s (US$1.823 in 1998 for Tunisia and $778 for Indonesia). Tunisia has a strong currency (one dinar equals 72 cents).
Strangely enough, the strength of it’s economy is hardly reflected in the standard of living there or the appearance of the buildings, cars and clothing. There are many attractive multi-story hotels and office buildings but the designs are modest. Jakarta has many more glittering, glamourous buildings and ultra-modern cars.
Urban Tunisians live in apartment buildings while rural people live in houses with gardens full of fruit trees, chickens and cattle. Only a handful of urban Tunisians use cellular phones. Many people use telephone kiosks instead.
A great deal of the government’s money is invested in infrastructure: well-paved streets and highways, piped water and electricity. The streets are clean and well lit, creating a safe and pleasant atmosphere. Public transport is accessible and affordable for the local people. Trains, buses and taxis connect cities and large settlements quite effectively. The public transport is quite well maintained, clean and the trains run on schedule. Needless to say, these good services attract tourists and make their stay enjoyable.
All buildings and houses are painted white but the doors have bright colors: shocking blue is the traditional and most popular color but some people paint their doors red, green or yellow. The sharp contrast with the white walls is very beautiful.
Another unique characteristic of the houses and buildings is the use of colorful ceramic tiles featuring diverse designs. These tiles are plastered around the main door, the windows or used to decorate the walls inside the buildings. They are very decorative. Public places like cafes, restaurants and even gas stations use these tiles resulting in a clean and neat look. Beside tiles, men make various other ceramic products that make popular souvenirs for tourists.
Tunisia is quite liberal compared to other Arab countries. Since Tunisia gained independence in 1956, after having been a French colony, its first President, Habib Bourguiba, initiated a revolution, steering his country along a path of modernist reform that involved the radical restructuring of Islam as part of his battle against underdevelopment.
Educated in law and political science at the Sorbonne, Paris, Bourguiba wanted to make Tunisia a modern state and he succeeded. According to scholars, Tunisia is the only Arab country where the modernist elite deliberately dismantled Islamic institutions and infrastructure in the name of social and cultural reform.
For Bourguiba, the remodeling of the Tunisian state necessitated the abandonment of many Islamic customs, such as cutting off the hands of thieves and the stoning of adulterous women.
Being married to a French lady, the first President provided Tunisian women with more freedom and supported them in achieving greater rights. There was a vigorous campaign against the wearing of the hijab (veil). The President even made attempts to outlaw the veil in the classroom. He believed that wearing the veil had nothing to do with religion.
Polygamy was banned and divorce could only be done through the state’s judicial authority. The second president, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, who took office in 1987 and is still in power today, has further endorsed the law of monogamy.
Tunisian women enjoy the privilege of education, employment and freedom to travel. Some 59 percent of women are enrolled in secondary school (Indonesia 44 percent) and 11.5 percent of the seats in the Senate are occupied by women (Indonesia 8 percent). Women are dressed in western styles (including tight pants and tight blouses but no mini skirts) and only a few elderly rural women wear traditional clothing that covers their body and hair.
Unlike women in the Middle East, who are only allowed to wear black or very dark colors, Tunisian women wear dresses in different colors. The color of the traditional dress in the north is white but in the south it is bright red. Women in Tunisia enjoy access to employment, from taxi/bus drivers, soldiers to ministers. Although men still dominate business in the souk, women are not prohibited to join the profession as small-time traders or to work at supermarkets. Women do not always need the company of a male family member to go out of the house, giving them the freedom to move around and travel.
The only thing women do not do is to go to cafes or to have coffee or to smoke water pipes. It is not because the law prohibits it but because most women hardly have the time to amuse themselves. They spend their days working hard to earn money, taking care and serving the family and doing household chores. Most men take a traditional macho role, letting the women take care of the home and serve the man and children.
Only a few elite women, who can afford domestic help, can enjoy going out for coffee with other women. Although men’s role in child-care is minimal, most men show genuine interest in children. It is a common view that men smile at young children they meet, caress their little heads and even play with them. Women, on the other hand, seldom show this interest openly.
Women’s rights, such as birth control have been promoted by Bourguiba. It was very common for women from older generations to have had between eight and 12 children. Under Bourguiba’s leadership the Tunisian government devised a population policy that was integrated into development plans and supported by a family planning program.
The number of children was initially limited to four per woman, but the second president Abidine Ben Ali reduced it to only three per woman. Birth control pills are sold in drugstores and anyone can buy them without a doctor’s prescription (60 percent of women of reproductive age use contraceptives).
Clinics even perform abortions without any restriction. Thanks to these measures Tunisia’s level of fertility is now nearing two children per woman, particularly in urban areas, according to reports from the French Population Center in 2000. The total population of Tunisia is 9.3 million with a growth rate of 1.6 percent in 1999.
This liberal approach regarding birth control was actually started many centuries ago (at the end of the 14th century) by the great Tunisian philosopher and religious scholar, Ibn Khaldoun, who allowed the practice of coitus interruptus (al-azl) as a method accepted by Islam to prevent pregnancy. According to the majority of Islamic schools of jurisprudence, women have the power to allow or disallow al-azl in marriage as a method of contraception.
Since the 1960’s family planning in Tunisia has been backed up by good health care services reflected in the low death rates (infant mortality: 27 per 1000; under-five mortality: 33 per 1000 and maternal mortality: 170 per 100.000 births). Expansion of access to education and employment for women has driven young girls to marry later. On average, women in Tunisia get married at 25 years of age (Indonesia: 21). Public health, the level of education and average income have brought Tunisia to rank 105th among 174 countries according to the UNDP Human Development Report (Indonesia ranks 113).
*) The writer is a psychologist, sociologist, public health educator and gender specialist who currently resides in the Netherlands.
Published in: The Jakarta Post, Jakarta, 6 March 2001.