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In Tunisia, women played an important part in the revelation that ousted a dictator there. Women in the North African nation have enjoyed near equality with men, which is near a rarity in the Arab world. And women want to make sure they maintain their status, as Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of women singing)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Female voices rang out loud and clear during massive protests that brought down the authoritarian rule of President Ben Ali. In Tunis, old ladies, young girls, and women in black judges robes marched down the streets demanding that the dictator leave. Hardly anyone wears the Muslim headscarf in the capital, and women seem to be everywhere, taking part in everything, alongside men.

Ms. NA-ARGI NAJET (Criminal Lawyer): (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: I met 36-year-old Na-argi Najet, arguing with a group of men on the sidewalk. Turns out she was defending the countrys provisional leaders. She did more than hold her own. The men were so impressed with her knowledge, they told her she should run for president. No one seemed to think being a woman was a hindrance.

(Soundbite of car door shutting)

BEARDSLEY: Najet is a criminal lawyer. She lets me jump in a taxi with her as she heads to Tunis courthouse. During the cab ride she explains the difference between Tunisian women and their sisters in the rest of the Arab world.

Ms. NAJET: (Through Translator) We feel more free and more civilized than other Arab women, and especially, since our revolution, we pity the women in neighboring countries. Look at Libya where they have to wear head scarves and can't even talk with men. This is a catastrophe.

BEARDSLEY: Soon Najet meets up with her lawyer colleagues and everyone is absorbed in heady conversation about Tunisias revolution. There are plenty of women here. In fact, a third of the countrys judges are said to be female. Tunisian women have the same rights to divorce as men and polygamy is illegal. Women here have had access to birth control since 1962, and to abortion, since 1965. Thats eight years before Roe vs. Wade gave American women the same right.

Many Tunisian women say they are now concerned about the potential return of Islamist parties banned under Ben Ali. But 31-year-old lawyer Asma Belkassem says shes not scared.

Ms. ASMA BELKASSEM (Lawyer): (Through translator) What is sure is that we women have rights in Tunisia. And no one can take them away now, not the Islamists or anybody else.

BEARDSLEY Tunisian women credit a 1956 civil rights code for their many freedoms and equality, as well as an excellent education system that is open to all. They also thank President Habib Bourguiba, their founding father, who led the independence struggle from France and wanted women to play a full role in Tunisian society. No one gives an ounce of credit to Ben Ali. Khadija Cherif is a long-time feminist activist. With the dictatorship over, she is once again allowed house visitors.

Ms. KHADIJA CHERIF: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Cherif says that Ben Ali pretended to support womens rights to please the West. The return of Islamist parties to Tunisian politics could pose a threat, she says, but women will remain vigilant.

Ms. CHERIF: (Through translator) The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we've never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.

BEARDSLEY: Back at the courthouse, male lawyer Bilel Larbi has joined his female colleagues. He says the best way to measure relations between the sexes in Tunisia is to look at the demonstrations over the last month.

Mr. BILEL LARBI: (Through translator) Just look at how Tunisian women stood side by side with Tunisian men. They came out to the streets to protest in headscarves. They came out in miniskirts. It doesn't matter. They were there.

BEARDSLEY: Larbi says after rising up to overthrow the dictator together, Tunisian men arent about to let anyone take away the freedoms of Tunisian women.

For NPR news, Im Eleanor Beardsley.

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