Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity In the year since Tunisia touched off the Arab Spring, women have assumed a number of high-profile positions. As part of his Revolutionary Road Trip across North Africa, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep looks at how the roles of women are changing.

Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne with David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

MORNING EDITION is taking a road trip from Carthage to Cairo, a Revolutionary Road Trip through nations of the Arab Spring. And this morning we're taking you to Kairouan, Tunisia. This is a walled city well over a thousand years old, and in fact many of the old brick walls still stand. You may have glimpsed this city, because parts of it were used as a backdrop for shots in the Indiana Jones movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Kairouan was the first major beachhead for Islam as it spread across North Africa. We're in fact standing at the base of a giant minaret of what's known as the Great Mosque here. And this city symbolizes the power, the cultural power of Islam in this region. Islam has re-emerged as a political force since Tunisia's revolution in 2011. And, among other things, that may well affect the rights and the futures of many women here in Kairouan and beyond.

Well away from the Grand Mosque, off a muddy street that somebody must've paved once, a woman named Souad sits in a dim room. She's one of four women on a bench, perched in front of a steel frame, weaving a carpet. Strings stretch across that frame like strings of a harp.

Souad knots a little length of wool around a string, clips it with scissors, and moves on at blinding speed. If she completes a daily quota, thousands of knots per day, she's paid about $2.50.

How many children do you have and how old are they?

SOUAD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I have four, she says. The oldest is a daughter, who is studying food technology at a university, seeking a gateway to a better life.

Is it important that your daughter get a college degree?

SOUAD: (Through Translator) Of course, of course, why I'm working here? I'm working here to be able to support my daughter and to pay for her expenses. It's very important for me that she gets a degree.

INSKEEP: Souad weaved carpets right through Tunisia's revolution in 2011. It didn't affect her much, except that the carpet business dried up. Then, in October, her husband brought her a strange piece of paper. She couldn't read it, but learned it was a voting card for Tunisia's first free election. She thinks she voted for the party of Tunisia's new president. She hasn't been able to follow the news since then, but Tunisia's political debate may in time affect her daughter, whose opportunities right now are better than for many women in the Arab world.


INSKEEP: The call to prayer at Kairouan's Great Mosque is an important sound in Tunisia, but so is the sound of doors closing on a commuter train.


INSKEEP: We rode a train the other day into the suburbs of the capital city, Tunis. Many women were on board, not surprising since they benefit from decades in which this country has allowed girls free access to both education and jobs. Many in our train car wore tight jeans, designer sunglasses and long hair. Others wore traditional Muslim headscarves, or veils, clothing that until recently was actually banned.


INSKEEP: We got off the train at a seaside village. We were looking for the home of a particular woman, who spotted us from a second-floor window and beckoned us upstairs. We arrived in a living room dappled with sunlight.

KHADIJA SHARIF: I am Khadija Sharif, militant of woman rights and human rights.

INSKEEP: Did you say militant?

SHARIF: Yes, militant.

INSKEEP: Sharif, by the way, is wearing a short-sleeved shirt. She is a sociologist when not working as an activist, as she has for decades.

SHARIF: I am a grandmother, but I continue to struggle I think with the revolution that I finish.

INSKEEP: She thought she was finished. As Tunisia prepared to elect a new constitutional assembly last year, Sharif was part of a women's group that urged authorities to include equal numbers of women among the candidates. Many women were elected, but Sharif was dismayed that many of those successful women came from a moderate Islamist party.

SHARIF: And who succeeds? It's Ennahda, you understand?

INSKEEP: Ennahda is the name of that Islamist party. An assembly committee is now drafting a section of the constitution on rights and liberties. It's led by an Islamist woman, representing that Muslim holy city, Kairouan. We went to meet her and found her wearing a hijab, or tight-fitting head covering, as part of a matching outfit in shades of lavender and pink.

Is it important that a woman is in charge of this process regarding rights and liberties?

FERDIA LEBIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I know the meaning of being stripped of my freedom, she replies. Her name is Ferdia Lebidi. She's a lawyer, though it took extra time to earn her degree because she was imprisoned for political activity under Tunisia's old dictatorship.

What are the major questions that you face regarding rights and liberties of Tunisians?

LEBIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: She explains three basic principles for her work. One, is following the objectives of the revolution. The other two both involve Islam. Lebidi dismisses fears that she would ever force women to veil themselves, or make them stop going to work.

LEBIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: But her view of Islam does call for some changes in the law, such as imposing the death penalty for adultery. Her party, Ennadha, is by no means regarded as radical. It agreed not to base the entire constitution on a sweeping idea of sharia, or Islamic law. But religion does now factor into a vast number of debates over what Tunisia should become.


INSKEEP: OK, so we're on the road in Tunisia and we've tuned the radio to Zaytuna, that's a state-owned station that traditionally has played religious programming. But in recent months there's been a change at Zaytuna, and that's the beginning of a story.


INSKEEP: After last year's revolution, Tunisia's interim government placed a woman in charge of programming at the station. But she soon lost her job.


INSKEEP: Conservative activists barged into her office and videotaped themselves lecturing her on how she was unqualified.


INSKEEP: The director finally left her post, saying the government didn't protect her.

When we met the former director over espresso, we learned she has a Ph.D. in religious anthropology from the Sorbonne, in Paris. She's taught for 20 years at the most prestigious religious university in Tunisia. She suggests that when the activists called her unqualified, they really meant she's a woman with a scholarly open mind.

To learn more, we've come to a street cafe in the center of Tunis. We're beneath the arches of a gorgeous French colonial building. We've ordered shawarma sandwiches, they've just arrived here, wrapped in paper; they look delicious, and we're planning to meet with Adel Elmi. He is the head of an NGO, an unofficial organization, that was originally called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a title that echoes the names of official government agencies like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

He's the guy who pressured the radio director to leave her job. He's lately registered his organization with the government with a less threatening name: the Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform. We're against pornography, he says when he arrives. We want at least minimum respect for Islam. He says he wants to clean up Tunisia - no miniskirts, no half-naked women in ads, no pictures of Marilyn Monroe.

ADEL ELMI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: ...definitely no gay rights. He organized a protest against them the other day. As for that religious scholar who directed the radio station, Elmi insists he didn't force her out; he just met with her, and talked.

Tunisians face a lot of tough conversations - and tough questions - about what they'll find acceptable in the years ahead.


MONTAGNE: Steve's trip from Carthage to Cairo continues tomorrow. He'll visit the Tunisian village where a fruit seller in a single act of defiance set himself on fire and set the Arab Spring in motion.

We'll meet one activist who joined the movement and helped to bring down Tunisia's last ruler. Now, he's worried that Islamists are putting the future of his country in jeopardy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I respect this people as citizens that have the right, for example, to exist. But I don't respect their ideas because we want our country to let's say to advance, not to go back in history.

MONTAGNE: The Road Trip, Carthage to Cairo, continues tomorrow.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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