* Tunisian women say fear Islamist resurgence
* Women’s rights among the most advanced in Arab world
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
TUNIS, April 27 (Reuters) - For Tunis resident Amel, her country’s January revolution brought her personal freedom after two decades living in a repressive police state.
But as a woman, she is fearful Tunisia’s yet uncertain future could bring something else — an Islamist resurgence and what that could mean to her rights.
“As women we are scared to lose our rights, such as being forced to wear the hijab and losing our jobs,” the office secretary said, declining to give her full name.
“Women won’t have their freedom anymore. Women have suffered too much to lose these liberties. Nothing is clear yet about the situation of women.”
Since independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has boasted some of the most advanced women’s rights in the Arab world.
First post-independence leader Habib Bourguiba gave Tunisian women the right to vote, abolished polygamy, forbade marriage under the age of 17 and allowed woman equal rights to divorce.
But Tunisian women are now carefully watching to see whether the uprising that ousted authoritarian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14 will also unravel women’s rights bolstered by his secular regime in a predominantly Muslim country.
Tunisia’s interim authorities initially struggled to restore stability in the North African country but in March laid out a plan for a transition to democracy.
“There are fears and questions, because we are at a phase where we are reforming the foundations of society,” Maya Jribi, head of Tunisia’s Progressive Democratic Party, said.
“There are voices that have dual messages, so we can hear pro gressive things from one person, and then from another person in the same party we hear reactionary words.
She said that Tunisian women and women who supported democracy also needed to mobilise to protect the gains Tunisia had made.
Bourguiba considered Islam a threat to the state and called the Muslim head cover, or hijab, an “odious rag”. Under Ben Ali, veiled women were long denied access to education and jobs.
Ben Ali was toppled by protests after 23 years in power and fled to Saudi Arabia. Seeking to assert their authority and gain legitimacy in the eyes of protesters who forced him to flee, the caretaker authorities are attacking the vestiges of his rule.
The interior ministry said this month women would now be allowed to wear the Islamic headscarf in photographs on identity cards.
However some commentators have used the new freedom of expression on television to advocate conservative values.
One said allowing polygamy would help right a demographic imbalance while another called for women to stay at home to solve Tunisia’s unemployment problem, newspaper La Presse said soon after the revolution.
Hundreds of women rallied in the capital in January to voice their fears of an Islamist resurgence and call for more equality between men and women.
Tunisia’s revolution allowed for movements such as the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Arab for “Renaissance”) back on the political stage after a two-decade ban.
Ben Ali suppressed Ennahda after it officially won over 15 percent of an 1989 vote, exiling and jailing its members.
Its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned from exile in January, said Ennahda believed in individual freedoms, women’s rights and their equality with men. Analysts say Ennahda today might get up to 35-40 percent, close to what it may have actually won in the fraud-ridden 1989 vote.
“We want women to be well-represented politically, to participate effectively in decision-making, and to be represented in a way that reflects her presence in society,” Ennahda member Chambi Riadh told Reuters.
“A woman is responsible for her family, she works and she is involved in many cultural and arts activities. Now is the time to translate this on the political stage, specifically in decision-making, and for women to take on the responsibilities that reflect her contribution to Tunisian society.”
Authorities preparing Tunisia’s July 24 election to choose a national assembly which will rewrite the constitution ruled this month that men and women must feature in equal number in the poll, a move hailed as historic in the Arab world.
Women activists hope democracy in Tunisia will safeguard as well as promote women’s rights.
“I am optimistic because we are on the path to democracy. We are going to learn democracy slowly because we did not have it for 23 years, even more,” Sana Ben Achour, chairwoman of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, said.
“I see democracy as the solution for all society, including women. Democracy will ensure that their rights are kept.”
Women represent around quarter of Tunisia’s working population and just over half of higher education students, according to Tunisia’s national institute of statistics.
For 23-year old Rihab, Tunisian women have a stronger chance now to make their voices heard.
“Women today need to have a stronger personality than before,” she said.
“She has to take up her rights much more and she has to be independent from men because as Tunisians we still think that a woman’s destiny has to be linked to man’s.”