Tunisia’s Illiterate Democracy

Will the Arab Spring's lone success story continue if its citizens can't read?

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RAQADDA, TUNISIA — Nejia Harroum, 30, dropped out of school after attending for only one year. The main reason? It was too difficult for her to get there every day. Her father worked as a day laborer in the countryside and often had to move from place to place. This inconsistency, her family’s poverty, and the distances she had to travel to reach the nearest school made it too difficult for her to attend. Now Harroum, a sturdily built woman with a gentle, yet weatherworn face, is married, has three young children — and is illiterate.

She is determined that her children don’t suffer the same fate. Her family is poor and relies on her husband’s meager wages as a day laborer to get by. Though it’s a financial burden, Harroum insists on renting a house close to the school in Raqadda, where her family lives, to ensure that her children can attend. “I did it for the well-being of my children,” Harroum says. “I really hope my daughter gets the education I didn’t get when I was younger. That’s my only wish.”

But like other children of illiterate parents, Harroum’s children struggle to perform at the same level as their peers at school. Her 7-year-old daughter had to repeat the first grade. Her teacher, Houda Kenani, 46, says this is because she had no previous exposure to reading or writing and because her parents were unable to help her at home.

Harroum’s story is not unique. Over 42 percent of people in rural areas of Kairouan, the inland province where Raqadda is located, are illiterate, according to recently released data from Tunisia’s 2014 census. Among women in the countryside, the illiteracy rate is significantly higher. “I think it’s around 60 percent,” says Taha Atallah, another teacher who has been working in rural districts of the province for 29 years.

Literacy is considered by the United Nations to be a fundamental human right. According to a 2012 UNESCO report for World Literacy Day, “a person without basic literacy lacks real opportunities to effectively engage with democratic institutions, to make choices, exercise his/her citizenship rights and act for a perceived common good.” The correlation between literacy and democracy is not direct — as shown by the high literacy rates among Arab Gulf countries — but in the Economist’s 2014 Democracy Index, the 10 most democratic countries, with the exception of Australia, all have 99 to 100 percent literacy rates and many of the least democratic countries have lower rates.

Tunisia is the only Arab Spring country that has succeeded in establishing democratic institutions after long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted following popular protests in 2011. While the country’s rate of illiteracy has decreased since the last census in 2004, from 23.3 to 18.8 percent, this is is still worse than the global average. And, though widely perceived to have one of the more educated populations in the Arab world, Tunisia ranks 12th out of 22 Arab countries in literacy. The female illiteracy rate, at 25 percent, is double the rate for men. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Jordan have lower overall illiteracy rates, including among women.

The persistence of illiteracy, particularly in rural areas and among women, is a symptom of a broken educational system that is ill-equipped for educating the citizens of the new, democratic Tunisia.

Bouzid Nsiri, director of programs and statistics at Tunisia’s Ministry of Education, attributes the improvement in literacy since 2004 to almost universal primary school attendance, which is mandated by law, and the implementation of an adult literacy program by the Ministry of Education. Critics, however, say that universal primary education only exists on paper.

In rural areas like Raqadda, where illiteracy rates are the highest, lack of infrastructure, poverty, conservative values and multi-generational illiteracy have contributed to the lingering problem. In these poor and rural communities, there is pressure for children to drop out of school to contribute to the family. The legal age to be an apprentice in Tunisia is 14 and the working age is 18. However, many young people enter the job market in the informal economy below the legal age, according to Nsiri. “Some parents force their children to leave at an early age and force them to work to help the family,” he says.

While education is technically free, students have to pay for their own books and supplies. For impoverished families (about 15.5 percent of the population), these fees are difficult to afford and add to the pressure for students to drop out. Out of a school age population of 2 million students, over 100,000 dropped out between first grade and the end of high school during the 2013-2014 school year, according to Ministry of Education statistics. “The ones that make us afraid are the around 10,000 kids who drop out in primary school, because they could become illiterate,” Nsiri says.

For women, conservative values add an additional barrier to education. If a girl is the oldest in the family, she often has to wait for her younger brother to start classes before she can attend, because her parents don’t want her making the journey to school unaccompanied. As a result, many girls start school late, according to Kenani, one of the teachers from Raqadda.

If families have a number of children and limited resources, they often choose to send the boys to school and keep the girls at home. This is based on the idea that boys will eventually contribute to the family, while girls will grow up to get married and then become the responsibilities of their husband’s families, according to Messaoud Romdhani of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

Even in rural areas like Raqadda, however, attitudes towards female education are changing. Atallah, the other local teacher, says that there were many more boys than girls in his classroom when he first started teaching. Now, the trend is the opposite — and the girls are his most engaged students. “These taboos are disappearing,” he says of the values that kept women from being educated. “Girls consider education as a lift and a way of being emancipated.”

There are nine girls and five boys in Atallah’s sixth-grade classroom in a one-story Raqadda elementary school. Most have at least one illiterate parent. Some, like 11-year-old Malek Romdhani, who sits in the front row with a tight braid tied in her long, dark hair, are the first members of their families to be able to read and write. She has to walk an hour a half to school every day, and complains that her heavy backpack is difficult to carry over the long distance. According to Atallah, she’s not the only one who has trouble: “If there is rain, the majority [of my students] are absent,” he says.

But today, Romdhani is working hard. “She combs her hair. She brush her teeth…” she reads in English. “She brushes her teeth,” Atallah corrects her. He surveys his students, squeezed in tightly next to each other on small benches, to make sure the correction sinks in. “She combs her hair. She brushes her teeth. She wears her clothes…” Romdhani continues reading.

Even for those who receive an education, the pedagogy is based on rote memorization. “The system of education… doesn’t give people the space for critical thinking,” says political analyst Youssef Cherif, noting that the authoritarian regime that used to govern the country intentionally designed the system this way to better control the population. “Whether you are at school or whether you have dropped out, you have an environment that does not let you adapt yourself to democracy,” Romdhani, of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, says. Even people who are literate — but lack critical thinking skills — are unequipped to be informed citizens, he adds.

The Ministry of Education is aware there is a problem. “We admit that the system isn’t perfect,” Nsiri, from the ministry, says. A joint program between civil society and the ministries of education and transportation is aiming to initiate a school busing program for the 2016-2017 school year to make it easier for students to get to school. And, on May 15, the Ministry of Education initiated a national dialogue to begin discussing how to update curriculums to contemporary standards and add sports, cultural and extra-curricular activities to schools, according to Nsiri. “It’s one of our primary goals after the revolution to start to build for a citizen who will ensure his own dignity… and [who] also is an active citizen who participates in decision making and makes his voice heard,” Nsiri says.

Back in Raqadda, Malek Romdhani is standing in the dusty schoolyard outside of her classroom. “I want to be a doctor,” she says, her voice quiet but determined. “Education might have a lot of benefits for me and my country.” The question is whether the Ministry of Education will be able to give students like her the opportunity to realize their aspirations and become full citizens of a democratic Tunisia.

In the photo, Tunisian girls look at election posters ahead of the parliamentary election in October 21, 2014.
Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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