TUNIS -- Here in a Moslem land where the miniskirt long ago replaced the veil, the men have started arguing again about the women. A long and beneficial moratorium on sexual politics, Islamic style, is coming to an end.
This is not the familiar American battle of the sexes over dividing up rewards and responsibilities at work and at home. Here cultures that use woman-as-symbol in different ways and for different purposes are sliding into conflict.
As a meeting ground for oriental and western cultures, Tunisia has always been an unusually tolerant and open Arab society. It juts out into the Mediterranean at the northern tip of Africa as if it were trying to reach across to Sicily and the rest of Italy, to which it is linked in fact by a natural gas pipeline that starts in Algeria.
But the Mediterranean imprint left by Phoenician, Roman, French and other settlements along the coast through two millennia is now fading rapidly. The exodus from the rural interior of the 1970s has given Tunis a strong Arab character that was not visible even 15 years ago, when smartly dressed young Tunisian women frequented the French-style sidewalk cafes on the boulevards.
Souhair Belhassan, a Tunisian writer, remembers clearly when she and many other Tunisian women stopped going into cafes in downtown Tunis in 1978. There was no prohibition, but it gradually became uncomfortable to endure the comments and stares of the unemployed young men who crowded all the available tables.
Drawn from the countryside by jobs that did not exist, the cafe-sitters have in a sense reclaimed Tunis culturally. Arab cities are the property and habitat of men, whose mastery of the streets is still symbolized in many places by women having to don the veil in public.
Islamic traditionalists frequently justify such restrictions as protecting or honoring women. The reverse is true, of course, as Tunisia's modern founder, Habib Bourguiba, repeatedly said throughout most of his career.
Western societies attempt to repress the psychic force of shame and humiliation. Arab culture is much more aware of these emotions and attempts to channel them. Women not only have to carry the burden of discharging these emotions for society as a whole; they also have to be seen to do so. The veil is only the most obvious symbol of this intimidation.
For 20 years, Bourguiba relentlessly pushed his small country (now 8 million population) to westernize and to leave behind the misogynistic tendencies of Islam. He abolished polygamy, he broke with the Koran by making adoption legal and he fought to guarantee women equal rights before the law.
Bourguiba and his equally strong-willed wife, Wassila, preached modernity together. Pictures of the First Couple blanketed Tunisia.
In his fading years, as he drifted into senility, Bourguiba abandoned the cause of feminism. He divorced his wife and renounced an adopted daughter. He continued his obsessive efforts to eradicate Islamic influences, but created a strong backlash that the fundamentalists exploited.
This is the unhappy legacy that Bourguiba's successor, Zine Abidine Ben Ali, inherited when he took power from the incapacitated Bourguiba Nov. 7. To stem the backlash, Ben Ali has emphasized in general terms that Bourguiba's war on Islam is over.
The changes in government have encouraged the Islamic movement here to demand political rights and to begin exerting pressure for a total review of the civil protections that Bourguiba enacted for women.
Ben Ali says that he will safeguard "certain advances" that Bourguiba made for women but he is vague on which ones qualify and which ones might not. He has emphasized the need for "good manners" in public.
Spokesmen for the Islamic movement assert that they have nothing in common with Khomeini's Iran and do not want to take Tunisia backward. They are persuasive to some extent on the broad outlines of their attachment to western financial and strategic realities, but they waffle furiously when asked what they would do about women.
They are reopening a debate that will produce only losers. A country that needs to concentrate on a dramatic economic decline could instead waste its energies in fighting social battles that belong to another century. A people whose geography, culture and economic well-being dictate openness does not need to waste time in rediscovering this fact of modern life.