Tunisia, the country where the first of the so-called Arab Springs began in 2011 (and the only success story), made history again on March 27, when it honored its first woman medical doctor by printing her face on its new ten-dinar banknotes.
With Tunisia’s new cabinet and parliament facing unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of continuing economic problems and its ongoing nine-year democratic transition, it is a timely tribute that Dr. Tawhida Ben Cheikh—an esteemed doctor of medicine who has garnered the respect of Tunisians worldwide and is seen as a unifying choice – was selected.
Her story is unique and unusual. She was born in Tunisia in 1909 – at the time it was a French colony—into an elite, socially conservative Tunisian family. Her father died when she was young and she was raised by her mother. In an interview circa 1992, Dr. Ben Cheikh described her mother as a “most extraordinary woman.”
Educated in Arabic and a devout Muslim, her mother was “very open-minded.” While a single mother raising four children, she saw to it that young Tawhida and her three siblings all completed their secondary school education.
Dr. Ben Cheikh and her sisters were the first Tunisian girls to complete secondary school.
Dr. Ben Cheikh recounted that she and her sisters were the first Tunisian girls to complete secondary school: “That’s the way she was, my mother, she wanted us to go as far as we wanted in school. I was the first girl to pass the baccalaureate degree in Tunisia, in 1928. But, of course then came the question, what was I going to do with it?”
At the time, she wanted to do social work to help others. By chance she met someone who introduced her to Dr. Etienne Burnet, a literary man and philosopher who had studied Greek and Latin, and a famous medical researcher with the Louis Pasteur Institute of Tunis.
“I still remember going to see him,” she said. “It was a summer day, in June or July. They lived on a hill in the Belvedere neighborhood of Tunis. I went alone. It was 1929. I remember it so well. As soon as I arrived he asked, ‘Now my little one, what is it you would like to do?’”
She told him that she might like to study medicine and suggested Algiers, as there was no medical school in Tunis.
“If you want to accomplish something, to study medicine, you must enter by the big door. You must go to Paris.”
“He looked at me; he hesitated, then said: ‘My little one. If you want to accomplish something, to study medicine, you must enter by the big door. You must go to Paris.’”
“I almost laughed,” she recalled.
Dr. Ben Cheikh Goes To Paris
Dr. Ben Cheikh’s mother was at first reluctant to allow her to go to France. But Dr. Burnet, along with her secondary school professors, persuaded her, saying that her daughter showed significant promise, and to not send her would be a crime.
While her mother was persuaded, her extended family was skeptical.
On the day she was to leave, as she waited for one of her uncles (her mother’s brother) to send his car to take her to the port to sail for France, a family meeting had been called by her legal guardian, the husband of her aunt, who was also an Islamic cleric.
As she waited for the chauffeur, she saw another car arrive, bringing the cleric, two uncles, and a male cousin.
Responding to her aunt’s direction to “cover herself” and “receive these men,” Dr. Ben Cheikh’s mother replied, “Have them go upstairs, these aren’t the first men or the last men that I will see.”
As Ben Cheikh looked on, discussion, arguments, and then more discussion ensued between her mother and the male guests in the sitting room, while all the other women of the house were out of sight downstairs.
Meanwhile, the car had arrived to take her to the port, while the conversation continued, slowly and tediously. The guardian objected, “How can a young girl who has never even been out of the city of Tunis be permitted to go so far away?”
Dr. Ben Cheikh recalled that her mother answered simply at first that many people traveled, for various reasons, and that it wasn’t such a big thing.
“My daughter wants . . . to study, and you know that in Islam it is an obligation for both men and women to learn and improve themselves.”
But the final arbiter of the negotiation was when her mother said: “My daughter wants to learn, to study, and you know that in Islam it is an obligation for both men and women to learn and improve themselves.”
While that silenced the cleric, one of her uncles tried a different tack, saying she could leave the following week because “a young girl should only travel with her father, a maternal uncle, or a brother.”
Again, her mother replied: “She is leaving with a woman of whom I am as confident as my own self.”
Hearing this, Dr. Ben Cheikh knew her mother had won. Picking up her coat, she ran down to the car. “The boat sailed a few minutes late that day because of me,” she said.
Leaving a Formidable Legacy
Dr. Ben Cheikh graduated from the Paris School of Medicine and came back to Tunisia, opening her own clinic in 1936 at age 27.
In 1955, she was chosen to head the maternity department of Charles-Nicolle hospital in Tunis, and, in 1959, became the first woman to sit on the National Council of the Order of Physicians of Tunisia.
Physician, pediatrician, and gynecologist, she is renowned for her work in women’s medicine and with non-profit organizations.
Physician, pediatrician, and gynecologist, she is renowned mainly for her work in women’s medicine, gynecology, and for her selfless legacy with non-profit organizations. She served as the Vice-President of the Tunisian Red Crescent, and after family planning was legalized in Tunisia in 1973, she founded the first family planning clinic in the country.
She also established Leila, the first Tunisian, French-language magazine for women.
Dr. Ben Cheikh was a pioneer and activist for women’s healthcare, long before it became a movement in the West. She made significant contributions to transforming the image and role of women. She was a leader in the fight for access to proper health care for Tunisian women, especially with respect to contraception and family planning.
Today, almost 50 percent of doctors in Tunisia are women, and Dr. Ben Cheikh’s legacy has inspired many female doctors both inside and outside of Tunisia.
Dr. Ons Zemni, Director of Maya Laboratories in Manassas, Virginia, said that Dr. Ben Cheikh was her inspiration.
“Like Dr. Ben Cheikh, my path to a successful career in medicine was not easy. I faced many challenges as a foreign medical graduate here in the US,” Zemni said.
A proud Tunisian-American doctor and director of an anatomical pathology lab, Dr. Zemni said that Dr. Ben Cheikh’s “perseverance, belief in herself, and selfless work and involvement in many non-profit organizations” powered her own self-confidence and motivated her to work hard to achieve her goals.
“Dr. Ben Cheikh had been an active supporter of a family planning system since 1960.”
Asked about Tunisia’s healthcare system relative to others in the Maghreb, she opined: “Tunisia has a unique health system that promotes women health. Dr. Ben Cheikh had been an active supporter of a family planning system since 1960. This system was legalized in Tunisia, and allows easy and free access to contraception. Dr. Ben Cheikh also instructed doctors on abortion procedures.”
Indeed, Dr. Zemni noted that in comparison with other countries in the Maghreb, “women in Tunisia have easier access to free contraception and have the right to get an abortion . . . when it’s medically safe.”
After a long medical career and a lifetime of giving back to society, Dr. Ben Cheikh died on December 6, 2010, at the age of 101. She will be remembered not only for having paved the way for subsequent generations of female doctors, but also for bringing women’s healthcare to the forefront of Tunisia’s consciousness and healthcare system.
Now ten years on, Tunisia honors all women in the scientific and medical fields with Dr. Ben Cheikh’s image engraved on its ten-dinar banknote.