Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Gender Relations in Tunis

One of the most obviously different aspects of life in Tunisia in comparison to life in the States (besides the standard of living, of course) is the nature of gender relations, which are relatively similar both in Tunis and in Carthage (I don't know about smaller, more rural areas, however). The first thing one notices is lack of women walking on the streets (which, in addition to the TGM for long distances, is the preferred method of transportation in Tunisia, although many upper-middle-class Tunisians do own cars). In addition when women are walking in public, especially in outside of Tunis, which is a bit more liberal and metropolitan because of its size and nature, they are almost always accompanied by a man, and if they are not, they will more than likely be verbally harassed at the very least. And that is only for local women...for foreign women it is a whole different story.

Because of the distinct race, language and cultural norms shared by the vast majority of Tunisians, foreigners stick out like sore thumbs. Now that I have some color to my skin, I can almost pass for the token Tunisian in the group because I look a little more Mediterranean than the rest...that is until I start interacting with someone. As a foreign women, I am stared at ALL THE TIME by men (and women, but for different reasons). It is the most intense and uncomfortable staring you can imagine. The most difficult part is that I can't look back. I can't make eye contact because that is simply inviting trouble. So basically I have to sit there and take it, and it gets old very quickly. Tunisian men view foreign women as sexual objects. From Western movies, music and television as well as stories that quickly become urban legends of local men scoring with foreign women (usually European women on vacation), men in Tunisia believe that Western women are basically sluts (for lack of a better word). Because men and women in Tunisia aren't really allowed to touch each other until marriage, this means that when a local man encounters a foreign woman (unless he is a shopkeepper standing to make money off of you) he has only one thing on his mind. Verbal harassment, groping and following are extremely common when one is walking alone and not unheard of when one is accompanied by a group. I am lucky in that I have Nathaneal who is constantly looking out for me when we are in public, so I have been physically bothered much less than most of my female friends. However, when one is used to being able to walk down the street without being CONSTANTLY objectified and having to fear for one's physical safety, coming to Tunisia is a huge adjustment. The hardest part for me has been the fact that, for the most part, I can't go anywhere alone. Because of that reality and because I share a snug five room apartment with four other people, my concepts of personal time and personal space have had to shift significantly in order to maintain my emotional well being. If I sound I little bitter, it is because I am. I wake up every day and do everything in my power to blend in. I defeminize myself in a way that I never have before; I cover almost all of my body despite 100°+ heat; I speak very little in public so as not to draw attention to my native tongue; and I am always in the presence of a male companion. Despite all of this, I have to put up with constant objectification that is so intense it makes my skin crawl, and I am completely powerless to stop it. Needless to say, it's not a good feeling.

On a lighter note, the past few days have been really great. My Arabic is coming along nicely, and Salambo is beginning to feel like home. We are getting to know the local shopkeepers who are so appreciative of our business that they will gladly put up with our lack of coherent Arabic. We usually communicate in a mixture of French, English, fusah and the local Tunisian dialect. Not only do I have to deal with this amalgam of languages around me, the people with whom I reside live languages, and when they are not speaking or studying them, they are discussing them in English. Each is familar with at least four other languages ranging from Aramaic (sp?) to Spanish to Japanese. Living with these people is like my own personal window into the lives of American academia, and I see things I both like and dislike.

In that vein, I will conclude with a description of another member of the Carthage Commune, Lea:

Lea is a 24-year-old approaching her final year at Yale law. I believe her specialty is in human rights law. Arabic is her seventh language. Lea is smart and fun and is definitely the most outgoing and independent woman in our group. She is very stylish despite the constraints of the recommended dress for foreign women and unapologetic, but she also tries very hard to converse in Arabic as often as she can, with relative success I might add.


Blogger mary b said...

is this Lea's first trip to tunis as well?

1:29 AM  
Blogger Dumpling Demon said...

Wow, I didn't realize it was like that over there. When a local woman walks alone on the street and is verbally harassed, do you mean she's called a whore and looked down on, or do you mean that she's sexually harassed? Just wondering.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Ness said...

Just FYI:
Michael Holly came back to Around the Horn
apparently I, Max got canceled
He was sans braces
and he WON
I was so disappointed in Woody and Adande

10:03 PM  
Blogger hannibal said...

hi there
"they are almost always accompanied by a man, and if they are not, they will more than likely be verbally harassed at the very least."
Don't u think u r exagerating ?
R u sure u r in Tunis ?

"The most difficult part is that I can't look back. I can't make eye contact because that is simply inviting trouble"
why don't u try to start a discussion, peolple are not so bad here and we like communicating. Lea seems to have understood this.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Heartsurgeon said...

hi sweetie..
we are in Cape Cod..N. Falmouth..
We took Claire to a local bookstore last nite at midnite and got the latest hary potter book...i was amazed at the number of people that turned out at this really small bookstore (several hundred in line) in Falmouth.

how's about learning a local saying like "may Allah curse you." This is the literal translation of a rather potent Turkish saying. A milder saying (phonetically spelled) Allahsh khan uh, sort of means For Pete's sake, or For the Love of God...then again, you could just learn the local slang for asshole....

Chin up, as Grandpa says, adversity frequently makes for a more memorible trip....

speak as much arabic as you can, learn a few stock phrases, and you can back these guys down with a withering stare and a well placed comment...keep the blog going, we are loving it. ALex, Claire and Mom all say hi.

love dad

4:33 PM  

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