People in the states have a lot of preconceived notions about what Tunisia is like simply because they hear the words “Arab” and “Muslim.” Prior to my trip last year, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to wear tank tops, anything above the knee or with a low neckline. I was warned that I might have a very strict host family, who might not let me go out at all. I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to go to the majority of places, such as clubs or cafes, simply because I’m a woman. Heck, people thought I would get blown up by a suicide bomber just riding the bus to class.

However, all of those suppositions were quickly proven to be false once I actually got here. Granted, I didn’t go out much when I lived in Mornag (south of Tunis, rural area) simply because it was far away from everything, but not because I wasn’t allowed to. In fact, having come back to La Marsa (north of Tunis, coastal suburb) and meeting Tunisians my age and seeing how they interact, I see so many similarities to my own peer group back home. People are very open-minded here, very accepting, even more so than at home in many ways. They like to go out and drink and party on the weekends, they like going out on dates, going to the beach, etc. Upon first glance, I don’t even see a disparity between the genders with people my age.

I feel like I was so hung up on expecting the differences in cultures when I came here last year, that it actually surprised me how many similarities there were. Granted, La Marsa is not representative of the majority of Tunisia, but nonetheless. I do still see the obvious differences, such as call to prayer being shouted over loud speakers 5 times a day, but overall I feel like I’m at home.

However, I have to remind myself that as many similarities as there are to home, there are still some important differences. For example, as safe and open-minded an area as this is, women still do not really go out alone. Maybe I’m just used to the lazy, selfish college kids from home who make me walk across campus by myself at night with their booze in my bag instead of dropping me off near my dorm; or the ones who won’t stop the car for 2 seconds to let me off near my house after we come back from a bar late at night. However, people here are much more careful about leaving women alone. For example, the other night I went to a friend’s, and as we were a block away from my house I said that she could drop me off there, it was close enough. She missed the turn and said no, I’ll take you to your house, and proceeded to take back roads all over town to get back to my street.  Last night, with a different friend, I asked if I could be dropped off and she said but of course, we never leave girls alone, especially at night. How nice of them! But it was more than just being nice; they genuinely cared about me and my safety.

However, with the good comes the bad. For example, last night I mentioned to a male friend that I and a girl friend might go to the beach today. He suggested we go to a hotel beach, because two women alone at the public beach will probably get harassed. Ok, I can accept that women shouldn’t walk alone at night; that’s true of cities back home, too. I can understand going to the beach by myself would probably be a bad idea, as I’d be more vulnerable alone. However, I’m used to having my independence, I need it. I don’t want to have to rely on male friends to accompany me when I go out.

But alas, I’ll have to make do. If that’s the way it is here, that’s the way it is and I need to accept that. Perhaps as the newer, more open-minded generations take over, the need for over-protection of women will begin to diminish. Perhaps they can earn their independence just as I have earned mine in the states.