July 2009


On job applications I always say that I’m very friendly and work well with people. It’s true. Ask anyone who knows me: I always have a smile when I meet people and make them feel very comfortable. It’s especially important given the sensitive nature of the field I want to go into, reproductive health and sexual education. At Wheaton, I had many people who felt comfortable coming to me with very sensitive questions because they trusted that I not only knew the answer or at least knew where to point them to find the answer, but that I would keep their stories confidential and not judge them based on what they asked. These people would not just be close friends of mine, but students that I had one class with, or a friend of a friend who was sitting at lunch with us, or even people I had never met before would approach me when I sat at the Sexual Health Awareness Club (SHAC) table at the Women’s Health Day fair.

But even in the 110F (43C) degree weather, I feel like Tunisia has made me cold. At home when I walk around campus or even down the streets of Boston, I hold my head up, look at people as they pass, smile, make eye contact and sometimes say a friendly hello in passing. Often it’s reciprocated. More often than not when I’m in the city, I’ll never see these people again, yet I’m still friendly.

Here, however, I only do that with women on the street. If it’s a man I know, like the shop keeper near where I work or the sandwich place I frequent, then it’s a different story. But more often than not, if a random man on the street is trying to make eye contact with me, it’s not because he wants to say a friendly hello: he’s looking at me like a piece of meat on display.

I go out in public because I need to go to work, to do errands, to get from point A to point B. I go out to meet friends and have a good time, because I shouldn’t feel intimidated and forced to stay at home simply because I’m a woman. I do NOT go out in public to be put on display, to be stared at and judged by every man I pass. I do not go out for their viewing pleasure, nor do I dress the way that I do for such. As I said, it’s 110F degrees here some days. I have no idea how women who wear hijab handle it, but I could not bear to be covered head to toe. I wear tank tops and T-shirts, as do many Tunisian women here, if not most in this area. I wear long skirts, and dresses and shorts that don’t go above my knees. I’m not breaking some cultural custom, nor am I being offensive to anyone. I’m acting just like any other woman here. Although, it’s interesting to see how many people from home, especially male friends, are so quick to suggest I wear hijab to avoid street harassment. For one, I’m white so it probably wouldn’t make a difference. Second, why should the burden be put on me to cover up simply because the men can’t act respectably?

If I see a man on the street here, my initial reaction is to ignore them. If they look at me, I look away. I do not make eye contact, I do not smile, and I especially do not say hello. If a man calls out to me as I pass, I ignore him. (Sometimes I’ll pick my nose as a non-verbal way to say, “Think I’m still sexy now?”) Most often they just want to get a reaction out of me, have the exotic, white woman look at them and make them feel more manly. I do not give them such an honor. However, there are the rare instances where someone legitimately is trying to be friendly and just say hello, but it’s often hard to tell the difference. One time a man pulled over in his car to ask me for directions. I ignored him because all the past times men pulled over it was to hit on me and try to pick me up. However, I didn’t realize what he was asking until after he drove off. I felt bad, because he needed help and I could have helped him. But how was I to know?

As a foreigner and especially as a Westerner, it is expected that I should just act nice; I should accept that blatant disrespect for women is a regular occurrence¬† and not try to impose my evil, Western views onto their culture. I should just behave, not try to offend anyone, and keep quiet. Granted, it’s totally okay for a man to offend me, to degrade me in public, feel as though he has free reign to comment on my physical appearance in any way he sees fit. But, especially seeing as things like cursing and giving the finger are taken much more seriously here, it would be very disrespectful for me to show my disgust at his behavior by reacting in such a way, one of the few ways I can react given the language barrier.

Does that seem not okay to anyone else? He’s allowed to disrespect me because he’s a Tunisian, a native, and most importantly a man, but in return I have to make sure I don’t disrespect him? I have to be the quiet woman and just put up with it? I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, because more often than not they don’t. I’m also not trying to create a social reform movement here; it’s not my place. I also do not want to make all Westerners look like horribly disrespectful people and further the negative stereotypes people have of us. But as a self-respecting woman, regardless of where I come from, it is not okay that a man thinks such behavior is okay. It is not okay that he will teach said behavior to his son and perpetuate the cycle of sexism. I’m not expecting things to change, especially not in the month left that I have here. However, don’t expect me to be a nice girl anymore.

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I started tweeting. I’m still not really sure how Twitter works or who I’m supposed to “follow,” but I’ve tweeted. One of the only productive things to have come from it so far is that I found this article about a federal court decision that makes pharmacists carry and distribute Plan B, the morning after pill, even if they are morally opposed to it.

Personally, I think this is great. Growing up in NJ and going to school in MA, I feel like I’ve been spoiled as far as having liberal rights on the books to protect people. (Fun fact: Even in the ultra conservative, white suburban town where I grew up in NJ, a transsexual teacher got to keep her job at the public school after the transition to female, despite parent protests, because NJ has laws protecting all gender identities. Go Jerz!)

As anyone from my college would know (and just anyone who knows me in general), I am a huge proponent of the First Amendment. Especially living in Tunisia where the people do not have freedom of expression, I’ve truly learned to appreciate my rights. I even wrote about it a few weeks ago. Part of the First Amendment is the right to freedom of religion, and while not a religious person myself, I will fight for this right as well. One of the main objections to forcing pharmacists to dispense Plan B is that it violates their right to practice their religion freely, because they morally object to the medication since they think it is equivalent to an abortion.

While I certainly disagree that taking Plan B is in any way comparable to the emotional stress of having an abortion, I also disagree that these pharmacists are being denied their First Amendment rights. Freedom of religion means that they are allowed to have their faith and practice it. They’re allowed to have churches, synagogues, mosques, or whatever other type of building they want in order to practice their faith as a religious community, as well as in the privacy of their own home. Heck, they’re even allowed to try to convert people on the streets and preach on soap boxes so long as they’re not breaking solicitation laws.

Let’s say my religion requires me to pray in the middle of the day, when I happen to be at work. My boss is required by the Constitution to allow me to take 5 minutes to say that prayer. However, my boss does have the right to tell me, “Please go into the break room to pray, and not shout your prayer in the middle of the store or office and disrupt the customers and other workers.” If, however, my religion required me to pray for 5 hours in the middle of the day, my boss would not be required to pay me for that time. I would not take a job where I needed to work during those 5 hours, but would instead find a way to make an income that was more accommodating to my lifestyle.

That being said, I would also not work at an abortion clinic if I was morally opposed to abortion. Nor would I work at a research lab that did stem cell research if I were opposed to that. Certain jobs require certain tasks that not everyone will agree to. If a pharmacist is morally opposed to dispensing certain drugs, then they should not be a pharmacist. If they have medical reasons for opposing a drug, such as a possible interaction with other medications, then that’s a different story. However, freedom of religion does not mean freedom to force that religion upon someone else, which is exactly what these pharmacists are doing when they refuse women Plan B, or even birth control. Just as I had the freedom to print what I wanted in my school newspaper, I did not have the right to force people to read or to agree with what was printed.

Freedom of expression is extremely important in any civilized society, as people cannot truly be free without the right to express themselves. (I’m not saying that countries that don’t have such freedoms are necessarily uncivilized, but no government is perfect.) While pharmacists have the right to personally not take Plan B or birth control, they do NOT have the right to choose whether a woman should become pregnant or not; only she has that right.

I’ve noticed that the sense of independence and even maturity is very different among people my age here in Tunisia. For a number of reasons, people usually live at home until they get married, or perhaps move to a different country if they so choose. Even if someone wanted to move out, it would be seen as odd, “What’s wrong with your family that you don’t want to live with them?” Naturally, this impairs young people from learning how to take care of themselves: they don’t know how to pay rent, manage money, cook for themselves, and even little things like how to do laundry, or how to take care of themselves when they’re sick and mommy isn’t around to make soup.

I’ve met a wide range of families from both of my visits here. I’ve met helicopter parents who do absolutely everything for their children, give them whatever money they need, think their kids are the most brilliant children on the face of the earth, and if something ever goes wrong, they push the blame onto someone else because their child is perfect and couldn’t possibly be at fault. This is the worst way to raise a child, because not only do they not learn how to take care of themselves, but they never learn a sense of responsibility. They learn that if they screw up, it’s not their fault and mommy will take care of it.

I’ve also met parents who push their kids to be more responsible, by making them get jobs over the summer even though they’re still in school and the family’s financially well off, by making them help out with chores around the house even if they have a maid, and by allowing them to do more things on their own, such as go out with friends without having to know every minute detail of their whereabouts. However, even these more open and liberal families view these young adults as children… especially the women.

Perhaps it’s more of a common courtesy thing, but my friends here treat women much better than at home. (I am not of course talking about the men on the street who feel they have a right to comment on my appearance in a derogatory fashion, but the people in my peer group who I’ve become close with.) Both men and women always drive me to my doorstep at night, or even offer to walk me back. They always offer seats to me if we’re at a bar or cafe, and they generally just look after women better. Perhaps it’s because they realize their world is still a bit more dangerous for women than it is for men, or maybe they still believe women need more looking after than men. Maybe a little bit of both.

Even adults, though, view my peer group as needing more looking after. For example, a friend of mine went on vacation with her family for a long weekend. Her younger sister stayed at home, but her parents won’t let her stay in the house by herself. Thankfully, she has plenty of family and friends close by who are willing to take her in. However, she’s 19 years old, and as someone who left home at 18 and has hardly been back since, I find this very shocking. But it’s not just that her parents are overprotective of her or don’t trust her. She also feels that she’s not capable of being on her own even for a few days.

When I talk to parents here about my experience with being idependent versus what I’ve observed here, they all tell me that they think 18 is too young. Sure I know some 25 year olds who partied their way through college and are barely capable of taking care of themselves now in the real world. They drank away their college years and went to mommy and dadddy when they failed a class and had them call the professor to change the grade. I also know some students who tried to drink away their college years but had a brutal wake up call when mommy and daddy wouldn’t bail them out. I know some people who hit the ground running and came to college already extremely independent. However, I would say that the majority of people I knew in college graduated with a sense of independence, even if they didn’t start with it. Sure, some of them may have had a year or two of wild college life to let loose and get used to being away from home, but those 4 years forced them to become independent, forced them to learn how to think for themselves and how to take care of themselves. (Granted, some still don’t know how to cook due to the unlimited meal plan at Wheaton, but they’ll be forced to once they’re in the “real world.”)

I have noticed a difference in maturity levels from my peers at home versus some of my peers in Tunisia. For example, since this is a Muslim country, alcohol is rather taboo, even for those of age. Granted, in certain social circles it’s just as prevalent as at home, but it’s treated a lot differently. Often times, people in their mid-20’s will treat going out to a club and drinking as if they’re breaking some law and being super cool rebels, get trashed and then drive home. Whereas I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner and think nothing of it, and will also take the keys of anyone who even thinks of drinking and driving.

Perhaps many of my peers here in Tunisia aren’t ready to be on their own, aren’t mature enough to handle much of what life has to bring. But how will they learn if they remain sheltered? You can’t learn to swim without going in the water.