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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