Tunisian adventures

Obviously some stereotypes cross multiple cultures, such as the widespread belief that women are weaker and inferior. Many of the others though, I was surprised to find that they crossed borders, even among the extremely open-minded class. However, I then wondered why I was surprised, because shouldn’t it make sense that a culture with more discriminatory views on women would hold these stereotypes? Many times, people use cultural differences to justify the perpetuation of a certain discriminatory behavior. For example, when I complain about street harassment here, some common responses I receive from Americans and Tunisians alike are, “Well that’s just the way things are here, get over it,” “That’s just their culture, if you speak out against street harassment then you’re disrespecting their entire culture,” or even, “Well it’s not as bad as in some other countries, so stop complaining.” Just because something is “normal” or “just part of the culture” doesn’t make it right. Nor does the frequency of discrimination make it more or less right. Nor does disliking one aspect of a culture mean that I’m anti-Muslim or anti-Arab. Nor does it mean I’m trying to impose my western views onto a non-western culture. I feel that gender equality (and all equality) shouldn’t be seen as a western way of life, but a human way of life.

So, what stereotypes am I talking about? Today, I was talking with a male friend about a skit I acted in for my school called Drawing the Shades. It’s used in many freshman orientation programs as a way to raise awareness and educate people on rape and sexual assault in a very powerful way. The 4 actors portray 4 real people, 2 men and 2 women, one gay and one straight each. One of the male characters gets raped by a woman while drunk, and my Tunisian friend found that baffling.

I find that many males think it’s impossible for a woman to rape a man, thinking either that a man wouldn’t be able to achieve an erection if he didn’t want to have sex (which is false, because how many men have gotten hard-ons at inopportune times, say, in the middle of class?), or that he would be strong enough to push the woman off. The one excuse that really shocked me though was the belief that no man would ever not want sex, so therefore it couldn’t be rape.

Of course I’ve heard this before back home. However, I feel that most Tunisian youths are more relationship centered. Many women won’t have sex with a man unless he’s committed to her, for many of the same reasons women at home do the same. But it’s more so here due to the Muslim influence that women need to be virgins at marriage. (Fun fact: Hymen reconstruction is the most popular  surgery for young women here. Since women do enjoy sex, and despite the stereotypes and pressure to remain “pure,” women will have sex before marriage but appear to remain a virgin for their next beau.) I’ve also noticed from the streets and from living with Tunisian families, that many young men seen to be extremely infatuated with their girlfriends and thoroughly enjoy monogamous relationships, even if they only last a year or so. I know a Tunisian male who has repeatedly turned down offers for sex by attractive young women because he wants more of a connection, he wants to actually care about the woman before he sticks it in her.

Another shocking comment was that my friend said, “A man who gets raped is a pussy.” I’m not sure if this meant, “He’s a pussy if he’s too weak that he couldn’t fight her off,” or “He’s a pussy for not wanting sex.” Maybe both. However, this stereotype perpetuates the stigma of male rape and is part of why most male rapes go unreported. Men are made to feel emasculated if they are taken advantage of sexually in any way.

I also know many men who are very offended by the stereotype that all men are supposed to be raging sex maniacs 24/7 and have completely unemotional feelings towards the women they sleep with. They feel pressured into acting a certain way, or feel as though there’s something wrong with them for wanting a meaningful relationship. To these men, all I can say is hold on. With time, hopefully this stereotype will also fade out.

Another stereotype that I found crossed border was the belief that marital rape is an oxymoron. Especially in such a male-dominated culture, I expected that many people would think a man can’t rape his wife, since they think she agreed to sleep with him whenever he wants when she said “I do.” Another fun fact: In Tunisia, a woman can press charges for and file for divorce if her husband forces her into having anal sex. As for unwanted penile-vaginal sex, I do not know the law, seeing as this is viewed as the “proper” way to consummate and anal sex is obviously dirty and unnatural (sarcasm). I have to do further research.

So what’s my point? I don’t really have one. Maybe that gender stereotypes are bad? Well, duh! This was more of a reflection on what I observed, and a desire for negative stereotyping to end. Naturally, it’s a rather lofty goal, but maybe we can at least  try to break down some of those barriers and enact laws to protect those people that the stereotypes hurt.


Yesterday, I was talking to a friend from home online, and at some point the disputed Iranian election came up. Wanting to keep up with current world news and be an informed, intelligent person, I’ve naturally been keeping up with the news. I feel it is also particularly relevant since I am in an Arab-Muslim “democratic” country at the moment. I mentioned the recent banning of Facebook and Twitter due to the protests, and also the ban of all social networking sites in China on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. My friend asked, “They can do that?” I explained that yes, the government controls the Internet and can block certain sites. Even the Department of Defense monitors the Internet in the US. Obviously we don’t block things like Facebook because it’s a blatant violation of the 1st Amendment, but they can block things like child pornography sites, for obvious reasons.

I did some research on Internet censorship, since I know a lot of countries do it. I know Youtube is blocked here, although there are ways to view it through other sites and proxies that people can connect to as well. Facebook was even blocked for a month last summer. Reporters Without Border have ranked countries for their censorship, or lack thereof. The countries that have the most are called “black hole countries.” Guess where I am?

This idea of censorship brought me back to my days as Editor in Chief of my school newspaper, The Wheaton Wire (way back when, all 1 month ago). All the controversies and “How dare you print that!” statements just make me all the more angry living here now. How dare I print that? It’s called freedom of press, that’s how! “Just because you have the right to exercise freedom of the press doesn’t mean you should.” No joke, multiple people have said that to me. What they really mean to say is, “Just because you have freedom of press, you shouldn’t use it if I don’t agree with you or if you’re going to offend me.” I’m sorry, how about you tell me what I should do with my newspaper. Oh, who’s censoring now?

Being offended is a part of life. You have to be offended to see the injustice in the world. You have to have people disagree with you in order to have something to fight for. I wouldn’t need to be a feminist if there was 100% gender equality in the world, because what goal would I need to achieve?

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. How true. Maybe the kids at Wheaton will realize how precious freedom of expression is once they live in a country where they don’t have it. And yea sure, just because you have the right to call your boss a horrible old goat doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. You have to censor yourself based on how you want to live your life, but no one else has the right to tell you how to censor yourself, at least in the US and other free countries. Having full access to news and information is vital for a society to thrive. The information will get out somehow; it just depends on how much of a fight people will have to put up to get it out there.

To end on a bit of an ironic note: Through my research on freedom of speech and expression, I found that the early Islamic leaders were the ones who first declared such freedoms, and that many believe freedom of expression is founded on Islamic custom.

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.

I noticed something interesting on my way to work today. It’s about a 20 minute walk to the school I’m going to teach English at, and so far I’ve only gone during midday. However, tonight I went to sit in on a class that started at 7, so a lot of the shops had started to close down. It’s not that they were no longer open for business, but the feel of them changed. They changed into male-only spaces.

For example, this one fish market, earlier in the day the doors were open, people coming in and out. But later, The doors were closed, a few men were inside chatting, hanging out. If I really needed to buy fish, I could have walked in and gotten some. However, I would have felt really awkward and out of place. It’s not like they’d stop dead in their tracks and stare, I wouldn’t feel  in danger, but I’d feel as though I was intruding in their space and it would draw attention.

My theory is that a society will not be able to fully thrive in today’s world without learning how to truly behave in a coed environment. Not that they can’t thrive if they oppress women, because they have in the past. But in today’s world we have women’s rights (or at least, some of them), women entering the workforce in all fields, women entering college in greater numbers than men, even female presidents and politicians in various countries. The world, at least what one would consider the developed world, is moving in the direction of gender equality.

However, having women’s rights on the books (like Tunisia does) and having actual gender equality in society (which Tunisia does not), are two very different things. Heck, there isn’t even full gender equality in the US, the supposed leader of the modern world. But if this world is moving in the direction of equality, people have to be comfortable in coed situations of all kinds, even impromptu ones. Not just in school where coeducation is mandated, but in cafes, on the streets, in the workplace. Just because we allow women in various places doesn’t mean everyone’s comfortable with it, doesn’t mean that people still won’t think of the female as “the woman in the group” or that she only got to her position because of her sex. Until that happens I don’t think a society today will be able to really evolve.

I’m all for same-sex spaces, such as my high school (although I personally could’ve done without the Catholic-ness), because it encourages self-esteem in young women, something that is often lacking. Boys need their boy-time and girls need their girl-time to do things that they feel more comfortable doing in a single sex environment. But, they must also be able to adapt.

The same goes for racism and homophobia or any other form of oppression. While it is still prevalent in all societies to various degrees, on the surface oppression is going out of fashion. Discrimination is so passé. Hopefully it will someday actually be outdated.

I see some progression here, mainly in my generation. I see teenagers mingling on the streets together at all hours, I hear conversations nearly identical to those I hear back home. Younger people seem to be better capable of  accepting the coed world and adapting to it. There’s hope for the future yet.

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