Stereotypically, when people think of an Arab, or better yet Muslim woman – the first misconceptions are that she has no rights and little choice in her life. In Tunisia, most of these misconceptions are false. That’s right, Tunisian women are viewed, by law, as equal to men.
However, there are two types of laws in Tunisia. There’s the legal law, written out by the Code of Personal Status which are a set of laws which detail gender equality in a number of social realms. Then there is the Religious or Islamic law, which largely dictates how many still define what is “acceptable” in society. The law, while progressive, still holds many limitations for the Tunisian women despite still being one of the most modernized Muslim countries today.
My short time spent in Tunisia was eye-opening. For me, it represented what my life could have been, had I actually have been raised here. Growing up in New York City, I always understood from a textbook point-of-view why I was so fortunate to be raised in this country instead of the land I was born. Due to my academic studies, I knew I had certain liberties in The States that women didn’t have in this region. However, nothing could prepare me for that soul-wrenching feeling when I arrived that suddenly there were two realities playing out; the Alyssa I am and was raised to be, and the Alyssa I could have been.
Code of Personal Status:
In Tunisia, the set of laws aimed to create gender equality is known as the Code of Personal Status. It was created in 1956, after Tunisia gained independence from France, and set off to end polygamy, allow women to seek a divorce, set a minimum age for consent, and by 1965 women had the right to vote, take political office, seek birth control, and legalized abortion. Yes, Tunisia, a majority Mulsim country had legalized abortion before the “Land of the Free,” who legalized abortion in 1973. Before people jump to stereotype Mulsim and Arab culture, Tunisia respected the fact that a woman’s body was her own, and only she had a right to make decisions for herself. To this day, women in the U.S. are still fighting this battle.
Since then, many new laws have been enacted under the Code of Personal Status. Some of these include the mother’s rights for child custody, and the most recent, Tunisian women can marry a man with any religious background. Up until September 2017, if a woman wanted to marry a non-muslim, he would have to convert to Islam, while men in the same position did not have to have prospective wives convert for them. Despite laws in place, Tunisia is a majority Islamic state. Unlike the United States, church and state are not separated here. Much of Tunisian law is up for debate as certain points of the code call for situations to be dealt with “in accordance with customs and traditions.” How can a law written in an attempt for equality still cater to sexism and tradition? This is where in the pull for power, the law differs even today.
Despite these written laws, many standards of tradition still reign today. There are many instances where I realized I am not the same as a woman in Tunisia. I could not question many things and if I did, I would be met with vague or one-track answers. One very common practice is the idea of separate spaces for men and women. Cafes, for example, are catered to men. You will not see a woman sitting outside any of these establishments, smoking chicha, drinking tea. Whereas I can walk into any cafe, restaurant, or bar in New York City, or Miami, or Paris. I started to see the social divide early on.
One thing I was always proud of being Tunisian for was that women had more of a choice in personal, religious matters such as the hijab. Many women, in fact, do not wear a hijab, niqab, or other religious garments. The fact that women could make a choice on the matter is a beautiful thing. For a woman to be able to decide her appearance for herself, not her father or husband meant personal power. If a woman decided to wear a hijab it could be her choice.
If only these things were so idyllic and uncorrupted. While many women have that choice today, there are still women that wear a hijab for reasons not all their own. Of course, many fathers and husbands are deeply religious and require the women in their lives to comply. Surprisingly that is not the only, or main reason women decide to wear a hijab today. Many do so to avoid unspoken social norms.
As I mentioned, Tunisian law does not separate the law from the religion. Due to this, many women still face restrictions and discriminations due to conservative beliefs of those in power. To avoid sexual (or worse, physical) harassment, many women choose the hijab as a way to avoid conflict. This idea that women must submit to the views and values of men is where modern Tunisia and traditional Tunisia fight for power.
Growing up, the women in my family were strong, and taught me how to be strong too. I was told don’t take anyone’s shit. Speak up to those who want to silence you, fight back, stand your ground if it’s something you believe in. My time in Tunisia, I heard many references regarding “strong women.” Except these references were made in a negative context.
“Strong women talk back when they’re not supposed to.”
“Strong women speak their mind”
“No man wants a strong woman.”
Those are some examples of strong women I came across. Strong women that were like me; They speak up when they know something is wrong, they are intelligent and have not settled for a man who only cares about physical attributes. Yet, these strong women are seen as wrong because they are a challenge to small men.
Considering Tunisian legend states it was founded by a Queen, not a King, women are not revered as we should be. A woman was the founder of ancient Carthage, modern-day Tunis, my namesake Queen Alyssa (Elissa in Arabic, Dido in Greek mythology). When the Queen ruled Carthage it was a wealthy and mighty land. After her first husband died, she was threatened with war unless she married a man she had no desire for. While honoring her first husband, the Queen killed herself to avoid the marriage and since then she has been revered as a saint and a strong woman. Why then, are women not seen capable as more?
Tunisian women are ahead of the game compared to many of their neighbors. This is not saying that other Arab countries are backward, no, just that Tunisian women have been awarded (legally) more rights, and much earlier than the surrounding countries and even earlier than the United States. Still, women are fighting to prove they are more than just wives, mothers, and daughters.
I often had this weird feeling, this sensation of how my life could have been had I never left Tunisia as a baby. What would have been expected of me, or better yet, what would I expect out of my life? To wait for a man to want to marry me, to have children, and raise them. Would I have known how to speak my mind or would I be punished for it? As I watched many social interactions I realized even more how powerful my voice needed to be, and how I was lucky that my life took the path it did.