August 22, 2005

Unwanted Attention, or, Being Female in Tunisia

First let me clarify that Tunisia is not Saudi Arabia; women have a lot of freedom here. They work outside the homes in similar numbers to Latin American countries, they choose who they marry, they drive cars in roughly equal numbers to men.

Still, as an American woman, I don’t quite feel comfortable here. And it’s hard to tell how much of the objectionable treatment from men is due to my being a foreigner, and how much of it is stuff every Tunisian woman puts up with.

The biggest thing is the unwanted attention on the streets. I can’t walk several blocks without random strange men commenting on my attractiveness. Back home, this would be considered very sketchy, and a violation of my personal space. But here, it is par for the course. With few ways to meet girls, young men call out to promising faces on the street. If she smiles or replies back, that’s an invitation for him to come talk to her. So, you just have to ignore it.

This was most disturbing back before I could understand what they were saying, and just noticed husky voices calling after me. Now that I understand more French and Arabic, they are mostly saying harmless things like “Hello, pretty” or “how are you?” It’s not exactly harassment, just, well… unwanted attention. And when it starts to pile up, it gets really annoying.

Also, some men are really disturbingly persistent. Over my two months here, I’ve had two or three come up to me, start speaking to me in French, and actually follow me when I turn and continue walking away. I turn, explain firmly in Arabic that I don’t speak French and don’t want to talk to them, and walk away. But they continue to follow and speak in French. At this point I turn around and yell at them in Arabic and make a scene, which usually makes them go away long enough for me to make my escape.

I really look forward to being home, where I can wear the clothing I’m comfortable in, and be treated in ways I’m comfortable with.


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