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Shedding The Safsari

Impressions of Tunisian Women

By Ricky Goldstein

Although I knew that most Tunisian women still covered themselves from head to ankle in the traditional "safsari" robe, I was startled just the same as I stepped off the plane in Tunis Airport to see a mass of white-sheeted figures on the airport's observation deck. The sight of these women waiting for their husbands and sons, probably laborers in Marseille or Munich or Milan returning home for a vacation, instantly created an exotic mood, despite the modernity of the airport. I suddenly felt myself in the Middle East.

But as I neared these women it struck me that they did not look mysterious and alluring in their safsaris, as in Arabian Nights or in my fantasies. They looked anonymous and shapeless. Almost every woman gathered the folds of the robe at her throat with one hand and clutched an infant or a bag of vegetables with the other. Their identical, self-effacing garments (which, however, are not religiously sanctioned, and do not veil the face) and their burdened hands bespoke the modesty and servility which characterizes the Muslim woman everywhere.

Comparing them to the American women I was travelling with brought to mind an article I had read on the attitudes of Arab men toward Western women. The writer claimed that Arab men generally see them as, in a word, tramps; maybe candidates for seduction but never marriage. The men regarded only their own women as feminine and worthy of respect and matrimony. But seeing these women at the airport I could not help but wonder if this praise was earned by any virtue beyond complete docility.

As I waited in line at the customs desk I watched a few family reunions. There were embraces, but never squeals of excitement, or sudden, arms-extended dashes across the room. The group would become quickly absorbed with locating luggage or a cart. The man would walk off in one direction with his wife tagging behind, still holding the safsari at her throat and the bundle at her side.

Later, it was common to see in the streets a man walking two or three paces in front of his wife.

Not every woman in Tunisia is so tradition-bound. In the cities younger women in jeans often stroll together or with boys. As lively and curious as their male peers, they are not shy or afraid of speaking to foreigners. The wealthier and more educated ones especially move about with relative freedom and premarital sex is common among them. But even they are far more restricted than their Western counterparts. One well-to-do, college-educated single woman in her twenties told me of the scandal she caused in trying to procure an apartment of her own.

Western influences have penetrated Tunisia far more than most Arab countries, affecting the lives of its males more than of its females.

In a remote town I was invited to lunch with a boy of fifteen at his home. Throughout the meal he asked questions about America: Had I heard of Muhammad Ali? Did I have a car? A wife?, and about Tunisia: Had I been to this or that place? Did I like Tunisia more than America? His younger brother was alternately trying to engage me in a game of ball and trying to elicit mistakes in Arabic from me which would make him giggle uncontrollably.

Their older sister, however, stood apart, sweeping the courtyard, her silence broken only by an occasional scolding of her youngest brother. She had probably not seen many foreigners before, much less in her own home, but not once did she betray any curiosity about who I was or what I was doing there or how I knew Arabic. She might have simply not cared, but I prefer to think that this girl of about 17 suppressed her interest out of a sense of propriety. This is the general feeling I got on the streets, where, while everyone would stare at my foreign clothes, features, and camera, or hush when they heard my English, only the men would come up and speak to me.

It is doubtful that any Tunisian women are strictly confined to their homes, as were the wives of many wealthy Muslims in the Middle Ages, but their spheres of movement, especially in their social life, are limited. Weddings are segregated by sex, although the merriment is not denied the women. They celebrate with dancing, clapping, and shrieking to live music inside, while the men sit quietly on the porch and sip tea.

The innumerable lively open-air cafes, where it seems the majority of Tunisian men spend the majority of their waking hours, are exclusively male territory. The sex ratio of the audience at movies is not very different from that at the cafes. Few women are seen in public places without some errand to attend to; they are either shopping or walking briskly or waiting for a bus, protected under a safsari and bags and bundles.

In the home the husband is master. The wife undoubtedly exerts influence, especially over the children, with whom she has more contact than does her spouse, but she rarely openly challenges his commands. This is reminiscent of the condition of her even more restricted ancestor, the wife in the harem, who, even if confined and guarded all day long in the harem, intrigued to influence her husband.

The "cult of masculine honor" of Medieval Islam, of which the harem is the most vivid image to westerners, persists in Modern Tunisia. A wife's adultery no longer requires her execution by her kinsman or husband, but it is still the greatest assault on his honor.

Aside from the public humiliation he would face, the man is ill-equipped to come to terms on a personal level with such a display of independent will by a woman. During his youth there is little free mingling with the opposite sex. His fiancee is likely to be someone with little choice in the matter or someone who, because of a restricted childhood, lacks a strong sense of what she wants. As a husband and father his word is usually uncontested. At work and at play it is unlikely that he will interact in a more than superficial manner with women. All in all, there is little room in his life where he is vulnerable to intimidation or competition from women.

This environment affects the way Tunisian men see Western women. Female tourists in Tunisia often encounter the behavior that stereotypes of Arab men promise them. A conversation that starts in a friendly tone frequently ends with the woman abruptly walking away, or even shouting to be left alone. Tunisian men often cannot cope with women not submitting to their will, and a polite "no" from a Western woman is akin in this respect to the rebellion of an adulterous wife.

Why does so much honor and self-esteem hinge on this aspect of men's daily lives? The late Marshall Hodgson, a noted Orientalist, writes that this situation often obtains "when there are few other sources of assured status than sheer masculinity. Presumably in a society where social status on the basis of class was relatively precarious, sensitivity about a man's honor was reinforced."

To what extent this explanation is valid is debateable, but relations between the sexes in the Muslim world are changing, especially in Tunisia, and this "sensitivity," whatever its causes, is easing.

While I was there the "National Day of the Freedom of the Woman" was celebrated, which, in view of prevailing conditions, seemed far from the consciousness of most Tunisians. But it would be unfair to say that men are uniformly horrified by and opposed to the trends it represents. They just hope it all happens gradually and does not result in the untempered, immoral freedom they see in the conduct of Western women. Some spoke in vague terms of upgrading the status of women toward some Islamic ideal. But they could offer no historical model for this, and its realization is doubtful because Tunisia, a French protectorate until 1956, has become even more subject to Western influences since independence. More tourists are coming, more Tunisians are travelling, prolonging their schooling, and coming under the sway of Western attitudes and goods.

As I sensed, and as many Tunisian intellectuals complained, the people seem to be becoming increasingly materialistic. Those who can afford it hold lavish weddings at hotels like the Tunis Hilton, and ride Peugeots and Mercedes. Men with more modest resources practice other forms of conspicuous consumption, like wearing overpriced French clothes, usually unspeakably tight bell-bottoms and even tighter, half-buttoned shirts.

The growing social and sexual freedom of Tunisian women may be the result of this increased emphasis on material wealth, which lessens the importance of the issues of male honor at stake in men's position vis-a-vis women.

The popular Arabic movies exemplify the duality of the Western inheritance. On the one hand, they ogle European fashions, hairstyles, sports cars, ad nauseum. But they also liberate the roles of women; the heroines can be as impulsive, seductive and treacherous as their Hollywood counterparts.

While the cult of masculine honor is giving way in Tunisia, the void may be filled all too predictably by the cult of materialism. In the modernization process it is unlikely that in Tunisia, probably the most secularized of Muslim nations, Islamic considerations will provide much competition to the seduction of the West in shaping the ultimate directions of the liberation of women, or most other trends for that matter. This is the price that many developing countries have to pay.

Tunisia is already a little too westernized for my tastes. I had hoped it would be more exotic, more traditional. Those women at the airport excited such hopes prematurely. Next time I fear they will greet me in miniskirts. Or maybe they'll just decide not to come at all.

[Ricky Goldstein, a junior in Dunster House, has traveled extensively in Tunisia.]

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