The Female Folly

I think I may have committed myself to a date this weekend. I can’t really tell. Gender rules here are so different! This may or may not be the umpteenth accidental date so I figure I might as well break things down and get it right. I like going for coffees and I like talking and I like wearing my glasses. Isn’t that a non-datelike storyline? However, as I’ve come to find out, things are a little different in a Muslim country.

My awareness of the gender difference came about in a French intensive course I took at the beginning of my internship. I learned more about Tunisian culture there than French language. The class atmosphere was a total riot with regular screaming matches over the most ridiculous things. Classic example, my teacher asks about our weekend one day and I mention how I went clubbing  and saw a guy dance like it’s 1999.*BOOM*“It’s because men shouldn’t dance!” “Of coure men should dance!” “The Koran says no!” “The Koran says no such thing!” “It’s harem, I say!” “You’re harem, I know!”And then it becomes a garble of everyone trying to get in their two-bit/my brain crying “loud noises loud noises go hooooome!”. Decibel levels had no limit.

These kind of ‘debates’ occurred daily for the entirety of the three week course. The class would be divided along gender lines with the women always being the most progressive and our Turkish French teacher always leading the way. She was such an animated figure that I sometimes couldn’t be sure if she was engaging in theatrics. She was also such an inept french teacher and should probably become a life-coach for broken girls and mislead men.The amount of times she took on that hyena herd of dudes single-handedly to tell them things such as “No,  actually you shouldn’t kill a cat before you have sex with your wife for the first time because not only is that NOT in the Koran,  it’s not logical.”

Yes. Illogical much. I went for a coffee with her once because my head was spinning from all the nonsense I kept hearing come from the mouths of so-called secular, educated Tunisians. What she told me was that in fact, it’s very common for mal-educated Muslims worldwide to cite the Koran over every little thing when the reality is they aren’t well informed; it is very difficult to understand a religion, any religion, because you must not only understand the text, but also the history and the culture within which such a religion took root and then also, how it interacted with others. I like that she said that because I hadn’t thought of religion  interconnected as such before. According to her, in Tunisia there exists large overlaps with Berber and tribal African cultures and these cultures plays a clear role in  peoples’ understandings of Islam. Which is why, she continued to say, the people cite things as ‘harem’ or make it seem as though they are knowledgeable theologians when they are merely regurgitating what their fathers told them.

So when the following happened at our “Last Day of Class Party”, well, I tried to take it in stride. The teacher handed us back our final exams and somehow, I got the highest grade by far even though I barely spoke throughout the course. The three young (re:audacious) guys in the class saw my note, and turn borderline livid.

One starts complaining very loudly, “It’s because of you I couldn’t focus. Because of you! If you had been sitting over there,  I would’ve done better!”. I’m a little offended  and a classmate notices and say, ‘It’s because you’re beautiful. You should try not to be.’

Lord have mercy. So many ways to critique the logical fallacy in that one. Fortunately, I did not get acid thrown on my face, but I did learn a lesson about my role in Tunisia, looking like a Tunisian. I titled this blog ‘Female Folly’ because as I see it, it’s constantly my silly old fault that I am a woman who cause men to loose control and is reason enough for me to be relegated to the shadows. I’m to senseless to understand how men need their environmental conditions for prime functioning. If I get hassled or stared at or groped, it was my fault, I should’ve walked differently, looked differently, dressed differently, stood differently.

The severity of this became clear the one night when I decided to walk alone at 22:00h. I’d been sitting all day and wanted to get some blood flow by walking to a restaurant to meet my friends instead of taking a taxi. With it being only a 20 minute walk away, I figured, ‘Where’s the harm? I live in a very safe neighborhood and besides, I’m wearing a grey t-shirt, jeans and sneakers’. Well despite this plain jane attire, HERDS of men started following me and yelling. I am oddly not intimidated by Tunisian men, perhaps because they’re tiny, so I’d angrily stop and whirl around, yell back at them in French as I’d move towards them waving my little fist. These punks would literally start to back pedal away as though I had the plague. ( A girl who yells has the contagious crazies?) I had old men wagging their fingers at me, and a rowdy creature in pick up truck throw a can at my head. So what had I done now?

Well, I broke an informal norm. I found out later that if you’re a girl walking out at night, you’re either a prostitute or will soon be made one.  Apparently the legal rules protecting women here are the strongest here out of any Muslim country- so why can’t I walk in peace?  What if I don’t want to have a man at my side to guarantee my safety? What if I’d like to go somewhere and not have my movements watched and controlled?

It’s through thèse instances, and many more, that I’m starting to have a better idea of how feminism developed in the United States and how lucky we are to be free. Undoubtedly the conditions then were similar to what they are here , where once upon a time, my valuation came from men and not from myself, and where the system was set up to keep my power in check. I am in awe at the daunting obstacles strong women before me chose to take on.

For me, I’m too shy to do much. I’ve been told never to talk back to my boss, to just accept what he says. Everytime I’m told this, I always think of this piece of research I read long ago that proves how those who question produce better results. I take a slight bit of pleasure in knowing that he’s not getting the best result… then I do what ( I think) he says.

Being here, I marvel at my own feminist predilections that I never knew I had and I wonder if things will ever be more equal? At the moment, the symbol of gender equality is the right to work. Women here are so proud and happy with how they work and manage a household. But to me, I’m so worried that they don’t want more. I see Tunisian women fill menial feminized labor positions and not get offered pathways to promotion. I see them take care of the children and do the housework while their husbands sit watching TV and smoking a cigarette. I see them treated poorly in the streets and worse in the workplace. I see them say nothing.

And then there’s the youth culture that has so many many silent codes I can’t keep up with so I too say nothing. Well, some codes are actually very overt and  I can’t deflect JIT because I take a few moments to translate. But I’m learning. And I’m newly single after 5 years so that might be adding to the constant obliviousness I carry like a heavy scented perfume. So I’ll go on this quasi date with a Rwandan from France, because I’m curious to know about his life story even though it will probably be, “I grew up in a banlieu. Ca y est.” And I’ll keep going on innocuous coffee dates and talking as I please, because I enjoy it, and I’m not going to factor in the hidden meanings indigenous to Tunisia. It’s not my world. It’s not my folly.

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