Media Contacts

For press inquiries and other news-related questions please click here. Read More

Olin in the news

For recent media coverage please click here. Read More

Return To News

On Islam, Modernity and Gender

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts from Rebecca Christianson, an Associate Professor of Applied Physics at Olin College who is in Tunisia as a Fulbright Specialist. She is blogging about her experiences while she is away.

Being a woman in Tunisia is complicated.  The collision of the modern, European vision of women with the views embedded within Islam, as well as the traditions of Arabia is confusing and difficult to navigate.  I have been bombarded with contradictions during my entire stay here, and the religious, social and professional spheres all seem to play by different rules.

The first thing I noticed was, of course, the way women dress.  There is a HUGE variety.  I have seen everything from women wearing a very traditional abaya and niqaab or chador which covers the entire body, to women wearing tight-fitting, short-skirted modern dresses with nylons or bare legs.  Most commonly, though, I have seen women wearing typical modestly cut western clothing with or without hijab, with the older women tending to the more conservative clothing.

My friends here have said that dress here is entirely a matter of personal choice, and in particular the wearing of the hijab is often more a choice of comfort or fashion than religion. However, it is also very clear that everyone reads a great deal into what a woman wears here. This is not so dissimilar to the United States. I read an article a while back that stated women will always be judged on what they wear, whereas men in the US can put on their ‘uniform’ and no one will interpret that to have any bearing on who they are and what they are capable of. 

There was a great example about a male news anchor who, to protest the constant trolling his female co-anchor received about her dress, wore exactly the same clothes for a month running just to demonstrate that no one noticed his dress at all. The difference between here and the US is just in degree.  The women here have a much larger variety in their modes of dress and there is a correspondingly larger interpretation of what your choice of dress means.  I have also heard much more commentary here about men exerting control over the dress of their female companions or relations, comments like ‘my boyfriend gets so jealous if I wear wide necklines that show my shoulders.’  (Along with hints of more far-reaching control of men over the women in their lives).  For my dress, I just packed along and wore a selection of more modest attire from my usual wardrobe.  The only difference was that I frequently wore a scarf around my neck which could be adapted into a head covering as needed.  This was only necessary twice, both times when I visited mosques. 

There is a mosque in every neighborhood here, and the calls to prayer can be heard from every point five times per day.  However, while most Tunisians are culturally Muslim, many are not practicing, and I rarely saw anyone stopping their activities to engage in obvious prayer rituals.  I had the opportunity to visit mosques twice during my trip.  Once was last weekend, when Salah very kindly took his Saturday to drive my sister and I, along with a former student of his, to the city of Kairouan, which is about two hours south of Tunis.  Kairouan is famous as the site of the first mosque in all of North Africa.  Originally built in 670, it still stands and is in active use.  It is considered the fourth holiest site in Islam, and many people make pilgrimages there.  With my head covered, I was allowed to enter the enclosed central courtyard of the mosque, and peer through the doors into the interior prayer rooms.  However, because I am female, I was forbidden from the larger and more ornate men’s prayer room, and because I am not Muslim, I was also not allowed to enter the women’s prayer room.

Despite these limitations, I was still able to admire and appreciate the beauty and antiquity of this site.  The other mosque I visited was the El-Zitouna mosque in the old city Medina of Tunis.  This mosque is not quite as old as the one in Kairouan: it is only the second mosque built in Africa and dates from the 8th century.  Here, I was caught unprepared.  I was not wearing my usual scarf.  I thought at first that because of this I would not be able to visit this mosque, which is renowned for both its beauty as well as its age, but one of the other women in my group kindly let me borrow the silk scarf she was wearing around her neck.  This scarf was challenging to wear as it was very slippery, so I was stopped at the entrance by the ‘bouncer,’ who insisted on adjusting my scarf for me, to make sure I was properly covered, while telling me (in Arabic, translated for me by a companion) “Don’t worry, we’re all human.” I’m not sure if he told me this to make me feel better about being inept at scarf-wearing, or to reassure me that he doesn’t consider me less than human because I am female. 

The gender segregation and different treatment of men and women at the mosque I did not find as troubling as the segregated social spaces.  Tunisian society is still transitioning away from the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, in private places, and the traditional view of public socializing as purely a man’s domain.  The most visible vestige of this now is the widespread existence of men-only coffee shops.  They are everywhere.  Near my lodging, there are probably ten coffee shops within easy walking distance for me, except all but one of these are ‘for men’.  How do you tell which coffee shops are for men and which allow women?  That is still a mystery to me.  The best answer I got to this question was, if there are no women at an establishment, then it is reserved for men.  Not particularly helpful or accurate as it turns out, since depending on what time of day you are out, there may be no women at all in sight regardless of whether they are allowed or not. 

Yet women and men work together professionally all the time here.  Women and men will have one-on-one meetings together.  Women and men carpool to work together.  There are also many women in leadership positions in education and in the Tunisian government, probably at least comparable to the representation in the US.  I attended a meeting of leadership at Esprit to debrief on my visit this week, and the room was majority female.  But, while many women work outside the home both before and after marriage and children, the expectation is still that taking care of the family, children and husband, is a woman’s first responsibility. 

It is a more extreme version of the Catch-22 that still exists in the US:  society is perfectly fine with women taking on more of the responsibilities that are traditionally male (as long as they don’t interfere with men’s prerogatives), but many (definitely not all) men are reluctant to take on any of the traditionally female responsibilities.  I received a lot of incredulous looks here when I explained that my husband and father were looking after my three children during my absence without any female assistance at all!  

The most difficult part, however, of being a woman in Tunisia, and particularly an obviously foreign woman, was being constantly concerned about safety.  My hosts were extremely protective of me, and highly discouraged me from walking anywhere alone, even just the two blocks to Esprit in full daylight.  You will see Tunisian women walking alone on the streets during the daylight hours, but Asma explained to me that some men in Tunisia view foreign women as targets. 

They see a foreign woman as a ticket to a visa out of the country:  kidnap her, marry her, and move.  While I obviously didn’t encounter anything as extreme as this, it was true that I was always watched when out on the street.  Especially by men in the coffee shops who would stare as I walked by, and made me very glad I don’t speak Tunisian so I could not understand what they were saying.   The restrictions on independent movement around the city, combined with the bars and full metal barricades over the windows of my apartment made me feel very uncomfortable at times.  My hosts here were extremely gracious with their time, though, to make sure I had plenty of opportunities to safely explore both within and outside the city without having to do so on my own, but I will be happy to be back in the States and able to move around independently again. 

It can, however, be a very small step from protecting a person to confining her.  I was reminded frequently of the ‘take back the night’ marches that I participated in as an undergrad in the US to protest the inability women still feel to be able to move about freely after dark in US cities:  the expectation that women will stay inside and ‘safe’ (from acts of violence primarily committed by men) during the night.  It also reminds me that there still in the US exist other examples of women being ‘protected’ by men:  being denied opportunities at work to ‘protect’ them from overextending themselves, or being ‘protected’ from making wrong decisions by having the ability to make the decision taken away from them.  

Overall, I have met some wonderful people here.  Strong, adventurous women and kind, generous men many of whom have become my friends during my three weeks here.  Especially being in a foreign country without speaking the languages and one that does have some risks to safety that need to be considered, it was not so bad to be protected during these three weeks.  I think I mostly navigated the social and religious expectations of women without serious faux pas, and the professional expectations were familiar territory.  Most of the challenges associated with being a woman in Tunisia feel very similar to those in the US, but amplified, making me both appreciate how far we’ve come in the US, and understand how much farther we have to go.