I’m not an egg
What does “democratisation” actually mean? How long does it take for the new values in legislation and public debates to sink into the general public's consciousness? An anonymous Tunisian writer describes the difference between the democratic progress achieved in his homeland of Tunisia and the actual situation faced by half of the country's population—women.
If you go to Tunisia, wander the streets of the capital Tunis, you will see women in public spaces, coffee shops and restaurants who seem to be enjoying their lives. If you go to schools and universities, you will notice that women make up half of the faculty staff and female students outnumber their male counterparts. If you go to Tunisia, you will meet smart and educated women who will give you the impression that they are free independent women.
If you look up “Tunisian women”, you will find stories about the progressive status of Tunisian women, you will find reports about the newly passed Tunisian constitution and how it is a breakthrough for Tunisian women because it includes a clause enshrining gender equality.
My advice to you: Don't be fooled by the reports of western media and politicians praising the new constitution. Don't be fooled by the appearances of the modern-looking educated Tunisian women. Do not be fooled by the tight jeans and the uncovered hair and know that it sucks to be a woman in Tunisia.
In fact, Tunisian women are still grappling to gain control over basic aspects of their lives.
Women in Tunisia are still considered subordinates to their male family members. They are never considered independent and never expected to act on their own. They grow up under the authority of the father and the brother until they get married off to a man to take care of them.
Many of those adult Tunisian women who you will encounter might be very successful professionally and autonomous financially. Nevertheless, they are far from being treated as equal human beings with a full mental capacity. Women in Tunisia face a traditional society that imposes endless social restrictions on them. It starts with basic choices like what to wear to include more important decisions like how to live and who to marry.
The restrictions are not necessarily rooted in the fact that Tunisia is a predominantly Muslim society because that supposedly pious society will turn a blind eye on men' s immoral behavior but will judge and persecute women for only following the suit of their male counterparts.
For instance, Tunisian society tolerates men drinking alcohol and engaging in sexual relationships outside wedlock. While alcohol and extramarital sex are prohibited in Islam for both men and women, it is still widely unacceptable for women to do the same.
If you try to ask about the double standard, you will hear the classic answer. “He is man. He can do anything he wants but you are woman. You should be preserved.”
But what does our society mean by preserved?
One of my classmates in high school told me that her mother said to her that a girl should be preserved because she is fragile like an egg and pure like milk. “A woman is pure and fragile”, that is the message that woman chose to pass on to her daughter. My classmate went on and told me that her mother told her that a girl, like the egg, would be thrown away if broken. “Mkassra”, meaning broken is the word used in Tunisian dialect to describe non virgin girls. The lesson from the mother's wisdom is that girls should abstain from sexual relationships because if they get “broken” and lose their virginity before marriage they become worthless.
For so many years as a teenager, I was traumatized by that analogy. As a matter of fact, I was deprived of riding my bicycle because our neighbour told my mum that riding bicycle could affect the hymen.
I tried to understand how a human being could be reduced to a tiny membrane. I was never able to reconcile with that idea. At some point in my life, I became convinced that God is a sexist man because he gave hymens to women but spared men the burden of having one.
I never met my friend's mother but she became my nightmare. I realized that women and mothers are usually the first to plant that seed of fear inside their daughters. The problem is that sometimes women are the biggest enemy to women.
Egyptian-American feminist writer Mona Eltahawi wrote “Why do they hate us” looking into why men hate women in the Arab world. But I think the other question that ought to be asked is why do we hate ourselves? Why do women hate themselves? Did men succeed in transferring their hatred to us?
Misogyny is so deep in Tunisian society to the point that so many women ended up internalizing it. Many women in Arab societies and the same is true to Tunisia, seem to grow up with a Stockholm syndrome, believing that they need a captor and preferring being a prisoner to being free.
Yes, we hate ourselves as according to figures released by the Tunisian National Office of Women and Population, 57 per cent of Tunisian women who were subject to domestic violence think that domestic violence is acceptable. It is also worth noting that domestic violence is the cause number one of death among women aged between 16 and 44 in Tunisia. Yes, we hate ourselves because we think it is okay to be beaten or killed by men.
Women engaging in such self-destructive thinking and seeing the world from the eyes of men should not be mistaken as a phenomenon limited to uneducated women.
In October 2012, a story of a Tunisian girl who was raped by two policemen after they found her in a car with her fiancé triggered public outcry in Tunisia. The policemen denied the charges and said that the couple was caught in an “immoral position”. The girl who now goes by the pseudonym of Meriem did what so many other victims did not dare do. Not only did she speak up, she also took her rapists to court. Both policemen have been sentenced to seven years in jail last March.
Few days after the incident became public, I was with a group of women journalists and diplomats and we started talking about Meriem's case. While some of them expressed sympathy with the victim, others chose to listen and refrained from commenting, but this female diplomat had a different take on the incident.
“You know she [the victim] was not a virgin when she was raped. I don't know why she is trying to make a fuss out of her rape. What is she going to tell the people,” the woman diplomat said.
According to the logic of this highly educated woman, rape is only rape when the victims are virgins. It seems like the female diplomat have been exposed to the egg theory and that is why she thinks that a woman without a hymen is worthless and it is okay to rape her.
This should not be surprising or shocking in a country where the law that allows rapists to evade prosecution if they agree to marry their victims. Many families pressure their daughters to marry their rapists to avoid the scandal of having a broken egg in their house, a girl that nobody will marry.
Tunisian women like their counterparts in the Arab world still have a long way to go before they can be treated as equal human beings. They might have the most advanced status in the Arab world but that status is viewed favourably only in comparison to other countries in the region where women are subject to extreme practices ranging from widespread female genital mutilation in Egypt, the ban on female driving in Saudi Arabia, to child marriage in Yemen.
Tunisia is only the best because it is compared to the worst. And it is not enough to be the best of the worst.