Girls in Cosmopolitan Tunis Take Harassment Statistics Personally

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TUNIS, Tunisia (WOMENSENEWS)—Yziss Saidi says that even though she usually wears shorts, it doesn’t mean she has no fear that “some kind of psychopath” will try to rape her.

“I try not to think about it,” says the 15-year-old, who lives in Boumhel, a popular neighborhood of Ezzahra on the outskirts of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital city that’s on a point of the Mediterranean coast that faces Sicily. “But it’s possible that this kind of accident will happen. Nevertheless, when girls are wearing shorts, skirts or dresses it’s preferable to be accompanied by an adult.”

Last year, 41 percent of 400 surveyed women between the ages of 18 and 64 in Tunis reported they had been physically assaulted during their lifetimes, according to Research, Documentation Studies and Information on Women Center, or CREDIF, its French acronym. Seventy-five percent said they had been mugged.

With those findings in mind, Teen Voices interviewed seven teen girls and two teen boys via Facebook; all of them liberal and living in Tunis, or its suburbs. All the teens had strong feelings about the risks girls face and the unfair ways girls and women are viewed in their culture.

Asma Khelil, 14, lives in the center of Tunis, where the streets are full of women wearing a cosmopolitan mix of the latest skin-baring fashions as well as the hijab, the traditional attire covering a woman’s hair. Her parents allow her to wear shorts and skirts, which she considers an expression of the equality of the sexes.

“There are two types of women in Tunisia,” Khelil says. “Modern women who take their destiny in their own hands, they’re independent, and other women who are still dominated by their fathers, brothers and husbands. I think that no man is fairly well positioned to control a woman. We were born free and we will remain free.”

Social Hypocrisy

Nour Gharbi, 15, lives with her Muslim family in the chic area of Menzah, a group of suburbs north of Tunis. She says modern women in her country are often hurt by sexism and social hypocrisy.

“Men here can consume drugs, alcohol and they dare to call women who do the same things sluts,” Gharbi says. “Women are judged more severely than men in Tunisia. It is a real pain. The other day, I wanted to go to the shop buy some chips, but I couldn’t since I was wearing shorts so I just stayed home for my own safety. I felt like a cultural prisoner. I couldn’t get out in shorts or people will stare at me as if I was the ‘Shitan’ [‘devil’ in Islam]; it was like declaring war against society.”

Clothing is the starting part for girls’ experiences of disparity, says Syrine Ghenim, a 14-year-old who attends a French school here. “For example, when a woman comes out in a short dress or short skirt or shorts, everybody stares at her as if she was totally crazy and men rape her with their gazes. It’s really annoying. Every time I get dressed, I must consider whether my dress or skirt is too short or whether my jeans are too tight.”

Melika Audrey Hamzaoui, 14, considers herself a strong feminist. “As teen girls, we mustn’t sit idly by when we get sexually harassed in the street, we must claim our rights,” she says. “A girl mustn’t be afraid or ashamed of telling her parents or any other adults that she was harassed or even raped because she is the victim after all.”

Hamzaoui criticizes widespread ideas about women’s roles, particularly when it comes to marriage. “The society expects women to cope with numerous conflicting values,” she says. “It wants a woman who spends the whole day in the kitchen but never complains. She must obey her husband but she must love him, too. If she doesn’t obey, a fight will take place and she will be forced to apologize for something she hasn’t done. We need women who have initiative, who show society that a woman can do and say what she wants, that she is independent.”

Code of Personal Status

In 1957, the country’s “Code of Personal Status” abolished polygamy and gave women the right to consent or refuse to marry a man. It also outlined a judicial procedure for divorce.

Ilham Ouesleti, 15, lives in Boumhel, a suburb of Tunis. Her mother wears the hijab. She says society ranks men above women despite plenty of indications to the contrary. “I don’t generally pay attention to what men think about us, women, because we have proven our excellence. Many surveys have shown that we surpass men in many fields. Sometimes, I think that women represent a threat for men who try to hide their insecurities by humiliating and oppressing us.”

Samar Ben Tkhayat, 15, lives in Mourouj, in the city’s southern suburbs, and attends one of the most prestigious high schools in the country. “I’d rather be a modern independent woman than being just a slave who blindly follows the social rules,” she says. “I am not afraid of defying society because its way of thinking is totally wrong. We must change it. A woman is an active person everywhere and in every field. She must be free and she should defend her ideas. We, women, can defend our ideas by debating, by convincing others, by fighting for our rights. As a teen girl, I mustn’t let any male control my way of dressing or thinking, just because he thinks he’s superior to me.”

Rami ben Hjal, 15, was one of the two teen boys interviewed about the status of women in Tunisia. He lives in Slimane Riadh, a Tunis suburb, and goes to a public high school. “The woman’s social position in Tunisia is very low,” he says. “She is considered as inferior to men both physically and mentally. We were born to be equal, all of us and that’s why I treat women as human beings who deserve and need love and respect. All I want for women in my country is for them to be more present in the political and business fields. I want them to claim their rights. I want their voices to be heard.”

Afouane Ferchichi, 15, thinks boys and men need to take more responsibility for their actions. “A man’s weakness in Tunisia is a woman’s body,” he says. “Men should learn how to control themselves and their desires or they will be similar to animals, and women their prey.”

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