Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Tunisian Feministm

By David G. Young

Tunis, Tunisia, February 20, 2001 --  

Several years ago, a feminist friend of mine planned to attend a Washington conference on international women?s rights. The plan was to bring together feminists from the former communist countries and the third world to compare notes and share experiences in their common struggle.

Instinctively, I laughed at this idea, not just because of the dogmatic nature of the meeting, but because American feminists are so incredibly out of touch with the rest of the world. What could American feminists possibly have to share about their contemporary struggle with those in less developed countries? The idea of gender equality is so well established in America that it has nearly become a non-issue.

Although I have long known this was true, I was reminded how much so by a recent trip to Tunisia. having not visited an Arab country before, I was releived to learn in advance that it is perhpas the most open of all Arab societies. Women may work outside the home, they are not required to wear head scarves, and may not be divorced by their husbands? command.

In the capital of Tunis, the commercial center appears as cosmopoilitan as the cities of Mediterranean Europe. Women wear Western clothes and hairstyles, and appear to go about business and pleasure with as much ease as men.

Beyond the commercial center, things change quickly. It is rare to see women employed in any capacity that has contact with the public. When working outside the home they are usually visible scrubbing floors, cleaning toilets, or hauling heavy loads. Young girls often work the counter at family shops, but adult women are almost never seen in such roles. All other public positions are filled by men.

While most adult women are presumably in the home, their husbands gather by the hundreds in the cafes to drink tea and coffee and smoke cigarettes and the houka. They sit playing cards for hours on end. Women are absolutely never seen hgere, nor are they often seen in more formal restaurant settings.

Outside the capital, th head scarf is the rule, and Western women are subject to subtle verbal abuse by men -- even when modestly dressed and escorted by a man.

The power men have over women in this society is stunning. From the window of my Tunis hotel, I witnessed a man arguing with a woman in Western dress. She pleaded with him in Arabic, but he shouted at her angrilly. he slapped her face in full view of passers-by, who looked but did not intervene. As he grabbed her hair and pulled her around, I entertained the idea of throwing something at the brute. I quickly remembered, however, that it would be me, not him, that would be breaking the law.

If this is the behavior I witnessed in the most liberal society in teh Arab world, I pity the women of Saudi Arabia , and other more restrictive Arab countries.

It is with the awareness of such societies that gender issues in America should be discussed -- not because America has gone too far, but in order to fully appreciate how far it has come. It was barely a century ago that many of the same atrocious practices would be common in the largest cities of the Western world.

Today as America?s aging feminist leaders and their followers spin their wheels focussing on endless minutae like government abortion funding and marginal statistical pay discrepanci4es, their sisters in outher countries must be resigned to terrible fates.