If you asked most people where Tunisia is, they probably couldn’t find it on a map. A few months ago, I raised my hand when presented with the opportunity to venture there to help with an economic development project. At Pivot, we believe in helping others. It’s a part of who we are.
Tunisia is a predominantly Muslim country located in the very northern part of Africa, tucked between Libya and Algeria. Relatively new to democracy, transitioning from a dictatorship nine years ago, the country has been focused on growing its economy. I traveled to Tunisia to support that effort by helping 18 business centers improve communications and with a goal of supporting entrepreneurs, helping them find funding, and sustaining growth over time.
As a woman, a mother, and a business owner, I have a strong sense of women in our culture here in Minnesota. I see powerful, confident, intelligent and independent women all around me. So, imagine my surprise when I left my hotel for the first time and saw only men sitting in the café outside my hotel. A fluke, I thought. Maybe it’s a Tunisian sports bar…without the TVs?
As it turns out, that was just the beginning. The majority of people walking around were men. On most streets, maybe one out of every 10 people was a woman. I witnessed groups or pairs of women — about 75% percent — with their heads or entire faces and bodies covered. It wasn’t uncommon to see women with their hands and feet covered as well, walking with their eyes down. It was very unusual to see a woman walking alone or in a restaurant.
So where are all the women? Where is half of the Tunisian society? The only place I encountered more women than men was shopping in the markets or retail locations. Perhaps they were home with their families or occupied by something else that was not easily apparent. From what I could see, women were not allowed in mosques, and every night, restaurants became smoke-filled, predominantly male establishments. Even covered, women receive a lot of unwanted attention from men. One night, there was a news story that featured interviews with women who had completely changed their appearance to avoid unwanted male attention. They cut their hair and wear male clothing to appear more masculine and less attractive. It was eerie.
While I witnessed way too many cat calls and gestures, even from a police officer, the treatment and inequality of women runs much deeper. My new colleague and friend, a woman who is worldly and smart, shared that inheritance laws in Tunisia favor men by ensuring they receive 50% more than their female counterparts. For instance, if a family has two daughters and one son, the son would inherit 50%, and the daughters would split the rest. The past president proposed a change to provide equality. That sparked protests in opposition.
Domestic violence from a husband toward his wife became illegal in 2017 and remains a big part of the culture. What makes my experience even more disheartening, is that Tunisia is supposed to be a country where women have the most rights and the best shot at success. According to Reuters, Tunisia grants more rights to women than any other country in the region.
I will say that in my work, I met a lot of incredibly smart women. They are the most outspoken, the most engaged, and dare I say, the smartest in the room. They are motivated to learn and grow and the kind of people I would hire.
In a country where the goal is to support and jump start the economy, I think the most valuable resource is a myriad of diamonds in the rough. It’s the women of Tunisia.
I was taught that if you see something, say something. I’m sharing this to hopefully inspire others to help with women’s rights in developing countries, to keep fighting the fight for equality here in the U.S., and watch out for each other wherever you are in the world.
This article reflects my personal experience having spent over a week in Tunisia.