I know a beautiful young woman; I first met her when she was five. She was a feisty little girl, quite frowny but clever and fierce, and had a mop of tight curls. She shrieked when her mother brushed her hair. I was very taken with her and she used to hold my hand and chatter away to me, oblivious that I had no idea what she was saying; we didn’t speak the same language.
Life forced us apart when she was seven, and I didn’t meet her again until she was twenty. I knew who she was straight away, even though she had changed almost beyond recognition; she was tall, with striking bone structure and a dazzling smile. Supermodel material.
Although she spoke no English, she had learnt a little French and we stammered out some conversation.
She had left school at fourteen to work in a European clothes factory, one of several near her village in Tunisia. She gets a bus to work six days per week from her village, along with many other young women – the only time they are allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied by a male relative.
We hear about things like that all the time – other people in faraway lands oppressed by different customs. But take a moment to imagine that was your life: you are an intelligent and attractive young woman of twenty, you work six days per week and you are not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied. You cannot go to a shop, or a café, or even to the hairdresser alone or with your girlfriends. Not even with your mother. You are not allowed to cut your hair or wear make-up until you are married. And the timing of your marriage, as well as the choice of groom, will be the decision of your father or your brother. Girls, if you have a brother, no matter how much you love him, how would you feel about him choosing who you will have sex with for the rest of your life?
The fortunate women are those who are at least given powers of veto over the choice of spouse – and the young lady I know is one of those lucky ones. She comes from a decent family who want the best for her. Her father is a kind, gentle man and her three surviving brothers are also reasonable; they will not force her to marry someone who disgusts her. Many girls are not so fortunate.
While she waits for her future to be decided, she earns money to support her parents, and on her one day off per week, she cleans their house and washes by hand the laundry for her parents, herself and her two brothers who also still live at home. Her third brother now lives in France. I sometimes wonder what his views are on his sister’s lifestyle after his experience of Western women, but I haven’t had the chance to find out. I used to ask her fourth brother all the time – I was married to him. We fell out a lot about it, sometimes light heartedly but on occasion those rows ended in violence when he got fed up with my argumentative ways.
Our first ever dispute about women’s rights was on one of my earliest overnight visits to his family’s village home. It was late 1996 and I was sharing a bed with his two oldest sisters, who were at that time around 17 and 23. We were talking in hesitant French about our frizzy hair and they explained there was a hairdresser in the nearby town which specialised in straightening hair, for weddings and the like. I asked how much it cost and for me, newly arrived from Europe, it was cheap. In my naivety I suggested we could get our hair straightened the next day. It would be my treat.
Their brother, my then boyfriend (a relationship that started as a holiday romance and I didn’t have the good sense to leave it at that), popped his head into the room to say good night – he was going off to the nearby town for a late night card game with his cousins. I told him our plans for the next day and could see his sisters’ eyes going from me to their brother and back; they knew what was coming.
‘My sisters can’t go to town with you to get their hair done.’
‘Girls can’t just go where they want, Fiona. I already explained that.’
‘You said they can’t go on their own, but you can come with us.’
He gave a sigh, and looked deeply uncomfortable. The girls watched with bated breath. ‘It’s not going to happen.’
‘It wouldn’t look good.’
‘This isn’t Europe. I know girls should be able to go to the hairdressers when they want to but it doesn’t work like that here. They only go when there’s a wedding.’
‘What would happen if we did go?’
He paced about the bedroom, while the three of us lay on the bed and stared at him.
‘People will see them and talk about them.’
‘So then nobody will marry them because they’ve been swanning about with a European …’ He fell silent and didn’t voice the word that would be used to describe the inappropriately-dressed, cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking girl that was me.
I sat up in the bed. ‘Don’t you think it’s unfair that you can go wherever you want but your sister who is older than you can’t go anywhere?’
‘Yes, it’s unfair.’
‘So things need to change.’
‘Yes, they do, but it’s not going to start with my sisters. They have to live here; they have to think of their future. What will happen to them if they get a bad reputation and nobody wants to marry them? What kind of life will they have then? Think about that!’
He stormed off – away to have fun with the men who could do whatever they wanted, who could dictate the future of young women through rumour and gossip, who controlled the fate of their sisters and daughters.
And this was from a young man who wanted things to change, who believed in women’s rights. But despite wanting equality for his sisters in theory, he could not allow them to go to town. He was not willing to break with tradition – and I don’t blame him for that. Not everybody wants to rock the boat, and perhaps his sisters didn’t want to either. They had been brought up to be subservient to men, to accept their position.
That was eighteen years ago. I’d hoped things would have advanced since then for the female half of the population. But, if anything, they are getting worse. I returned in 2014 and noticed that most women in the village now covered their heads. When I lived there in the late nineties, most younger women did not. Fundamental Islamic sentiment, banned under the authoritative dictatorship of long-term president Ben Ali who was toppled in 2011, is now openly voiced. The niqab, which women wear to cover their face (but not their eyes) was banned during Ben Ali’s regime; now uptake is on the rise. I wonder how many women are choosing this of their own accord, and how many are having it forced on them by the men in their lives. What happens to the women who choose to leave their head uncovered, to wear a short skirt or a sleeveless top, a bikini even?
The point of this post is to illustrate that the Islamic view of women as second rate human beings is deeply entrenched. Even in the most moderate of Muslim countries, and in the kindest of families, men expect women to cover themselves up, to accept their lack of freedom and to do what they are told.
I wonder what will happen when significant numbers of men who view women as fundamentally inferior arrive in Western Europe, where women have almost achieved a state of equality, after centuries of struggle. Will they integrate? Will they adapt their culture and embrace the better society that could be created when everyone has the same opportunities?
I started thinking about this after reading an article about a project in Norway which offers migrant men lessons in how to treat Western women.
How much can one training project do to reverse a life-time of indoctrination? Refugees and economic migrants should be welcomed and have much to contribute to our society. The religion they chose to follow in the privacy of their own homes is none of our business, but I believe they should comply with our society’s values of equality, not just for women, but for gay people too.
In the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we should be intolerant of intolerance.
“Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women’s rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity.” ― Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Infidel, highly recommended read)
To read about my experience of living in Tunisia from 1996-99 and returning there to introduce my 16 year old daughter to her relatives in 2014: Trouble in Tunisia
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