Cablegate: Beywatch: Where Men Can Be Men: Cafes in Tunisia


DE RUEHTU #2175 2331231
R 211231Z AUG 06





E.O. 12958: NA
SUBJECT: Beywatch: Where Men can be Men: Cafes in Tunisia

1. The following is one of a series of reporting cables
drafted by Post's entry level officers, which have the
"Beywatch" caption. We believe the perspectives offered in
the following vignette will give the reader a sense of
everyday life in Tunisia that may not be central to more
formal reporting. For more information about Tunisia or the
Embassy Tunis Entry Level Officer Development initiative,
see our Siprnet website.

2. Tunisia is a country that prides itself on leading the
Muslim world on issues such as women's rights and religious
freedom. Tunisians generally consider themselves open-
minded and tolerant and seem to eschew the trends of rising
Islamic fundamentalism that can be seen elsewhere in the
region. They buy tickets to American pop shows in throngs,
happily serve their scantily-clad tourists alcohol on their
scenic beaches, produce a variety of decent wines, and have
given many legal rights to divorced women and non-Muslims.
Perhaps this is why, in a country where trendy restaurants
are full of young Tunisians sporting the latest European
fashions, and where, according the official GOT website,
over ten thousand women are heads of businesses, it is a bit
strange to note a cultural mainstay which seems a bit.
traditional. Anyone walking the streets of Tunisia will
observe the large number of cafes where every single
customer is male. Usually tucked back from the street
without the benefit of a neon sign or a trendy facade, these
cafes often spill over onto the sidewalks with men, young
and old, lounging in cheap plastic chairs and talking.
Smoke lingers above them, sometimes they suck gently at
water pipes, small glasses of dark coffee on the tables in
front of them as they lean their heads together and talk.

3. When Conoff asked some of the Locally Engaged Staff
(LES) about the predominance of these cafes, and why they
appeal to so many men, the answer was easy: men want a
place where they can be with their friends and discuss
subjects they wouldn't normally discuss in front of women.
Upon further pressing, the Tunisians revealed that perhaps
it wasn't the subject matter that made these discussions so
inappropriate for the fairer sex; normally the men talk of
sports and work and other routine topics that bind their
gender together the world over. Instead, one female LES
pointed out that in mixed company men often feel the need to
watch their language, their use of "les gros mots," (swear
words) and that from time to time they need to be a little
"vulgar," as a sign of "Tunisian machismo." They also play
cards and smoke; activities that traditional Tunisian women
do not participate in, at least not in public. There are
certainly places in the U.S. where the clientele is composed
mainly of men, but the reaction to a woman entering such a
sanctuary might not meet with such overt resistance. For
example, an Embassy official recounted that when he and his
wife stepped into a men-only cafe in Tunis they were greeted
with a chorus of displeased foot stomping and grumbling from
the customers. One LES female said she would never go to
such a cafe because of what the men would think of her if
she did.

4. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these cafes is
the admission by LES that there is a certain social divide
between those who patronize them and those who are more
likely to be seen about town with their girlfriends or
fiancees or wives. Places that are frequented by both men
and women are more often called "salons de the" (tea
parlors) and tend to be much pricier; with a cup of coffee
usually costing twice as much if a woman drinks from the
glassware than at a place where estrogen is taboo. LES
pointed out that most of the men-only cafes can be found in
"les quartiers populaires," (blue collar neighborhoods).
This trend has been attributed to the fact that the lower
classes tend to be more socially traditional in their
separation of the sexes and the norms for what women are
exposed to. Also because, amusingly enough, in order to
open a cafe that would appeal to women you would apparently
need to invest in "decor" and a cleaning crew: amenities
which are expensive and unnecessary if one need only attract
male patrons.

5. So while Tunisia in so many ways has matched Developed
World standards of gender equality, and has expressed an
impressive acceptance of more "liberal" world views, the
presence of so many of these men-only cafes may serve as a
reminder to those who would forget that it is still a Muslim
country, based at least partly on traditions and mores that
do not die even as western ideals inch their way in and
Mariah Carey plays sold-out concerts wearing very skimpy


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