Tunisia — northernmost point in the African continent, part of the Mahgreb region, strong Mediterranean influences, home of ancient Carthage — and the only fully democratic sovereign state in the Arab world, initiator of “Arab Spring,” one of the top Arab nations for gender equality as constitutionally protected. Berber at its origins, Tunisia has been influenced by Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim caliphate, Ottoman, and French. Independent as of 1957, the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 ushered in unprecedented freedom — though not without a price.
Tunisia, at its foundation a pantheistic culture of the Berbers, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, enjoys a high degree of religious pluralism, even as its constitution declares Islam as the state religion — requiring that the president adhere to same. The constitution also protects religious freedom, and the country has a significant Christian minority (primarily Catholic) — while Judaism represents its 3rd-largest religious community. The culture itself is secular, with strong separation of religion from sociopolitical life. Sharia law does not dictate Tunisia’s legislative or judicial system, there are no official dress codes, and Tunisians generally deem it impolite to enquire regarding another’s religious affiliation.
Tunisia is well represented in the arts, with a focus on beauty — in visual art, architecture — and an emphasis on literature in both Arabic and French — that identifies the nation with both its Arab and European influences. Reflecting its 3,000 year old history as well as its multi-ethnic quality as a crossroads of civilisations, the art, literature, and music of Tunisia reflects cultural pluralism — yet has a characteristic all its own. Independence saw a resurgence of contemporary arts; the artistic community both affected and was affected by the 2011 the revolution, in an unprecedented freedom of expression and renewed vigour in Tunisia’s art scene. The Bardo, a national museum in Tunisia, has called this renewal “the awakening of a nation.”
Tunisian traditions can still be found in open-air markets, or souq, of any medina, or traditional quarter, of the capital and other cities as well as small towns and villages. The winding alleys and inevitable mosque of the medina, typically enclosed by walls of an earlier time, denote a slow pace and simple living — while the souk connotes importance of relationships, art of communication, and a commerce focused more on people and less on commodity. Seasonal, episodic, and daily markets abound, and while Tunisians also enjoy a high standard of living with all modern conveniences, these markets remain containers of culture.
Sidi Bou Said, a resort town just north of the capital city, well known to artists both Tunisian and foreign for its stunning beauty and dramatic seaside cliff landscape, provides architectural confirmation of early Greek and recent Ottoman influences — and Tunisia’s firm place in Mediterranean culture. The notable colour scheme was introduced in the early 20th century by French painter and musicologist Baron Roldolphe d’Erlanger, who built a palatial residence in Sidi Bou Said; blue doors and windows, however, are a longstanding tradition among various Mediterranean cultures — as blue was thought to keep evil at bay.
The ancient empire of Carthage (814-146 BCE), its capital located in the area between Tunis and Sidi Bou Said, was founded by Queen Dido of Phoenicia with Goddess Tanit as its patron; gaining independence in 650 BCE, it became one of the ancient world’s most important manufacturing and trading hubs — and was always warring with the Greeks in Sicily, and the Romans who eventually overcame Carthage. The Muslim caliphate eventually conquered Carthage in 698 CE — and razed and rebuilt it, rather than see it return to Byzantine control. The enormous significance of Carthage remains woven into the tapestry that is Tunisian culture today.
The ‘new Tunisia’ that emerged from its 2011 revolution, widely considered the only true success story of the ‘Arab Spring’ with its political and social reforms as outlined in a new 2014 democratic constitution to include elevation of women’s status and human rights overall, has come with a price. In 2015, a large-scale terrorist attack took place at the Sousse beach resort and the Bardo Museum in Tunis, killing 60 people; 2018 saw a suicide bomber in Tunis, and again last year, bombings occurred in Tunis and the president was rushed to hospital in a ‘health crisis’. Just last month, 3 terrorist camps were discovered in the mountains. UN Human Rights Committee has questioned the government’s sustained use of “state of emergency” status, however, now 5 years on, with questions of human rights violations as a result. The attacks all appear sociopolitically motivated, in protest against Tunisia’s ongoing quest for democratic reform. — and indeed, a new government has just been installed after 4 months of post-election crisis that has thrown this neo-democracy into turmoil.
Tunisia’s human rights record is still mixed, but the status of women — a common marker of same, as women generally represent half or more of a population — has greatly improved since the country regained its independence, and again since the 2011 revolution and new democratic constitution which emphasises gender equality. Tunisian women gained the right to vote before their Swiss counterparts, and represent nearly half of all local government positions; they have had equal labour laws since 1966, and constitute 67% of university graduates. Equal citizenship, divorce rights, and inheritance laws have all been instituted, though not without controversy. More reforms are needed, especially in areas related to labour, such as mandatory maternity leave and childcare facilities, transparency in hiring and pay schemes, and increased access to credit. Women’s unemployment is at 22% compared to 12% for men, their earnings 15% less, and they hold senior positions in only 16% of private and 11% of public companies — but even still, Tunisia has greater gender equality overall than a majority of its MENA counterparts.