In downtown Tunis, the sight was unfamiliar to patrons of one of the “men’s” bars overlooking Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Several women were gathered around the largest table in the middle of the bar. They asked the waiter to bring more bottles. These new visitors had barged into a space that had become the reserve of males through custom and tradition. Their presence was a symbolic act of resistance against a dominant norm that has prevailed over part of public space, excluding women on cultural and moral grounds, which in turn concealed economic factors at play.
The city’s “popular bars” [i.e. downmarket bars] draw a primarily male crowd. They feature lower prices than the mixed bars that women are allowed to patronize. Because of this two tier system, drinking has become much more than a fix for one’s mood. It has evolved into a phenomenon that illustrates stigma, discrimination, and class and regional disparity in society and the state.
Activists of the Naswinha [Feminize This] campaign, launched recently on social media under the title “occupy popular bars”, began patronizing non-mixed bars in downtown Tunis. At some, they were refused entry on various pretexts. One excuse was that foreign women are welcome but that Tunisian women are a “source of trouble”. Although the bars’ licenses provide no legal basis for this ban, bar owners concoct various arguments in order to police public space in the name of preserving moral values and social order.
Naswinha activists Asrar bin Juwayra, Maryam Bribri, and Siwar bin Isa spoke to the Legal Agenda about the implications and dimensions that the campaign wants to expose. They also discussed the economic and cultural background of barring women from some “popular bars”.
Economic Discrimination in the Name of the Male Superiority Delusion
Asrar said the campaign was initially launched to protest the high prices in mixed bars in comparison to men’s bars. In this regard, she says, “Women are the first victims of economic discrimination. There must be equality in pay and also in consumption. It makes no sense for me to pay twice as much as a man just because he is a man. The liquor license does not differentiate between women and men. There should be equality in effort and social participation, but to the contrary we women incur additional expenses and taxes, such as the pink tax on [period products] and cosmetics. Our presence as consumers in the same public space [as men] should not be a cause of concern or disturbance”.
Bin Juwayra adds, “There’s another phenomenon that must be noted. A man who patronizes popular bars with low prices is also forced to go to mixed bars to see women, and for that he pays double. This division contributes to the commoditization of women. As long as there are women, men must pay more. But if you’re in a non-mixed bar, you pay less”.
Bin Isa also believes that a cultural and symbolic factor plays a role in excluding women from “popular bars” and repelling them from such places without an actual ban: “Regarding the men’s spots that I visited, even if I was not turned away by their owners, I noticed unwelcoming looks from the male customers. We are subject to indirect harassment aimed at forcing us to leave. There is a stare that says that we, as women, are not allowed to barge into public spaces that have become men’s”.
The Stigmatization of “Popular Bar” Patrons and Regional Disparity
The geographical distribution of liquor licenses is extremely centralized. Many interior regions and a significant portion of society are excluded from the right to access these products. Some young people in several interior areas are compelled to drink harmful alcoholic substances that occasionally cause deaths, as occurred in Kairouan Governorate. This regional disparity has, on its part, helped fuel the culture of discrimination against women in these regions.
In this regard, Bribri, a native of Sfax Governorate, mentions that women in her area cannot go to liquor stores or the downtown bars. Most are therefor forced to go to hotels and pay much higher bills. In some other interior areas, women are not even allowed to patronize cafes. Regarding the division between “popular bars” and “mixed bars”, she says, “The concept of the “popular bar” signifies a class distinction. Under the pretext of protection, women are excluded, and at the same time, patrons of popular bars are stigmatized and likened to savages from whom women must be protected. This logic creates a barrier between women and men, and between social groups in general. The result is a division between “luxury” and “popular” that helps consolidate disparity and underpins a culture of guardianship [over women]”.
Bin Juwayra says, “There is a political division between the center and the regions. The most marginalized areas, which lack life essentials, also have few liquor licenses because the state treats alcohol as a “luxury product” and “tax product”. The state is based on centralization – centralization of institutions, liquor, tourist areas, green areas, more or less everything”.
Why Defend the Right to “Popular Bars” When Other Women’s Issues Remain Unsolved?
Naswinha activists have received many unwelcoming reactions, particularly from men’s circles. Some express moralistic objections to the campaign, deeming that it paves the way for “degeneracy” and strikes the existing social order. Others see the campaign as a cultural luxury and believe it bypasses women’s core issues. Hence, the campaign stands accused of advocating a cause that is not a priority for women.
Regarding the various reactions, Bin Juwayra says, “The campaign is aware of men’s protests. We’re trying, through discussion and persuasion, to gain new supporters for the campaign and break down these barriers. But there is a fact we must acknowledge: a man who has been granted social privileges at my expense has no right to determine my priorities and fundamental needs as a woman. We, as women, face this economic discrimination in consumption daily, and we pay it from our own pockets. The struggle for this cause is ultimately a struggle against more comprehensive economic vulnerability affecting broad segments of women. There is no separation among women’s issues. To the same extent that I advocate for rural working women, I fight discrimination against myself in public space”.
She adds, “Party members generally do not engage in causes like the Naswinha campaign because their main target is the electorate. Hence, we are being accused of attacking culture and morals and calling for intoxication and degeneracy. To them, a discourse that suits the people should be pursued irrespective of our interests, our own view of our problems, and our choices in advocating our causes”.
Bribri mentions that some responses betray a sense of custodianship over women’s causes, even in circles affiliated with the left and the progressive movement. In this regard, she says, “We cannot move on to the greater battle without overcoming our own obstacles within the elitist or “leftist” sphere. There is a kind of custodianship over the causes of the impoverished and marginalized. Feminist battles are not disconnected, and the struggle for the sake of rural women involves improving their economic conditions, such as social coverage and sanitary items, and combating groundwater depletion, which impacts rural women the hardest. There’s an inclination toward the easiest, quickest, and most convenient causes. Defending our right to be present in men’s bars isn’t an easy battle; it is a class battle related to social justice. There’s an inclination toward formal equality, and we have come to feel sometimes that our presence is mere decoration, as the battle has sometimes been restricted to 50-50 [representation in government]. Thus, women’s issues sometimes become nothing more than a point in a communique or statement”.
She adds, “In regard to feminist issues, there is an artificial division between women in the city and women in the countryside, and between the center and the periphery. Ultimately, we have come from peripheral and vulnerable spaces. We are trying to create new ways of resistance and advocacy as we move from one social environment to another – from a patriarchal rural society that doesn’t respect your right to inheritance or your basic right to express your opinion within the family, to the barbaric exploitation in the factories and sexual extortion. And we are moving into other spaces and professions, only to continue enduring the same vulnerability”.