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LOCATION: Western North Africa (the Maghrib)
POPULATION: 10.25 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic; French
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


Tunisia is one of the countries forming the Maghrib, the term used to describe the western part of North Africa. Modern Tunisia's name can be traced back to the ancient settlement of Tunis, which by the 13th century had developed into Tunisia's capital. Tunisia was known to the Roman and Arab conquerors as Africa (Ifriqiyyah), and later Africa came to be used for the entire continent. Tunisia is the most westernized state in North Africa and maintains strong ties with France, the colonizing power from 1881 to 1956. Until recently, Tunisia's modern development was considered a model for other nations emerging from European colonialism.

Tunisia's history dates back to Neolithic times (the Stone Age). Anthropologists have found evidence indicating that the coastal area was populated by hunters and fishermen as well as farmers. While south of the Atlas mountains, Tunisia is now primarily desert, until 4000 BC, the region was a vast savannah with giant buffalo, elephants, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. Neolithic civilization, which is characterized by animal domestication and agriculture, developed in the area between 6000 and 2000 BC.

The various nomadic peoples who eventually settled in the area came to be called Berbers. The Phoenician, Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Arab conquerors all attempted to defeat or assimilate the Berbers into their cultures, with varying degrees of success. Phoenician traders arrived in the area around 900 BC and established the city of Carthage around 800 BC. From there, the Phoenicians established towns along the coast. These became centers for trade with areas as far away as Lebanon. The Berbers were either enslaved by the Phoenicians or forced to pay tribute. By the 4th century BC, the Berbers formed the largest part of the Phoenician slave army and eventually revolted as the power of Carthage weakened. In time, several Berber kingdoms were created that vied with each other for power until the arrival of the Romans in AD 24.

The Roman conquest was disastrous for the Berbers. Tribes were forced to become settled or leave the area. For this reason, the Berbers continuously resisted Roman rule. The Romans began their occupation by controlling the coastal lands and cultivating the area. It is estimated that the Roman province of Africa produced 1 million tons of cereals each year for the Roman Empire along with fruits, figs, grapes, beans, and olive oil.

Along with the Roman presence, Judaism and Christianity began appearing among the Berbers. Many Jews who had been expelled from Palestine by the Romans settled in the area, and some Berber tribes converted to Judaism. Christianity arrived in the 2nd century AD and was especially attractive to slaves. By the end of the 4th century, much of the settled areas had become Christian.

In AD 429, the German king Gaiseric, along with 80,000 Vandals (a German tribe), invaded North Africa from Spain, eventually weakening Roman control. With the weakening of Rome, Berber tribes began to return to their old lands. Meanwhile, the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent his army to North Africa in AD 533 and within a year conquered the German forces, although the Byzantines never established as firm a hold on the area as had the Romans.

The most influential conquest in the area was the invasion of Arab Muslims between AD 642 and AD 669. In AD 670, the Arabs established the town of al-Qayrawan south of Tunis as a rival to the Byzantine influence of the more northern areas. The largely Christian Berber tribes in Tunisia converted to Islam, and in AD 711 the Muslims established firmer control in the region.

The ruling Arab view of Islam at the time was that Islam was primarily a religion for Arabs and Arabs subsequently treated non-Arab converts as second-class citizens. Many political trends developed among Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula, however, that rejected the Arabism of the ruling Umayyad dynasty in favor of strict equality for all Muslims. Followers of this movement, called Kharijites, spread to North Africa, and many Berbers became attracted to their message of Islamic equality and strict piety. They eventually rebelled against the Arab caliphate's control of the area and established a number of kingdoms.

In AD 750, the Abbasids—who had succeeded the Umayyad dynasty—spread their rule to the area and appointed Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab as governor in al-Qayrawan. The Aghlabi dynasty was a perfect example of what has been called the Judeo-Islamic culture of the Muslim world. A thriving Jewish community with a long intellectual tradition existed in Muslim Spain and North Africa, and there was a great deal of interaction between the two communities.

Al-Qayrawan became a great center of learning, attracting students from all over the Muslim world. In the 10th century, Constantius Africanus, a Christian from Carthage, went to Italy and introduced the advanced Islamic learning to Europe. The works of the ancient Greeks, which had been translated long ago by the Arabs and studied as major texts, were now translated into Latin, thus reintroducing the Greek works to Europe.

To the west of Aghlabi lands, the Kharijites, under Abd al-Rahman ibn Rustum, established a Rustumid kingdom from AD 761 to AD 909. The leaders were elected by the leading citizens of the town and gained a reputation for honesty and justice. There was much support for scholarship, astronomy, astrology, theology, and law. By the end of the 9th century, Ismaili Muslims (Shia Muslims who followed a more esoteric and mystical interpretation of Islam) led a revolt against the established Sunni rulers in Tunisia and the rest of North Africa. In AD 909 the Ismaili forces established the Fatimid Dynasty in North Africa, first at al-Qayrawan and later in Cairo, Egypt.

The Fatimids were more interested in the lands to the East and left Tunisia and neighboring Algeria to Berber rule. However, considering the conflicting loyalties of the different tribes, conflict became inevitable. In the 11th century, the Fatimids sent Arab bedouins to North Africa to assist their forces against other Berbers. Eventually, the influx of Arabs promoted the Arabization of the entire area.

Nevertheless, independent kingdoms did manage to establish themselves in the area. The greatest of these were the Almoravids, the Almohads, the Hafsids, and the Zayanids. These kingdoms were all led by Muslim leaders who greatly encouraged learning and the arts.

Meanwhile, the Catholics of Spain were involved in reconquering southern Spain from Muslim control. Spain had become a cosmopolitan and pluralistic center of learning under Muslim rule. The Spanish conquest in 1492, however, fundamentally changed the character of the area. The new rulers forced all Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity. Many fled to North Africa, and a sizable community of Jews settled in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Tunis changed hands a number of times until 1574, when Muslim troops loyal to the Ottoman Empire (based in present-day Turkey), finally established rule over Tunis.

The Ottoman empire controlled Tunisia through appointed governors, or Beys, for the next 250 years. However, by the beginning of the 1800s, real power was in the hands of the Beys, who had established the Husayn dynasty. In 1830, France invaded neighboring Algeria on a self-proclaimed “civilizing mission.” In June of that year, 34,000 French soldiers invaded Algiers, and after a three-week battle, took the city. Then, in 1835, the Ottomans re-established direct rule in Libya. In light of the brutality of the French invasion and subsequent annexation of Algeria by France, a direct threat to Tunisia's west, and increased Ottoman power in Libya, to the east, the Tunisian leaders instituted a number of policies thought to be favorable to Europe.

Tunisia quickly attempted to modernize its government institutions and build a modern army. Tunisia took huge loans from French banks in order to pay for the reforms. Mustafa Khaznader, the prime minister and treasurer at the time, unscrupulously cooperated with French banks to build up a large personal fortune while allowing France to charge extortionately high interest rates for its loans. This provided France with a lever to further its colonialist goals in Tunisia.

Eventually, as Turkish power weakened worldwide, Europe began imposing reforms on Turkey as well as Tunisia designed to make the economic environment more favorable for European exploitation. Meanwhile, the Tunisian government's policies of assuming huge loans from an obliging France, as well as famines and the plague, finally led to its bankruptcy. In 1868, Tunisia was forced to give up control over its financial affairs to a commission of French, British, and Italian bankers called the International Financial Commission (IFC). The Europeans restructured Tunisia's economy to provide payments to the European banks. Lands, for example, were confiscated from Tunisians and sold to Europeans.

In 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, Britain and France secretly agreed to allow each other the “right” to take over certain Ottoman territories. Britain took Cyprus, and France was given Tunisia. France, however, had to wait until 1881 for an excuse to invade Tunisia from Algeria. Using the pretense that tribes-men from Tunisia had raided in Algeria, France sent more than 40,000 troops to take over Tunis. In the south, a tribal leader named Ali ben Khalifa, with the help of Ottomans in Libya, held out until 1883.

France established what it called a “protectorate” in Tunisia, creating a model to be followed by a number of European countries thereafter. The leaders in the country were allowed to remain in power and personally profit from the occupation as long as they provided legitimacy for France's presence.

Unlike the brutal occupation in Algeria, the colonization of Tunisia was a more gradual affair. Parallel institutions were created for Europeans and Muslims. French corporations moved in to take over the best land. The previous inhabitants of these areas were then hired as low-wage earners for the French corporations.

As in most occupied Muslim territories, a new nationalist class composed of Western-educated leaders developed in Tunisia. At first, they carefully asked for more rights and greater equality with the Europeans, never challenging the French occupation of the country. This made them more popular with the elite Tunisians, who also had been educated in the West, than with the overwhelming majority of Tunisians, who led a much tougher existence under occupation. In order to broaden their appeal, the nationalists, who called themselves the “Young Tunisians,” also began advocating the rights of Tunisian workers.

During World War I (1914–18), more than 60,000 Tunisians joined the French army to fight in Europe, expecting more rights upon their return. They were sorely disappointed, however, thereby increasing support for the nationalists. As the Young Tunisians became more popular and organized themselves into political parties, they were able to exert greater political influence on Tunisians, through newspapers and direct petitions to the government. The French began to take tougher action against them and on 9 April 1938, the French killed 122 rioting Tunisians and many prominent nationalists were arrested.

During World War II (1939–45), the Muslims joined the French forces in opposing the Nazi invasion. Once France was quickly defeated by Hitler's forces, the local French government in Tunisia also joined Hitler's forces and allied with Mussolini's Italy.

As the Germans took over the area, they freed Arab nationalist leaders, including Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. Germany tried to court favor with the nationalists, urging them to provide support for the fascists. Despite their profound distrust of French leaders, the nationalists unanimously refused to issue any statements of support for Germany.

Coordinated attacks by American and Free French forces from the west and British forces from the east eventually defeated the German and Italian armies in North Africa, with heavy fighting on Tunisian soil. Tunisians once again had high expectations that they would be granted independence as a reward for their steadfast support of the Allies. Bourguiba even had a personal correspondence with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressing his admiration of American democracy and urging American support for self-determination in Tunisia. The Allies, however, were more interested in maintaining the status quo, fearing instability if independence were granted to any colonies. The French leaders were reinstated in Tunisia, and the nationalists were once again imprisoned.

By 1952, Tunisian resistance turned violent, and many civilians—European and Arab—were killed. By 1954, the French decided to negotiate an agreement in Tunisia while exerting most of their military efforts in Algeria. Internal autonomy was provided to Tunisians for the first time since the protectorate. By 1956, Tunisia was officially independent and in 1957, the monarchy was abolished and Habib Bourguiba became the country's first president. Although France maintained military forces in Tunisia along with a large settler presence, the nationalists' gradual approach to independence was in stark contrast to the bitter war in neighboring Algeria.

After independence, Tunisia became a one-party socialist state ruled by Bourguiba's Neo-Destour (the New Constitution) Party. French law was maintained on many civil issues at the expense of Muslim sensibilities. For example, a part of the Al Zaytuna mosque, the center for Muslim scholarship, was incorporated into the University of Tunis, but the rest of the center was simply closed down. Tunisia announced a policy of non-alignment, allying with neither the Soviet Union nor the United States, although in practice Tunisia continued to have very close relations with France and, in recent years, with the United States.

Bourguiba personally led Tunisia to adopt Western laws and practices in public and private spheres. Polygamy, or the practice of marrying more than one wife, was outlawed. Women were provided with social rights similar to men. In order to increase productivity, Bourguiba even encouraged Muslims to stop fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan as required by Islam.

However, Bourguiba did not extend his Westernizing policies to politics. Under his strong one-party rule, all dissension was effectively quashed, and opposition to his policies was viewed as sedition. By the 1970s, the strong-arm tactics of the government and the lack of political freedom led to a series of strikes and demonstrations by students and unions. These were also encouraged by rising unemployment and lower standards of living resulting from the government's economic policies. By 1977 the army was called in to fight demonstrators and strikers for the first time since independence, and in 1978, 150 Tunisians were killed in clashes with security forces.

Opposition parties, some in exile and some in Tunisia, began to form. One of the most influential was the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI). The MTI wanted to promote economic reform along with the increased “Islamization” of the state. Eventually, the government began taking stronger action against MTI activists, finally arresting their leader, Rachid al-Gannouchi, and thus causing further disturbances. The aging Bourguiba had become increasingly authoritarian and erratic in his behavior, and attempted to have the head of the MTI executed. The United States and France both intervened, fearing civil unrest if the order were carried out. Although Bourguiba at first acquiesced, he once again attempted to have Gannouchi executed and was finally deposed by his prime minister, Zine al-'Abidine Ben 'Ali, a 51-year-old former army general trained in the United States. Gannouchi was subsequently exiled from Tunisia. In 2008 Ben 'Ali remained in charge of Tunisia as president.

Ben 'Ali stabilized the situation by calling for political pluralism and respect for human rights. In strong contrast to the secular Bourguiba, Ben 'Ali publicly acknowledged Tunisia's Arab Islamic heritage. However, within a couple of years this atmosphere of trust and openness was gone and most of the leadership of the MTI (which had changed its name to Al Nahda) were either imprisoned or in exile. Ben 'Ali refused to support U.S. intervention in the first Gulf War in 1991. This move angered the United States and the European Union (EU) but was popular with Tunisians.

After introducing a highly restricted form of political pluralism, Ben 'Ali went on to win three landslide election victories, gaining over 98% of the vote. Facing constitutional term limits, he engineered a constitutional change that cleared the way for him to continue to run for the presidency indefinitely. Economically, his rule has been relatively successful, with Tunisia among the most liberalized economies in Africa and the Middle East. Unlike its neighbor Algeria, which has experienced varying degrees of civil war between secularist and Islamist factions since the 1990s, Tunisia has remained a reliable, relatively secular ally of Western power in the region.


Tunisia has a population of 10.25 million, 24% of whom are under the age of 14. Some 300,000 Tunisians live abroad, many in France. Half the population in Tunisia lives in urban areas, with the remainder in rural areas. Unlike in other North African states, the Berber and Arab populations in Tunisia are completely intermixed, and all speak Arabic.

The country is located on the northern border of the continent of Africa. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Tripolitania (in northwest Libya) together form the region of the Maghrib. The Mediterranean Sea borders Tunisia on the north and east. The country has three gulfs: Tunis, Hammamet, and Gabes. Tunisia has an area of about 164,000 sq km (63,320 sq mi) and a coastline of about 1,600 km (994 mi). To the west, Tunisia shares a border with Algeria; to the south and east, it borders Libya. Northern Tunisia is relatively fertile and mountainous. The Dorsale mountain chain, Tunisia's branch of the Atlas Mountains, extends from the northeast to the southwest. The Mejerda River, which lies north of the mountains, rises in Algeria and drains into the Gulf of Tunis. The far south includes part of the Saharan desert.


Arabic is the national language of Tunisia. Arabic arrived with the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries, before which Berber dialects were the chief spoken languages. Berber is today used by very few Tunisians, mainly in the south of the country.

Arabic, a highly evolved Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic, is spoken by almost everyone. Written Arabic is in the form of classical Arabic or a simpler version called “modern standard,” which is taught in schools throughout the Arab world and is originally based on the Quran. This Arabic is used in the media, government, and literature throughout the Arab world, tying the Arab world together culturally. Tunisians also speak a North African dialectical Arabic that includes a number of slang terms, many from French. The Tunisian dialect also includes many Berber words, including the names for plants and geographic areas.

When the French occupied Tunisia, they emphasized the use of French. After independence, the new Tunisian government implemented a policy of reintroducing Arabic while maintaining the use of French. Today, French is used orally as well as in the sciences and the military and is important in education, international trade and government. About 60% of television programs are in Arabic and 40% are in French, and some of the major newspapers are printed in French. However, while most Tunisians have some knowledge of French, only an educated minority can speak it fluently.

Common women's names in Tunisia are Leila, Hayat, Wasila, and Mariam. Common men's names are Muhammad, Habib, Moncif, and 'Ali.


The Maghrib, including Tunisia, has many legends based on the exploits of Muslim leaders who acted as arbiters in disputes between families and tribal groups. These leaders often came from highly religious backgrounds and were considered well learned. They are called marabouts (holy men), and they were believed to have baraka (divine grace), which allowed them to perform miracles. Despite the fact that in Islam only God can bestow baraka, some marabouts have become saints in the popular mind, with sacred powers of their own and many Tunisians make pilgrimages to the tombs of these saints to ask for intercession. These tombs also act as focal points for local communities and as sites for yearly festivals, occasions for the reestablishment and confirmation of group solidarity. Many such tombs are located at or near particular landscape features, at natural springs, in forests, caves, or on hilltops, for example, suggesting links to more ancient religious beliefs. Before independence, Tunisian marabouts were very influential, but their popularity has dwindled since.

Many other folk beliefs have also lost popularity since independence, primarily because Bourguiba, the first president, encouraged modernization and discouraged superstition. Some Tunisians believe in evil spirits called jinn, who are said to assume the guise of animals so as not to be recognized. To ward off these evil spirits, Tunisians wear verses from the Quran on an amulet. They may also wear the khomsa (“hand of Fatima”), a charm in the shape of the right hand that protects against the evil eye.

Most folklore in Muslim countries tells stories of important figures in religious history. One such story, which is also cause for annual commemoration throughout the Islamic world, is that of al-Isra' wa al-Mi'raj. According to legend, on the 26th day of the Islamic month of Rajab, the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca, Saudi Arabia (then Hijaz) to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nocturnal visit to heaven.


The overwhelming majority (98%) of Tunisians are Muslims. Most Tunisians belong to the Maliki Sunni school of Islam, introduced by the Arab invasions in the 7th and 8th centuries. There are still remnants, however, of the Muslim Kharijite influence in the south, which espouses a stricter egalitarianism. Sufi Islam, which stresses the mystical nature of the divine and which was closely connected to the monarchy, has lost much of its former influence. There are also small Jewish and Christian minorities.

Islam teaches that God (Allah) regularly sent guidance to humans in the form of prophets, and Islam accepts the earlier Semitic prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last in the line of prophets sent with the message that there is only one God. Muslims also believe in heaven and hell, the Day of Judgment, and angels. The Quran is the holy book of Muslims, and it teaches that, to get to heaven, men and women must believe in God and do good works by struggling in God's way. Belief and action are tightly bound together in Muslim literature.

The Islamic religion has five pillars: (1) Muslims must pray five times a day; (2) Muslims must give alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) Muslims must fast during the month of Ramadan; (4) Muslims must make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) each Muslim must recite the shahada —ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah—which means “I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”

Most Tunisians use the Quran, Hadith (oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad) and a form of Shariah (Islamic law) to define and regulate their behavior, social relations, and daily rituals. The practice and belief of Islam varies, with the urban middle and upper classes generally being more open to the adoption of non-Muslim practices such as Western forms of dress (like the bikini), public socializing between the sexes, and the consumption of alcohol.

As in many other parts of the Muslim world, personal piety became highly politicized in the last decades of the 20th century. Many political parties have been created in opposition to authoritarian governments in the region, using Islamic symbols to promote their legitimacy and support within society. In Tunisia, where political parties based on such factors as religion, language, region or ethnicity are illegal, the main Islamist opposition group, Al Nahdah (“The Renaissance”), has been banned and its leaders imprisoned or exiled. The government has also responded by increasing harassment of Muslims who exhibit outward signs of piety either in their dress or behavior under the assumption that certain kinds of religious behavior, attendance at a particular mosque for example, is an indication of political opposition. This has not only begun to fracture society between the more “secular” and the more “religious”, but has also led to rising apathy and discontent towards civil society in general.


Tunisia commemorates secular and Muslim religious holidays. One major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the month of fasting called Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or sexual relations during the daytime in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate. In Tunisia, perhaps more so than any other Muslim nation except Turkey, the practice of fasting is quietly discouraged by the government, although the holiday at its end, Eid al-Fitr, is still celebrated for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham and his son to obey God's command in all things, even when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son. Eid al-Adha signals the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, which every Muslim must attempt to undertake at least once during his or her lifetime. Religious holidays are celebrated by going to the mosque for communal prayers and then coming home to large meals with family and visiting relatives. Islamic practice says that a part of the meat slaughtered for the feast is given to relatives and to the poor. More SufiIslamic holidays such as the Birthday of the Prophet Muhammed and the Feast of Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson at the Battle of Kerbala, usually involve communal visits to tombs and shrines.

Secular holidays include the Proclamation of the Republic Day (25 July); socialist May Day (or Labor Day, 1 May), which commemorates worker solidarity around the world; Independence Day (20 March); Martyrs' Day (9 April); to commemorate a French massacre of 122 Tunisians in 1938; and a holiday to mark the final evacuation of French troops in 1963 (15 October). There is also Constitution Day (1 June), Women's Day (13 August), and a holiday to mark the assumption of the presidency by Ben ‘Ali (7 November).


The main rites of passage are regulated by Islamic traditions. The birth of a child in Tunisia is a much-celebrated event. Immediately after she delivers a baby, a new mother is fed a creamy mixture of nuts, sesame seeds, honey, and butter, known as zareer. On the seventh day after the birth, guests visiting the mother and baby are given the same sweet desert in celebration of the birth. On the seventh day, it is also customary to slaughter a lamb and have a dinner party with friends and family who bring gifts for the newborn child.

Male circumcision is carried out an almost all Tunisian prepubescent males. The boys are dressed up in formal clothes, taken to the local hospital where the operation is quickly carried out. They are then taken home where they are visited by extended family, congratulated and presented with gifts.

Engagement can be a long and difficult process, with much negotiation over finances, etiquette and gifts. Marriage, almost universal in Tunisia, can be arranged through the extended family or according to individual choice, generally depending on the socioeconomic status of the family. Cousins are preferred, as they are seen to hold equal social status, a particularly important factor for girls. Mothers in Tunisia often search for brides for their sons in the hammmam (public bathhouse). On marriage, the bride is taken to the newly prepared house of the groom, who then enters and consummates the union. The newlyweds are usually left alone for several days before they reappear in public society.

Pilgrimage to Mecca, a duty for all Muslims, is the most important midlife rite of passage both for men and women. The extended family is usually closely involved in helping to prepare for and fund this costly journey. Much prayer and celebration surrounds the pilgrimage, and the returnees are addressed as hajj (men) or hajja (women), terms of real respect within the community.

Death is considered a natural transition and the soul is believed to live on. Mourners are encouraged to bury a loved one as soon as possible after death. The corpse is washed and wrapped in a shroud. It is then carried by a group of mourners dressed in red to the family tomb. There the body is laid on its left side facing Mecca. Condolences are given for three days after a death, and it is understood that the mourning period is over after the third day.


While Tunisian society is relatively egalitarian, traditional manners still inform behavior and women are expected to dress and behave with modesty in public. In public, many women will wear a sifsari (a long plain cloth garment with head covering) over their normal clothes. Men, too, are expected to show respect to women and each other. For example, a man should not smoke when in the company of his father. Brothers might choose to frequent different cafés so as not to inhibit each other's relaxation.

Upon greeting, men shake hands with other men and with women. Two men who have not seen each other for a long time may kiss on the cheeks. Women may either shake hands with other women or kiss each other on the cheeks. Men and women, however, cannot kiss one another in public, and it is considered improper for unmarried men and women to kiss. In formal settings, it is common to greet one another using titles, mainly French—Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle, Docteur, and Professeur. The Arabic word for Mr. is sayyid, Mrs. is sayyida, and Miss is anisa.

Boys and girls attend separate classes until they enter college, and there is little dating until a man and a woman are ready for marriage. Male-female relations are governed by the Islamic code of modesty, and men and women avoid public displays of affection.

As Muslims, Tunisians eat and shake hands with the right hand. Tunisians enjoy bathing in the hammams, or public bathhouses, which they visit to socialize. These have separate hours for men and women, except in some resort towns where hammams are unisex for the benefit of tourists. Cafés are popular hangouts for men in the evenings. Here they smoke chichas (water pipes) and play cards. Both men and women smoke, but women hesitate to do so in public.


The government has actively promoted housing development and the vast majority of Tunisian families own their own homes. Most of the main Tunisian cities contain a traditional Islamic core, colonial and postcolonial suburbs, and slum areas. The Islamic urban center is comprised of the mosque as communal political locus, the market for exchange, and the public baths for health, informal networking, and relaxation.

Tunisian homes differ from region to region, although most are built of stone, adobe, or concrete because of a scarcity of lumber. Most homes have white walls and blue doors. In Tunis, the capital, it is common to find luxury homes and modern apartment buildings. Tunis is crowded, as are the other Tunisian cities, because of a growing middle class, and because former country folk have moved into urban areas. In urban areas, homes sit directly adjacent to the roads; there are no front yards and very few windows. The front doors of houses open directly onto streets. Most single-family homes are small, and it is common for neighboring walls to touch each other. Many houses are built to two or three stories to make up for the small size of the foundation. The flat rooftops are commonly used as outdoor living space. As of the early 21st century, most houses had water, electricity, sewerage, and other public services.

Surrounding the capital, many families live in gourbis, which are permanent tents set up for those who had once tended flocks of animals but have now settled into a sedentary life. Rural families often live isolated on their farmland and access to sufficient water was increasingly a problem in the late 20th and early 21 century. In southern Tunisia, Berber dwellings are carved out of rocks, and in Matmata homes are built more than 6 m (20 ft) underground in enormous craters that have a central courtyard. Since these homes are built out of the mud and stones that are excavated for the construction, they tend to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Scenes from the 1977 movie Star Wars were filmed there.

Tunisian cities are connected by railroads and highways, 80% of which are metalled. Tunis has a modern tram system. Railroads reach most urban centers and the mines in the southwest, and provide a link to neighboring Algeria. Tunis, Bizerte, Sfax Gabes and Sousse are all major ports. Tunisia has five international airports, with the largest located in Tunis.

The Tunisian telephone system has been automated since the mid-1980s and international calls can be placed directly from homes. However, as of 2006, there were six times as many cellular phones as land lines. The telecommunications market has been deregulated and Internet access is rising rapidly, though it is subject to government censorship.

Upon the evacuation of the French forces, Tunisia's modern health care system virtually collapsed as the vast majority of doctors, who were of European origin, left the country. Since independence, Tunisia has made great improvements in health care, although much remains to be done. In 2003, the government spent over 7% of its budget on health care. A pyramid-like health care system was created in which the government constructed many local clinics and small hospitals that would refer more serious cases to larger regional hospitals, which, in turn, would refer the most serious cases to specialized hospitals in large cities. More than 80% of all health care provided is free. Even for those who must pay, the cost is subsidized. The greatest problem with the health care system is the concentration of facilities in Tunis. About 60% of all the country's doctors practice in the capital, leaving rural areas and other cities understaffed.

More traditional forms of health care also play a role in Tunisian society. The public baths, hammam, important for a variety of rituals, including engagements, weddings and pregnancy, is also a locus for medicine and healing. An innovative program of health care, and one that has received international praise, is based on the traditional postpartum visit to the hammam by the mother, about 40 days after giving birth. A group of Tunisian doctors adapted this custom so that postpartum women are provided with a comprehensive range of health care services for both themselves and their newborn child, and the program has been adopted nationally.

In parts of the center and south of the country especially, traditional ideas of health persist. In the practice of Tasfih, for example, pre-menstrual girls receive seven small cuts to the knee, recite ritual language, and eat raisins soaked in the blood from the knee to encourage chastity as they enter pubescence. Just before marriage, a similar ritual is then carried out to allow conjugal relations.


Before the French occupation, Tunisian family life was very traditional and based heavily on kinship ties. Tunisians lived with their extended families in tightly knit communities. A mother and father would live with their children in one home, and the father's parents would usually also live with them. As the male children married, they would bring their wives to the family as well. If a daughter became divorced or widowed, she too would live with the family. Children were raised by the entire extended family, and the people in a town paid close attention to all children in case they needed anything. Marriages were conducted by negotiation between the families of the bride and the groom.

A combination of the French occupation and the country's attempt to industrialize since independence have gone a long way to break down these traditional family structures. In the cities as well as rural areas, the nuclear family started to predominate. For example, by 2004 the average family consisted of only four members, and more than 11% of family heads were women, a consequence of widowhood, divorce, single parenting, and males emigrating to work abroad.

The role of women has changed most noticeably. Women had traditionally been segregated in public life; their primary responsibilities were raising children and taking care of the home and the husband. Although this remains the popular view even among the Westernized elite, the Tunisian government has passed a number of laws giving women social rights similar to those of men.

Society, however, has found it difficult to keep up with the law. Although educated men began seeking out educated women to marry, in part because they could have careers and bring home an additional income, the traditional expectations of women as keepers of the home and family have persisted. This has created unrealistic demands on women, who must essentially have two careers—one at home and one in the public sector. These clashes of expectations have contributed to a remarkably high divorce rate for a Muslim country—nearly 50%. Because of increased economic uncertainty, many families have begun to return to more traditional frameworks. Many marriages are still conducted within extended families, and some women have left their public careers to work at home.


Two trends in clothing are visible in Tunisia. Many Tunisians dress in Western-style clothing; Western suits for men and dresses for women are common. Traditional dress, however, also remains common, particularly in the villages and among the elderly. Tunisian men often were a chehia on their heads. This is a type of fez the shape and color of which vary depending on the part of Tunisia the wearer is from. The hat is made of brown or red felt and either rounded or flat-topped. The fez was made almost exclusively in Tunisia in the 19th century and exported throughout the Ottoman domains. Traditionally, men wear a jalabiyya (a long dress-like garment) and baggy pants.

Traditionally, women wear a sifsari (a long outer garment with loose folds and head covering) over Western-style dress. The sifsari is a practical garment, keeping women warm in the winter and protecting them from dusty winds in the summer. Country women wear a mellia (a large, loose head covering) draped across the head and shoulders. Berber women commonly use kohl (black eyeliner). Some tattoo their faces with ochre and blue designs, mainly on the forehead, cheeks, and chin. It is not strange to find women walking side-by-side in Tunis, one dressed in traditional sifsari and the other in a skirt and blouse. Since 1956 Bourguiba's secularization of Tunisian society and Ben ‘Ali's strict clampdown on Islamism have resulted in the government officially discouraging the wearing of the hijab (Muslim veil) by women. As in Turkey, female government employees are banned from wearing hijab and risk losing their jobs by doing so.


The most popular dish in Tunisia, as in all the Maghrib, is kusksi (couscous). This consists of semolina wheat sprinkled with oil and water and rolled into tiny grains. The grains are then steamed and ready for use in favorite recipes. Couscous can be mixed with a number of sauces (e.g., tomato sauce), and then combined with a stew of meat and/or vegetables. It is served regularly for lunch and dinner. Lamb cutlets, seafood, and shish kebabs are also common foods.

A very popular Tunisian salad is chakachouka, made of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and hard-boiled eggs. Mechouia (literally, “the grilled”) is a main course that combines grilled tomatoes, peppers, and onions with olive oil, tuna fish, sliced hard-boiled eggs, lemon juice, and capers. Tunisian food is often cooked and/or served with harissa, a hot red sauce made from chili peppers, spices, garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes.

Tunisians cook a variety of tajines, stews that are cooked in conical tajine earthenware dishes. Spinach tajine consists of beans, beef, onions, tomato sauce, pepper, spinach, and egg—all combined and baked in an oven. Other varieties of tajine make use of everything from chicken to prunes and honey. Reflecting the influence of the French colonial days, Franco-Tunisienne cuisine is common, especially in tourist restaurants and hotels. Seafood, especially lobster, is a prominent menu item. Tunisians commonly drink strong Turkish coffee and sweet mint tea. Pork and alcohol are both forbidden by Islamic religious code. However, alcohol is widely available and consumed, much of it produced by Tunisian companies.


One of the government's major reforms after independence was to emphasize education for children. The government adopted the French system, creating three levels of education. First, there is a six-year primary-level cycle that all students must attend. The secondary level includes a three-year comprehensive cycle. The third level includes a four-year cycle of specialized academic or technical education similar to the American university system. Students who do not go to the third level may enroll in three-year vocational cycles that teach students various technical trades. Women are considered the primary teachers of children and thus are encouraged to get an education. In agricultural areas, however, women's education takes second place to working in fields and caring for the home. Almost half of urban students are girls and nearly 40% of all university students are women, but the percentages are far lower in rural areas.

All schooling, even at the university level, is free. This includes books, school supplies, uniforms, and meals. University students in Tunisia and abroad receive stipends equal to those of a factory worker in Tunisia. However, in many cases, Tunisian students must supplement this with private funding. Classes are taught in French and Arabic, with an increasing emphasis on the latter. In the 1990s and early 2000s, English language materials were being used more frequently in Tunisian schools.

Literacy rates in Tunisia are evidence of the success of its education program. At independence, the nation had a literacy rate of only 30%. As of 2004, at least three quarters of the population over the age of 15 was considered literate, although rates for women stood at just 65% compared to over 80% for men.


Malouf is a uniquely Tunisian form of music, played on lutes, guitars, violins, and drums. It is thought that this music originated in North Africa and was exported to Spain in the 8th century. There it was influenced by Iberian folk songs and re-exported to Tunisia in the 17th century when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain. Today's malouf music is sad. Players sing along with the highly rhythmic music, and members of the audience often cry as they listen.

Tunisian literature, more in Arabic than French, has thrived. Such writers and poets as Tahar Haddad, Ali Douagi, and Aboul Kacem Chabbi have built international reputations for their work. There are increasing numbers of women writers and poets, such as Amina Sa'id and Hayat ben al-Shaykh. However, many, such as the poet Tahar Bekri, have chosen to remain outside the country owing to the lack of political freedom, thus limiting their Tunisian audience, especially if they write in French.

Tunisian film, a major focus of interest for Bourguiba, has earned a respectable international reputation. In the 1960s and 1970s, Omar Khilfi's films on anticolonial resistance, for example, were very successful and he became one of the most prolific directors in North African cinema. In the late 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of directors appeared, such as Selma Baccar, Ferid Boughedir, and Nourid Bouzid (a former political detainee). This generation focused more on sociopolitical critique, issues of gender, and comedy. The 1990s saw the rise of more women directors, including Moufida Tlatli, with a focus on women, the growing Islamism in Tunisia, and the effects of globalization on Tunisian society.


Slightly more than half of Tunisia's population works in agriculture. Since independence, a major focus has been on expanding industrial production. This has meant a broadening of types of employment for Tunisians. Many work at oil fields, in electricity production, in cement production, and in mineral mining (especially phosphates). Investments in the food industry have produced jobs in flour milling, sugar refining, vegetable canning, and water bottling, among others. One of the major employment sectors is tourism, and students attend tourism schools and institutes of hotel management to cater to the large pool of tourists who visit Tunisia in the summer months.

Traditionally men go out to work while women are expected to work at home, processing foods or spinning wool, for example. Some women work as agricultural wage labor, where they are paid half the men's rate. Many urban women also work, in factories, offices and as professionals, but they are still expected to fulfill the more traditional duties of the housewife. While child labor is relatively uncommon, unemployment levels in Tunisia are relatively high, officially about 14% in 2007, though unofficial rates are probably considerably higher.

Although poverty has declined significantly, from an estimated 40% in 1970 to 4% in 2000, rural poverty is four to five times the urban rate and the rural population remains vulnerable to economic downturn. There is considerable rural-to-urban migration in the search for work, and there are an estimated 400,000 Tunisians working overseas, particularly in the Persian Gulf countries.


Tunisia's national sport is soccer (“football”), which is both a spectator sport and played in the streets and open fields. Soccer in Tunisia is highly developed, with most towns fielding their own teams. Teams are organized into a three-tier league system. The Tunisian national team has qualified for the FIFA World Cup four times, and in 2004 it won the African Nations Cup.

Athletics is also becoming a major sport among both men and women, and Tunisian teams often win medals, particularly for long distance events. In the northern mountains, horse riding and hunting wild boar are popular. The development of tourism as a major industry has introduced and popularized such sports as scuba diving, windsurfing, and golf. Camel races are another spectator sport and are the focus of festivals, such as the International Festival of the Sahara, which began in 1910 and is held in Douz each November.


Tunisians hold many festivals throughout the year. Camel races are held at the International Festival of the Sahara, which is held in Douz each November. Parades are held at the festival in Nefta each April. Classical music and theatre performances are held at a festival in Dougga held each summer. In 1997 Dougga was named a UN World Heritage site. A falconry festival is held in el-Hawaria in June. Theater performances are held at the Roman theatre during the Carthage festival in July and August. The Carthage film festival is held biennially in October.

Tunisians seeking recreation often turn to water activities. They socialize while bathing in the hammam (public bath-house), and they flock to the beaches that line the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisians are also increasingly subscribing to satellite television and the Internet. There is a well-developed, though government-censored, press, reflecting the high rates of literacy.


Craftsmanship is an ancient tradition in Tunisia. Craftsmen make goods out of olive wood, copper, textiles, leather, wrought iron, glass, and ceramics. Pottery is made for everyday use, and molded pots are made in rural areas. Blankets, rugs, and grass mats are woven in rural areas. Hand-woven rugs and carpets are particularly popular, especially with tourists. Knotted carpets follow traditional decorative designs; Berber rugs (mergoums) are brightly colored and have geometric designs. Jewelry is also handmade. A very popular design is the shape of a hand, known as the khomsa, or the “hand of Fatima.” This is made of either gold or silver and found on earrings and pendants.


The greatest problems facing Tunisia today stem from continued economic stagnation and a lack of political freedom. The growing Tunisian middle class (80% of the population) is pushing for greater participation in society, for greater political freedom and pluralism, and for an expanded and more independent civil society, currently dominated by huge government funded organizations. Although Tunisia is a highly secular society and the government has banned Islamist groups, the failure of the government to positively address economic and political complaints has contributed to the growth of a religious conservatism among both urban and rural dwellers. Monitoring and controlling this has led to an expansion of the security services and a deteriorating human rights record, and in the winter of 2006–2007, security forces engaged in armed clashes with Islamist terror cells on the outskirts of Tunis.

While college studies have been emphasized as part of the nation's education drive, this has resulted in an excess of graduates who cannot find appropriate jobs, particularly in nonscientific fields such as languages and social sciences. Unemployment and social problems related to it are expected to increase, as many educated Tunisians are unable to find suitable work. The labor market was already tight in the 1990s; it will be hard-pressed to meet the demands of the next two decades. In the past, many Tunisians emigrated to France and Italy in search of work. However, the immigration policies of European countries, in response to their own economic and political conditions, have become stricter. Laws to further limit immigration to European nations were expected to be passed, which will certainly increase social pressures in Tunisia.


Gender issues in Tunisia are dominated by the Code of Personal Status (CPS) or majalla of 1956, a key part of Bourguiba's program of secularization and modernization. The CPS, revolutionary for its time, regulated marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance and profoundly changed family law and the legal status of women by significantly expanding their rights and responsibilities. For example, polygamy and forced marriage were criminalized, a minimum age for marriage for women was established, and a man's right to divorce through simple repudiation was abolished. The result of this was that women were generally considered by law to be equal to men in terms of inheritance, ownership of property, custody of children, and divorce.

Since its passage, the CPS has been almost updated frequently, to increase separated and divorced women's control over their minor children, establish a fund to support divorced women and their dependent families, and to allow women to marry non-Muslims, for example. The CPS therefore lies at the core of the Arab world's most gender-progressive society.

Tunisian society is characterized by high divorce rates, around 50%, and female-headed households are common. Contraception is widely available and socially accepted. Abortion for the first trimester is fully legal (the only Arab country where this is the case). In addition, there are a number of increasingly powerful women's political, economic, and social organizations. Tunisia's statistics for school and higher education enrollment, life expectancy, and reproductive health are all at the high end for both Africa and the Middle East. There are significant numbers of women in politics, business, and the professions: almost half of all doctors and secondary school teachers, a third of lawyers and journalists, and a quarter of all judges are women.

In practice, women in Tunisia still face discrimination on individual and collective levels. Many working women are expected to fulfill their duties as housewives and recent research has found that sexual harassment remains ubiquitous. On the other hand, the incidence of rural teenage girls being employed as domestics or for agricultural labor is declining, mainly due to effective law enforcement.

Homosexuality is illegal in Tunisia and there is no formal lobbying focus for gay or transgender rights.


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—revised by J. Henry