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Halima Ettounsi always wished for a lavish traditional Tunisian wedding.
She describes it as one-of-a-kind and remarkable, “with memories that will last a lifetime.”
“It’s difficult to put into words how it feels. You have to be there to understand how unique it is,” Ettounsi, a social expert, told Fanack.
The North African country, located on the Mediterranean Sea’s coast, is rich in cultural diversity and distinct customs.
Traditional marriages differ by governorate and family, according to Ettounsi.
“Weddings are not standard,” she explained. “It is entirely up to the couple and their family. However, there is always a desire to add a traditional touch.”
Tunisia is rich in traditions passed down from generation to generation, whether it’s food, clothing, music, rituals, or gestures.
Wedding ceremonies in a nation where Islam is practiced by the majority of the population differ from those in other mostly Muslim Middle Eastern countries such as the Gulf and the Levant.
While wedding customs are still practiced across the country, social analysts observe that exorbitant costs, particularly in light of rising inflation rates, signal the beginning of more modest, less extravagant ceremonies.
A brief history
Nestled between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia played a central role in antiquity.
The Phoenicians, master traders and negotiators, chose Carthage in 1814 BCE to construct a great metropolis controlling commerce and extending their political authority.
The Romans then won the Punic Wars against the Carthaginians in 264 – 146 BCE and settled in Tunisia for six centuries where they developed the country’s economy by encouraging local production and exports.
When the Roman Empire fell, Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, most notably, the Vandals before falling under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, which in turn was conquered by the Arabs in 647 CE.
In the years that followed, waves of migration from the Arab and Ottoman worlds turned the population that was previously descended from indigenous tribes into a cultural composite.
Following the French invasion, Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. By 1884, the French had taken control of all administrative offices and fostered the installation of French settlements across the nation, increasing from 34,000 in 1906 to 144,000 colonists by 1945, occupying one-fifth of the cultivable land.
This French influence left substantial marks on the language, architecture, and culture, which was more prevalent in the north than in the south, where tradition still dominates till present, according to Tunisian Journalist Imen Bliwa.
“I’m originally from the south but now reside in the north, and the difference is noticeable. While all Tunisians follow the same traditions, northerners are more likely to have western-style weddings,” Bliwa said.
In Tunisia, summer is the unofficial wedding season. Wedding ceremonies are typically three days long, but in other regions, the celebrations can go up to seven days, and in exceptional situations, even longer.
“More rituals entail more spending,” Bliwa explained, “which is why most people stick to 3-4 days instead of the usual 7.”
The bride and her family begin preparing for her new home weeks, if not years, before the wedding by shopping for furniture, textiles, carpets, and various household items such as cooking utensils.
According to Bliwa, once the wedding date is chosen, the bride’s family gathers to present the items with traditional melodies and instruments declaring the “commencement” (badou) of the festivities.
Henna for good luck
The “hammam” is one of the oldest rituals in the MENA region that follows ancient cleansing principles said to purify the mind and the body.
The three-day celebrations then begin in the early morning when the couple signs legal documents officiating their marriage in a civil court, in the attendance of friends and family.
“The bride dons a white traditional dress with a white veil covering her hair, and the groom is typically dressed in a white thobe that complements his wife-to-be’s attire,” Ettounsi explained.
Some families prefer to have court personnel sent out to their homes where contracts can be signed separately, she added.
In the evening, the bride holds a henna party – a centuries-old ritual that transcends cultures and geography, as evident in Africa, India, and the Middle East.
Henna is believed to bring good luck and positive spirits to the couple. Friends, family from both sides, and even the community at large can attend the ceremony as a way to wish the bride prosperity as she journeys into her new life.
Henna is frequently used to embellish the hands and feet in elaborate designs, and the intricate designs formed out of henna are known as “harkous.”
Guests then form a queue to place money between the bride’s fingers or around her neckline. According to Ettounsi, gold is offered as a gesture of support in exceptional cases.
Extravagance meets communal support
While the gowns for henna night differ greatly, Ettounsi claims that they all possess the same degree of extravagance.
“Traditionally, Tunisian brides do not hide their riches, and women from the coast prefer a golden square-shaped attire consisting of a vest, loose pants, and a jacket,” Ettounsi said.
People in the southern part of the country, on the other hand, prefer vividly colored Amazigh-style gowns that are open on the sides and belted at the waist.
The Amazigh tribes retain hidden rites that have survived decades of displacement and colonialism. This is why some Amazigh families hold strong to traditional local laws that forbid their daughters from marrying Arab men.
Nevertheless, all Tunisian brides, according to Bliwa, are usually adorned with jewels and gold accessories that are either inherited or rented for the henna night.
According to the journalist, brides also perform a traditional dance from their region of origin, while guests feast on Tunisian cakes and desserts.
The grand finale
On the second day, the groom slaughters a sheep or a cow, depending on the number of visitors, to cook meals for the attending guests, according to Ettounsi.
In the evening, the groom will enjoy his own henna night. Bliwa notes that henna for men is kept simple, with only little sections on the fingers adorned. The night is allotted for guests to donate money to help with wedding expenses.
On the third day, the much-anticipated wedding ceremony begins. According to Ettounsi, some families are more communal, choosing to share responsibilities such as cooking, organizing, cleaning, and managing visitors, while others may wish to demonstrate greater “prestige” by hiring a team to handle such matters.
“It’s like a huge family project when the whole family comes together for communal families. We all share our resources and finances to make sure the night is successful,” she said.
The newlyweds then enter dressed in the formal tuxedo and a white dress, while guests dance, sing, and feast on traditional Tunisian food, most notably, couscous with lamb or local-style pasta.
Tradition with a modern twist
Honeymoons, according to Bliwa, are a growing trend among younger couples. Some couples are prioritizing vacation over ceremonies due to the high costs and planning.
“It’s especially noticeable in the north, where individuals are beginning to hold one-night marriages. It’s interesting to watch because it’s new and not as popular,” she said.
Despite the country’s modernization coupled with a distinct devotion to ancestral traditions, several discriminatory conventions have survived and continue to burden Tunisian brides.
In recent years, more Tunisian women have opted for hymenoplasty, a “virginity restoration” procedure to reconstruct a woman’s hymen for the wedding night.
According to one doctor who spoke to the BBC, 99% of patients are driven by the fear of bringing shame to their families and fear of rejection from their future husbands.
Women, hailing mostly from the low-income communities, are often pressured into spending between $550 to $960 on the 30-minute operation to regain “purity.”
“Virginity certifies a woman’s validity in our society where her purpose is essentially sexual and reproductive, while men have to ‘train’ so that they are sexually mature when they get married,” one doctor said.
While this procedure is not unique to young women in Tunisia, it does signal a tradition in the MENA region that is not about to die any time soon.