In general, though Tunisians consider themselves to be more liberal and tolerant than their neighbours—most urban women, for example, dress in Western clothes and do not veil themselves, and (though it is considered inappropriate by some Tunisian Muslims) locally made wines and spirits are consumed—they still maintain a strong Islamic identity. Thus, Tunisians absorb new cultural influences from abroad while insisting on upholding their own values, but they are also vigilant about the impact of Western influence on their way of life. Those concerns led to a revival of some forms of social and religious conservatism in the 1990s, notably affecting women in the public sphere. Street cafés have increasingly become the preserve of men, especially in rural areas where relations between the sexes are still governed by conservative social norms.
Even Westernized Tunisians adhere to certain traditional values; foremost among these is the role of the family as the centre of social life. Meals are an important time for families to gather. Tunisian cuisine consists of a medley of European cuisine—largely French and Italian—and traditional dishes. As in the rest of the Maghrib, couscous, a semolina-based pasta, is a staple of virtually every meal and is customarily served with a rich stew. Other native basics are lamb, peppers, onions, chickpeas (often served in cakes as a dessert), and olive oil. Various types of seafood can be found near the coast. Unlike other cuisines of the Maghrib, Tunisian food is replete with hot spices, and harissa, a fiery red sauce, is served with most dishes.
Tunisians observe the standard Islamic holidays as well as several secular and national holidays, such as Independence Day (March 20) and Women’s Day (August 13).
Contemporary Tunisian painting can also lay claim to a certain tradition, with the École de Tunis being foremost among artistic institutions. Tunisian artists such as Hamadi Ben Saad and Hassen Soufy enjoy a genuine local celebrity and have also exhibited abroad. Music- and theatre-based cultural festivals—notably the Carthage International Festival, the Testour Maalouf Festival of traditional Andalusian malouf (maʾlūf) music, the Sousse International Cultural Festival, and the International Jazz Festival of Tabarka—have become a feature of Tunisian life. Since Tunisians have generally been concerned about the influence of tourism on their social and cultural lives, the country’s premier music conservatory, the Rashīdiyya Institute (1934), devotes attention mainly to national traditions while emphasizing classical European heritage. Tunisians are especially proud of El-Azifet, an exclusively female ensemble inspired by traditional malouf and mouachah (muwashshaḥ) music and traditional musicians such as Anouar Brahem.