The Tunisian Woman: Another Arab Woman?

I’ve just got back from a Human Rights Summer Camp with Amnesty International in my hometown Chebba (Tunisia) and I can’t say that I am the same person anymore. Have you ever posed to yourself,  “how much do I really know about my country and is my way of seeing things realistic?”    
 I had pondered this question many times before, but the answers I got hit me like a tornado!
I genuinely thought that I knew the situation of women rights in Tunisia and the “level” of gender inequality quite well. But, as I exchanged my thoughts with a group of young people and trainers from all corners of the country, it dawned on me that I had missed the ‘bigger picture’.
It wasn’t about things I never heard of, but about social common phenomenon which I didn’t know were so common. I am not your overly optimistic kind of person about the rights of women in Tunisia. In fact, if asked to comment, I almost never answer that “the Tunisian woman is the luckiest among Arab women!” Instead I used to be apologetic, fidgeting with the phrase: “This is how she is usually seen by an outsider but I think there are SOME drawbacks you should probably know.” I only knew of SOME, in fact, I thought of SOME but I realized I was way off track. I had veered off the grid and I will tell you why. The answer is based on two broad phenomena: Domestic Violence and Rape/Sexual Harassment
Domestic Violence:
The fact that I was born in a family (including my extended family) where I never saw or heard about violence between spouses (lucky me!), blinded me concerning the fact that 1 in 5 Tunisian women is a victim of domestic violence (according to The National Survey on Violence towards Women in Tunisia).
Beyond the shock that such numbers can cause. I was even more shocked when I learnt more about the social acceptance and contribution to such a phenomenon. Domestic violence is seen in many regions as a sign of manhood. In some rural regions, they believe that a husband must beat his wife to educate her. Those who speak for violence quip that “domestic violence is not a crime; things happen between a man and his wife, it’s not such a big deal!” Even in Islam it is legitimate to beat one’s wife, it’s for her good! and wives are said to provoke their husbands into beating them It Is fondly referred to as chastisement. A little for the good manners they say. Barbaric and inhumane! It’s violence not some sort of tease play!
Ever wondered what the Tunisian masculine society think about domestic violence and not the minority civil rights activists? Yes, those were some very “common” answers.
I think my shock almost reached its edge when I heard several testimonies about the complicity of police officers and doctors (who are supposed to be educated people) in many cases of domestic violence: a police officer would ignore the victim trying to pursue her offending husband, a doctor who would give a victim a sick note of only 3 days because the offender was the husband. The doctor would easily get a sick note for a much longer period if she claims that the assault was conducted by an unknown aggressor.
As a result, and as a mitigating factor, some women rights NGOs in Tunisia ask women to not mention that the offender is the husband so they can get real attention. This kind of complicity unfortunately also confronted many victims of rape and sexual harassment.
Rape/Sexual Harassment:
Many Tunisian readers would possibly relate to the much talked about “rape of Mariem”. A Tunisian young woman who was raped by the police in April 2013and then got accused of indecency! This is what I knew about rape in Tunisia besides the fact that it was a phase of the torturing procedure within Ben Ali’s regime. Plus, I would read about some cases in the newspaper from time to time. But I was in some naïve way convinced that we are fine. At least we didn’t have daily gang rapes like in some areas in Egypt .Rape is not phenomenon daily occurrence in Tunisia, it is a crime which happens I’d tell myself.
After a conversation with a woman rights activist and a psychologist, I had many beliefs fall apart and I came to a new conclusion: rape is a phenomenon in Tunisia. It happens but it is UNSEEN and it is UNSPOKEN. The Tunisian woman is yet another Arab woman who suffers from a suppressed sexually-frustrated society; “the more it bans sex the more it’s obsessed with it” (Michel Foucault).
Moreover, as in many Arab countries, statistically, the assaulter (rape or sexual harassment) is often a family member. Also, statistically, most victims don’t take any steps in order to file a claim against the offender or get help (a psychological treatment) and it’s even more complicated when it is about spousal rape.
On the contrary, most of the unmarried victims who lose their virginity to rape seek repairing surgery because of the stigma and the trauma that rape brings and their prospective exclusion if even by any works of the devil they dare not have their hymen intact! They opt for plastic, not for themselves but for the society. This society that is so bent on virginity and not justice. This society that glorifies fathers at the expense of mothers. This society that for a long time, I was apologetic for. This society that I now see quite clearly. Yes, the victim doesn’t have the time to be a victim; she has to do as much as she possibly can to satisfy the society as her virginity is the equivalent of her family’s honor not her own.
Spousal rape, it is not illegal neither is it shunned by society. For many people this kind of rape cannot exist because for them, sex in marriage (even if it is forced) is sex. The chosen right of the spouse. The undeniable privilege. Regardless of how unsatisfying or demeaning, nothing more nothing less!

Women rights NGO’s are still fighting to have it penalized and to raise awareness about it within the Tunisian society. Sadly, even some female Tunisian members of the National Constituent Assembly, who are now writing the Tunisian constitution, don’t acknowledge it!


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