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?”
had pondered this question many times before, but the answers I got hit me like
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’.
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
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
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.
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
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
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!