Tunisian women build momentum in fight against sexual violence

Victims of sexual violence continue to face numerous obstacles from law enforcement and the judicial system.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Tunisian women protest outside the government headquarters in Tunis, chanting a Chilean feminist song titled “The rapist is you!”              (Youssef Abdellah Ben Ammar)
A cry for justice. Tunisian women protest outside the government headquarters in Tunis, chanting a Chilean feminist song titled “The rapist is you!” (Youssef Abdellah Ben Ammar)

TUNIS - While Tunisia is often hailed as a pioneer for women’s rights, violence against women remains a widespread problem in the country, activists leading a campaign against harassment and abuse said.

Tunisian women raised their voices against sexual assault and harassment as part of the #EnaZeda (MeToo) movement, collecting hundreds of testimonies from victims and leading demonstrations in Tunis.

The campaign began in October, when photographs of a political candidate allegedly masturbating outside of a high school went viral on social media. The photo, taken by a girl who said she was harassed by the prospective politician, sparked uproar and led others to speak out about their experiences.

Outrage grew after the man was elected to parliament and given immunity, meaning no charges can likely be filed against him until his term expires.

On December 14, approximately 100 women protested outside the government headquarters in Tunis, chanting a Chilean feminist song titled “The rapist is you!”

One participant, Khawla Ksiksi, said the event made her “feel both brave and safe at the same time.”

“For the first time, I felt I was not alone,” she said.

The event was organised by a new feminist group “Falgatna” (We’re Fed Up), which said it prides itself on being “an independent, feminist, citizenry movement that aims to resist patriarchy, discrimination and violence against women, assigned at birth or identifying as women.”

“The idea for the mobilisation developed over time and we created Falgatna, an independent feminist and intersectional platform to denounce violence,” said Amal bint Nadia, one of the group’s organisers.

“The platform is independent in relation to all existing organisations and initiatives and it is without leadership. We are also all volunteers and we rely essentially on funding provided by members of the movement,” she explained.

“In this regard, we hope for Falgatna to remain as independent as much as possible from donors, who usually interfere in the perspectives of such projects.”

Since Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, feminists’ efforts to address violence against women have gained momentum but there is a long way to go to change the culture, they said.

“A sensitive issue such as violence against women does not appear overnight,” said Ksiksi. “I think violence has been rooted in our society as a result of the autocracy that prevailed during the era of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — an autocracy that generated cultural phenomena like individualism and indifference.”

“After the revolution, I believe people have become more daring in the absence of the fear factor created by the old regime. Today, in fact, there’s no iron fist anymore to punish those involved in violence or those encouraging violence,” she said.

Ksiksi added that activists’ work has been bolstered by Tunisia’s increased “margin of freedom” after the revolution, as well as technological advances that allow them to easily link to the rest of the world

“Today, we have found out about new concepts such as mental shock that allowed us to identify and delineate some crimes such as harassment and gender-based violence,” she said. “In the past, we didn’t really know how to behave with victims. The more we understand, the more we see the failures of the system at hand and we double our efforts to expose these failures to the general public.”

In July 2017, Tunisian lawmakers passed legislation aimed at eliminating violence against women. The law prohibited physical, economic and psychological abuse against women and outlawed public harassment. It scrapped a loophole that allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.

Two-and-a-half years later, however, activists say the law has not been effectively implemented and failed to deliver its declared objectives.

“(The 2017 legislation) was a great leap forward but it is not as revolutionary as it was branded when it was passed” said bint Nadia.

“If we are to compare it with other legislation in the MENA region, the law actually constitutes an advance. However, when this law was approved, we heard much about the various mechanisms to activate it and a whole strategy to work on education and awareness, but so far we have seen nothing, except for a meagre decision to include sexual education in school curriculum.”

“The concern here is that sexual education does not necessarily mean gender education or raising awareness about rights and individual freedoms,” she added.

Victims of sexual violence continue to face numerous obstacles from law enforcement and the judicial system, bint Nadia said.

“Accessing justice in Tunisia is difficult. To file a complaint against violence, you must find a lawyer, pay the fees, go to a police station because when you contact the police, they don’t necessarily move to the scene of the aggression,” she said. “Now and then, officers at a police station reject the complaint and rather redirect the victim to the Brigade for the Eradication of Violence Against Women and Children.

“The misfortune does not stop there. To prove the aggression, the victim needs to go to a public hospital and there they must wait for long hours. To cut it short, this could amount to a moral and emotional violence that adds to the pain of the victim.”

Bint Nadia, Ksiksi and others committed to ensuring Tunisia’s hard-won legislation translates to real improvement in women’s lives hope that movements Falgatna and #EnaZeda can help move forward the cause of women’s rights.

“I hope Falgatna will gain momentum as a mobilisation force that will raise awareness about violence against women and harassment, including the lasting effect on victims,” said Ksiksi.

“I’d also love the campaign to act as a force to exert pressure on sexist and misogynistic politicians while providing a space for women to shed light on some key concepts and notions.”