The Tunisian Woman: Another Arab Woman? Part 2 by Rahma Sghaier, Tunisia


I’ve just got back from a Human Rights Summer Camp with Amnesty International in my hometown Chebba (Tunisia) and you know what? I am not the same person as when I started.

Have you ever asked yourself: “How much do I really know about my country?” “Is my way of seeing things realistic?” Well, I think I did, many times, even before the camp. However, I didn’t expect some answers to hit me like a truck! I genuinely thought that I knew quite well the situation of women rights in Tunisia and the level of gender inequality. But, as I exchanged my thoughts with a group of youth and trainers from all over the country, I found out that I was missing the bigger picture. It wasn’t about things I never heard of, but about social common phenomenons which I didn’t know were so common. I mean I am not a very optimistic kind of person who would  answer upon being asked about women’s rights in Tunisia: “the Tunisian woman is the luckiest among Arab women!” Instead I used to answer: “This is how she is usually seen by an outsider but I think there are SOME drawbacks you should probably know about.” So do you wonder what am I talking about? As a matter of fact, I was wrong about that idea that there are only some drawbacks. I want to give you a brief answer, so I chose to categorize the new inputs, (resuming not theorizing) into two main phenomenons: Domestic Violence and Rape/Sexual Harassment Domestic Violence:                                      The fact that I am born in a family, even my extended family, where I never saw or heard about violence between spouses (lucky me), blinded me to the fact that 1 in 5 Tunisian women is 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 learned 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”. “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!”, “Wives provoke their husbands into beating them”… Do you ever wonder what the Tunisian masculine society thinks about domestic violence and not the minority of civil rights activists?  Yes, those were some very some very commonly heard answers. I think my shock almost reached its tipping point 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 who is trying to pursue her offending husband, a doctor who would give a victim a sick note of only 3 days because the offender is the husband. Take into consideration that she would easily get a sick note for a much longer period if she claimed that the assault was conducted by an unknown aggressor. Such behaviors went on to the point that some women rights NGOs in Tunisia ask women not to mention that the offender is her  husband so they could get real attention! This kind of complicity unfortunately confronts 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 cops (April 2013) and 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 a naïve way convinced that we are fine. “At least we don’t have daily gang rape like in Egypt” “Rape is not a phenomenon in Tunisia, it is a crime which happens” I’d tell myself. After a conversation with a woman rights activist and a pscyhotherapist, I had many of my beliefs fall apart and I came to a new conclusion: rape is a phenomenon in Tunisia. It happens but it is UNSEEN. The Tunisian woman is another Arab woman which 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 membe.  Also, statistically, most victims don’t take 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 concerning spousal rape. On the contrary, most of the victims who lost their virginity (non-married) hurry to get the repairing surgery to put a plastic piece instead of their virginity!Yes, the victim doesn’t have the time to be a victim, she has to do as much as she possibly can to satisfy soceities demands, as her virginity is the equivalent of her family’s honor… As for the spousal rape, it is not yet rejected/penalized by both legislator and society. For many people this kind of rape can’t exist because for them, sex under marriage is sex, nothing more nothing less. Women rights NGO’s are still fighting to penalize this and to raise awareness about it within the Tunisian society, as even some female Tunisian members of the NCA (who are now writing the Tunisian constitution) don’t acknowledge it! Based on the all the above mentioned, I admit that Women Rights activists in Tunisia as in many countries in MENA region, still have a long way to go. These were major women rights violations. I call victims to break the wall of silence and to defend themselves. This fight may take  long; there is a whole culture of violence in question. Though, you have nothing to fear! The society which you are desperately trying to satisfy is the place  from which your rapists have emerged…  Say No to violence, say No to rape! Rahma Sghaier, YaLa Young Leaders

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