Tunisia: an Important Step Forward to Protect Women’s Rights
Francesca Bellino 18 September 2017

Summer in Tunisia this year has been characterised by a lively debate between political parties and civil society concerning women’s rights and this, once again, has revealed the desire for democracy and a capacity for compromise that has marked the country in recent years.

Among the achievements were a new law against violence on women approved on July 26th, marking a step forward in the modernisation of Tunisian society and a turning point in a process which has long been yearned for by many Tunisians; achieving the gender equality established in Article 46 of the 2014 constitution.

A defining characteristic of the transformation implemented by this reform is the fact that violence is no longer a private issue but now involves the state. In fact, this new law ensures that the state, as the citizens’ supreme guarantor, is to take particular interest in reports made to the police and subsequently withdrawn by frightened or threatened women. The law also increases sentences for rapists in homes or public places, to the extent of punishing ‘incestuous rape’ with a life sentence.

A leading role among those who supported these legal changes was played by women’s associations. These included the oldest of its kind, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) whose members include the cultural entrepreneur and women’s rights activist Zeyneb Farhat, director of the El Theatre centre in Tunis and co-founder of Zanoobya, the association involved in cultural promotion in the country’s rural areas. Much like most Tunisian women, Zeyneb intended to not waste the great legacy left by President Habib Bourguiba with the modern Personal Status Code dated 1956, which paved the way for the present and the future of Tunisian women.

Madame Farhat, what do you think of the recent legislative reform concerning violence inflicted upon women?

As a member of the ATFD, I can say that this law is the result of the Association’s twenty-year-long efforts, obviously in collaboration with our partners. Furthermore, since the law is imbued with civic values, I can only applaud it, because it reassures us and guarantees that Tunisian women are truly citizens, in every sense.

In addition to this law, what else is needed in order to change the violent behaviour seen among Tunisians?

The law is important because it provides a judicial obstacle and it is true that this can frighten people inflicting violence, causing them to reflect before acting. However, in my opinion this law will not be effective unless it is accompanied by widespread reforms and social-education programmes. This would include the revision of school books and educational texts condemning violence in general and especially against women. This law needs to be understood so that it is not vertically imposed by the state but, rather, perceived as an alternative for achieving happiness in families. It must be explained by using all means of communication and artistic ideas, pioneering specialized formats so as to appeal to and educate the young, who are nowadays the most at risk, as far as internalizing violent behaviour is concerned.

Was the amendment of Article 227 bis of the Penal Code, the so-called “shameful article” that allowed rapists to avoid punishment by marrying the victim, welcomed positively? Do you think this amendment will result in fewer cases of rape?

Article 227 bis was an insult; it humiliated raped women and provided a loophole for rapists. We have had to deal with unfortunate cases at the ATFD centre, cases in which the rapist committed to remain married to the raped girl for at least two years! With that system, the victim ultimately found herself abandoned with one or two children, with no financial resources as well as stigmatised in her social environment. Even though it is now clear that rapists will be punished, I would like to maintain that it will be difficult to reduce the phenomenon in rural areas. Take, for example, a school in a rural environment where both boys and girls have to walk about ten kilometres to get to school: it is on their travels that violence inflicted on minors often takes place. Thanks to the association Zanoobya, as well as through the KRI project, we have provided them with a means of transport, a mule-drawn karrita with seven benches, space for their heavy backpacks and a tarp for protecting them from the wind and the rain. It is driven by a woman who has been given 12 sheep in exchange for her services. This is just one small solution, but it is necessary to envisage sexual education in schools and more publicized debates to be held in places like markets and cafes. Finally, the most difficult cultural aspect to be corrected is the attitude of the parents, as they often prefer the marriage solution in order to avoid the shame brought about by the abuse of a daughter! One must explain to them that their daughter is a victim and not a shameless girl.

With this new amendment, the age of consent has been increased from thirteen to sixteen and all sexual relations between an adult and anyone under the age of sixteen is considered “rape”. Is that a step in the right direction? Let’s be realistic. During their adolescence, youth experience an existential revolution; they challenge values, including God. It is a hormonal revolution. I think it is alright to have sex at sixteen, but it is essential to have received sexual education in order to avoid getting pregnant and being exposed to infections such as AIDS. There are educational centres at the regional offices of the National Family Planning Council but they were weakened by religiously-motivated resistance on behalf of the Nahdha Islamic party, in power between 2011 and 2014. All that work involving prevention was lost. We are still waiting for the world of politics to take action on this topic.

Another ‘revolution’ came in the form of the introduction of the concept of moral violence and, consequently, sanctions for this sort of crime. What are your thoughts?

Violence is both physical and moral. That has been proven for some time in studies carried out by researchers, psychiatrists and sociologists. There is a Tunisian proverb that states it well, “perseverance pierces marble” (Eddwem ynokob errkham)!

On August 13th, Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi announced his intention to introduce new reforms breaking two taboos: equality between men and women, as far as inheritance is concerned, and allowing women to marry non-Muslims without obliging the man to convert. Why does Tunisia always rely so greatly on the emancipation of women?

Our association, the ATFD, has been working since 1997 on inheritance equality. There are two schools of thought in the Muslim world: the Koranic school, according to which the only ‘correct’ point of reference is the Holy Book, and another school that takes into account the actions of the Prophet Mohammed and his hadith but are very controversial to the point of questioning the truthfulness of his words.

In my El Theatre centre, I have held an artistic convention with panels on stage addressing religious, legal and economic topics, dedicated to the debate of inheritance as well as writing workshops that resulted in a very successful play.

The tragedy of our time is the total ignorance of the Holy Book of the Koran, written in very pointed literary language, as well as the ignorance of those preachers who understand nothing about the notion of “El Ijtihad” (interpretation) when understanding the Koran. In fact, at a linguistic level alone, there are practically no rules in the Koran forbidding inheritance equality. It states that “the prophet advises that half of the inheritance should be given to women” and not that it is compulsory “to just give half of the inheritance to women.” Starting from the principle that, before the Prophet, women had no right to any inheritance, establishing that half should go to them was already a revolution in itself. However, as a civil society, we now also believe that the January 2014 Tunisian Constitution has established the principle of total equality for all citizens, hence the right to inheritance equality is a legitimate request.

What do you think of the harsh reactions to Essebi’s speech in Egypt, where Al-Azhar’s deputy described it as “a decision that distances itself from religion”?

Both Tunisian and Egyptian Imams have howled like wolves and launched accusations of blasphemy because this would affect the financial privileges of men, but not all of them act this way. One must emphasise that many, Egyptians included, have welcomed this law and expressed their admiration for Tunisia. Everyone knows that this process is indispensable and that once again Tunisia is doing its best to adapt to contemporary society, in which the culture of human rights and equal opportunity is the optimal path towards a “best possible world.”

Have you experienced obstacles and gender discrimination in your work over the years?

Luckily, I do not recall having problems in exercising my position as the director of the El Theatre centre or as the producer of our productions to be showcased in Tunisia and the rest of the word, from India to Chile, from Argentina to Brazil, from Italy to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Algeria. Tunisian women have invaded the world of culture since the Seventies and commanded respect for professions in that sector.

To what extent has access to the labour market increased liberties for Tunisian women in the Arab-Muslim world?

It is clear and evident that being financially independent thanks to one’s profession provides a degree of freedom in one’s individual choices. After having achieved independence in 1956, access to education for Tunisian women became an obligation imposed by the state, which devoted 40% of the state’s budget to the cause, as well as compulsory education for all citizens under the age of sixteen. In the meantime, in April 1972, a political decision was made that led to the creation of industrial hubs that resulted in a class of female workers, certainly not privileged, but that contributed to the income of their families. The Code of Personal Status published on August 13th, 1956, attributed rights as well as duties to all citizens and changed Tunisia’s social life by forbidding polygamy. One must emphasise that the Code of Personal Status was mainly planned to create new non-traditionalist family unity and that the entire Tunisian system benefitted all the more from it. Hence the cultural distance between Tunisian women and others in the Arab and Muslim region!

Translated by Francesca Simmons