Tunisian women allege border security officials are demanding proof of travel authorization from their fathers or husbands before traveling to certain countries in the region from Tunisia.
The government, however, has denied that any policy restricting the travel of Tunisian women is in place.
During a recent trip to Morocco, a security officer at Tunis airport asked a female blogger known as Jolanare, for proof of her father’s permission to travel. The female officer told her this was “the way it works,” Jolanare said.
When Jolanare told the female officer she was married, the officer let her proceed without any authorization. Requesting proof of authorization, the officer explained to Jolanare, is to prevent women from traveling for “sexual jihad,” or providing sexual services to men fighting for a cause deemed religious, most recently in the Syrian civil war.
These measures, the officer added to Jolanare, were not new but had been reintroduced for security reasons.
Hundreds of Tunisians have gone to Syria to fight with the rebels against the Bashar Assad government, despite ongoing government efforts to prevent the flow of would-be militants.
A blog post written by Jolanare about her experience caused widespread discussion of the issue in the media and on social media outlets.
Sana Ghanima, a journalist and blogger, told Tunisia Live that during an April trip to Libya, she was asked in the airport for proof of her husband’s permission. She was upset by the request, she said, but the officials at the airport eventually apologized and allowed her to travel.
The investigative journalism blog Nawaat published an article last week making similar allegations. It did not, however, demonstrate that anyone has been prevented from traveling by this procedure.
The government denies that any policy requiring parental or spousal permission to travel is in place.
While over 4,000 Tunisian citizens have been prevented from leaving the country, according to Ministry of Interior spokesperson Mohamed Ali Aroui, they were all men between 20 and 30 years old and stopped on suspicion of being en route to Syria.
The men’s parents were called, and when they did not know why their sons were leaving Tunisia, authorities prevented their travel, Aroui said, adding that no women had been forbidden travel.
Measures to prevent travel are legal, Aroui said, because Tunisian passports are the property of the state and can be confiscated. He said that the current procedures are temporary.
The men stopped were not subject to a blanket policy, but because specific information suggested they would “cause tensions” if allowed to their destinations, according to Ministry of Interior spokesperson Lofti Hidouri.
The ministry dismissed what it called “rumors” of a policy preventing women under 35 from leaving the country in a one-sentence statement on Facebook on Tuesday.
Tunisian women replied to the post with criticism.
“It happened to me twice now and I had to get a parental authorization to leave the territory, so it’s true,” a woman named Imen Foutri commented. “These aren’t rumors, why deny them when they’re true!!!”
Some also called the statement misleading, saying that it mentioned “preventing” women from traveling when the question really concerned requests for proof of permission.
“The text says ‘a ban against leaving.’ It’s wrong, no one talked about a ban. It’s about an authorization,” commented Wafa Driss.
Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a lawyer active in women’s rights issues, said that while increased security measures to stop the flow of Tunisians to Syria were necessary, civil rights must be taken into account.
Ministry of Interior and border control authorities need to develop a better solution that does not interfere with personal freedoms, she said, but for now the security policies in place address the problem of Tunisians going to fight in Syria.
Tunisian women expressed their anger over social media, citing that after age 18, the age of majority in Tunisia, women should not be asked for proof of anyone’s permission.
“The majority age in Tunisia for women has now become 35 years old,” said Twitter user PaNoAIMi.
“Tunisian women under the age of 35, if you are ‘clean’ and ‘correct’ you can leave the Tunisian territory without permission,” Twitter user Nessryne J said.
— Nessryne J (@sasoukee) September 2, 2013
Feriel Garnaoui contributed reporting.