Mariem Chaari has always struggled to find suitable clothes. In Tunisia, clothes for larger women are difficult to find and, when they can be located, err more towards the practical than the stylish. In the absence of any mainstream alternative, Chaari decided to start her own brand; taking care of everything from design to manufacture herself.
Finding the right kind of clothes is just one of the issues facing larger women in society, as they negotiate a society built around a largely male idea of female beauty and with a ready chorus of street commentators ready to point out any perceived transgression.
Chaari had already tried making her own clothing, either for herself or friends. “I realized (…) that I was good at choosing the right type of clothes for each body shape, skin color or style. Over time, the things I made for myself started getting noticed by other curvy girls who wanted the same item.” She adds that the sizes they display at shops are mostly incorrect.
“I am offering confidence, clothes that are not “just” your size, but studied clothing that flatter and fit your shape.” Chaari said, bemoaning a native industry built to see women’s shapes along strictly traditional lines, “With the larger sizes, there comes a belly and hips. There’s just more shape to take into consideration. You cannot just take a size 36 (European) and make it the same but bigger.”
Though Chaari makes no claim that her clothing will stop the street harassment that Tunisian women experience on a near daily basis. However, she hopes they may lessen the feelings of exposure that comes with having your appearance publicly commented upon. “I don’t think size (specifically) is the problem. Other people with other sizes and skin color and hairstyles or even with special needs get bullied outside…” The solution to street harassment, Chaari holds, “is a fight a girl will have to go through individually.”
Official figures concerning sexual harassment in the streets are alarming, statistics supported by the testimony of many of Tunisia’s women. According to official statistics, over half of Tunisian women have suffered some form of public violence on the country’s streets. A draft law on violence against women included street harassment within its remit, threatening its perpetrators with both prison time and a fine. However, its passage, on the statute books since 2014 was again postponed to make way for the new Unity Government of Youssef Chahed.
Chaari’s views on the proposed law are scathing. “It actually pains me to think of it as a law in Tunisia, because, excuse my words, but where will you go with it? To the police station? To get bullied by the pros? Those who made the law do not seem to be living among us.”
According to Sonya Ben Yahmed, member of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights commission at the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, there are different beauty standards for every society. “And given the fact that the vast majority of societies are patriarchal in nature, women are their first victims,” she told Tunisia Live. Women are the ones most affected by public perceptions of what are, and what aren’t acceptable body shapes, as their appearance is often the subject of public scrutiny. The case is different for men, who are judged upon their intellectual abilities or sexual stamina, things that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Moreover, she adds, “The general beauty standard created the word ‘too much [large].’” Which was also damaging to women’s self-esteem, Ben Yahmed said, suggesting instead alternative terms such as, “different or diversified. There would be fewer issues that way.” She continued, “Women are always judged; she shouldn’t be too thin, she shouldn’t be too large, she shouldn’t be too short, nor too tall etc.” According to Ben Yahmed, all women are subject to street harassment, even the ones that are considered beautiful. “In this case harassment isn’t limited to words; it could reach touching the other’s body.”
According to Ben Yahmed, “Street harassment is a plague” and one whose infection spreads further than just public spaces. Ben Yahmed recalled the wave of misogynistic comments on Facebook that greeted the announcement of the new law. “I saw someone commenting on Facebook ‘I’ve seen the pictures of a girl who claimed she was raped, but it was enough to see her mug (that’s the word he used) to be certain her story is fake.’ So there’s a new phenomenon, one that says there are girls who are “rapeable” if they don’t fall into certain categories.”
Reactions such as those outlined by Ben Yahmed aren’t limited to the public. In May, a leading columnist for the Assarih newspaper, Hedi Snoussi, blamed women for the harassment they were subjected to. Responses such as Snoussi’s, Ben Yahmed suggested, were likely born of “absolute freedom” men enjoyed in Tunisian society, leading to feelings of insecurity when that dominance is threatened by talk of a new law limiting their behavior in public.
With regard to the proposed new law, which has still to be discussed within the Assembly of representatives of the People, (ARP) Ben Yahmed said that little progress had been made since the last official announcement. With the new government, ministers changing and the judicial holidays, the draft law remains on hold. “We’d need a big campaign in the field to support the adoption of this law and to counter the misogynistic wave that’s trying to hinder it. We’d also need real political will; the previous governments didn’t do much in this regard.” She described the new law as “much more progressive than the old, disastrous one.”
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.