“As a young woman in Tunisia I feel more afraid when I see a policeman out at night than any other man,” said Yamina Thabet, head of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, (ATSM).
As modern day Tunisia gradually transitions into a contemporary democracy, the gap between the emerging country and the patriarchal policing of how women should behave, dress and even marry is growing wide.
Women cohabiting with men can be reported by neighbors to the police before finding themselves charged with “prostitution” or whatever other crimes the police see fit. A 2010 report, (the most recent available) by the National Board for Family and Population showed that 47,9 percent of Tunisian women reported having been subjected to physical, economic or sexual violence.
However, there are laws, both within the statute books and the Constitution that exist to protect women. The problem, according to Yamina, is in their execution, with the Police giving more weight to their own ideas of morality, rather than the law.
According to Thabet, much of the problem stems from the contradictory nature of a constitution that recognizes citizens’ rights to freedom of conscience, yet enshrines Islam as the official religion of the state. This hybrid legal system has allowed elements of Islamic law to influence its civil counterpart, allowing loose interpretation through societal and social traditions. Among secular feminists in particular, the lack of clarity between the relationship of religion and state affairs has long been a topic of contention, as they seek to define the nature and obligation of the state and law enforcement outside of religious faith.
In recent weeks, with the ATSM petition calling for Tunisian women to be legally free to marry outside of Islam, (a freedom currently afforded all men) marriage has become a key battleground.
Although there is no law explicitly addressing the issues of marriage among different faiths and the prohibition of Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, for unmarried women, particularly those in the company of clearly foreign men, official harassment has become routine.
“In Tunisia the police have committed a lot of horrible acts” Yamina said, “especially after the state of emergency. The majority of the work of the police has been against non-married couples. The mentality of the police has to be changed.” Thabet again stressed how legal ambiguity was being used to enforce interpretations that best suited the country’s established cultural and religious norms, setting challenges to Tunisian women who fall outside of those paradigms.
However, following decades of repression under the former regime before the revolution and years of intense controversy afterwards, organized religion remains a critical factor in the lives of many Tunisians. As the country now seeks a transition, many within the country’s traditional religious hierarchies are seeking to adapt to changing circumstances. Nevertheless, Fadhel Achour, Secretary General of the Tunisian Union of Imams could see no conflict between religious and civil law. “Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims as she has to listen to him (the Muslim),” Achour said, arguing that only a Muslim man could protect her religious privacy. “For example, a Muslim man will not ask for intercourse in Ramadan, or bring alcohol into the house, or come home drunk. If she accepts these behaviours, she cannot call herself a Muslim.”
Though freedom to marry outside of Islam may be a key battle for many Tunisian women, especially those who may choose to identify as atheist or interpret their faith differently, there are other lurking issues that are yet to be fully resolved.
Rape and harassment are also to be fully addressed by the country’s legal system. Further to the almost half of Tunisian women who reported experiencing varying forms of public abuse are those who found themselves charged with “indecency” after speaking against rape. Possibly the best known example of this occurred in 2012, when Mariem Ben Mohamed spoke out against being raped from two police officers, triggering a wave of demonstrations, which signalled a crucial turning point for Tunisian women and their relationship with the law.
In their latest report, Amnesty International interviewed 40 survivors of rape and abuse across the country, including marital rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence and physical assault. Commenting upon their findings, the organization’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Magdalena Mughrabi said, “despite Tunisia’s leading position on women’s rights and gender equality in the Arab world, and positive reforms made over the years, laws on sexual violence remain archaic, and fail to protect the rights of victims. Instead, they reflect discriminatory attitudes and harmful gender stereotypes still prevailing in Tunisian society and place a misguided emphasis on ‘honor’ and ‘morality'”.
However, hope remains after a new draft law, criminalizing all acts of violence against women was submitted to the Assembly of the Representatives of the people, (ARP) by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in July of this year. Under the new law, any form of gender based violence will be punishable by up to two years imprisonment, together with a fine of 5,000 Tunisian dinars (around $2,300).
However, irrespective of the best intentions of lawmakers and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the proposed new law received mixed reactions on social media, with some posting pictures and jokes on the likely implications of what such sweeping new legal measures might actually mean. Some suggested a simple look or smile at a woman on the street may lead to them being fined or jailed. Others posted a satirical picture of a baby looking at a woman before ending up in a jail.
Though Tunisia remains the most liberal and successfully democratic country in the Arab world, confusion over how religious and secular law is enforced, particularly where the genders are concerned remains. A confusion that is being exacerbated, according to Yamina, by a police force choosing to only apply those part of the legal system it finds morally acceptable and leaving the rest, including the countless Tunisian women who choose to follow faiths others than their countries without protection.