Since September, Tunisians have been reporting experiences of sexual violence online under the hashtag EnaZeda, Tunisian Arabic for "me too". In the meantime, the protest has spread to the streets. Despite Tunisia's progressive legislation to protect the rights of women and its leading role in the implementation of CEDAW, the reality often looks different.
Me Too arrived in Tunisia. At the end of September, a student posted photos of a well-known politician on Facebook, showing him through the window of his car with his pants down and appearing to masturbate. He was stalking her when she was on her way home from university. The Facebook post hit a nerve with activists and citizens alike. Ever since, thousands of Tunisians have shared their stories of sexual violence under the hashtag EnaZeda (Tunisian Arabic for "me too"), and new networks and groups concerned with this topic (both online and offline) have emerged. This includes the EnaZeda Facebook group, which already has more than 26,000 members.
There are many reports of domestic violence or encroachments in public transport. Adults talk about how they suffer from childhood traumas caused by sexual violence that they have been silent about for years. And people from the LGBITQ+ community report about attacks against them on the streets. For many, this new openness resembles a revolution. Shame and feelings of guilt kept victims silent about their experiences. Even if they dared to talk about it, sexual and domestic violence often continued to be a taboo in their families. Victims stay unheard and perpetrators go unpunished. In the worst case, both have to live within the same communities or even together.
The protest shifts from social networks to public space
Meanwhile, the politician mentioned above, his name is Zouheir Makhlouf, managed to win a seat in the Tunisian parliament for the Qalb Tounes party, led to second place in the October parliamentary elections by media mogul Nabil Karoui who himself was in detention pending trial until recently, faced with allegations of money laundering and tax evasion. However, Makhlouf was not allowed to enter the parliament undisturbed.
The protest shifted from social networks to the streets. On November 23, the inauguration day for the new MPs, activists of the EnaZeda movement organized a demonstration in front of the parliament, chanting slogans such as "immunity is for politics and not for your sexual desires" and "harassers must not legislate." Most recently, the activists printed reports from the facebook group on black cardboard silhouettes for protest and awareness-raising campaigns at universities. Soon, the dolls will be set up in front of the regional courts' buildings across the country.
Tunisia is probably the most progressive country in the MENA region, when it comes to the protection of women's rights. In 1956, then President Habib Bourguiba initiated a personal status law that abolished polygamy and gave women the right to divorce. At the same time, Tunisians were granted the right to vote. Moreover, a lot has happened since the upheavals of 2011 that overthrew the dictatorship of Ben Ali and kickstarted a democratic transformation. The new constitution of 2014 guarantees “equal rights and duties for men and women (…)” – a success that was achieved after a long struggle with the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, which at that time still postulated women as “complementary” to men in family life.
Finally, in 2017, an extensive law against violence against women (including domestic violence) was passed, which provides for a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 3000 Tunisian dinars (approx. 900 euros) for sexual harassment in public spaces. The law even includes a paragraph on political violence against women, criminalising any form of violence against women when exercising their official function in politics. This is unique in the Arab world. However, many are not aware of this legislation, including Tunisian judges.
Programmes to raise awareness of violence against women are necessary
And problems are not limited to the judiciary. According to reports in the EnaZeda Facebook group, female victims of violence often stay unheard in police stations, which are mostly staffed by men. On the contrary, police officers laugh at them and even accuse them of having provoked sexual harassment or other forms of violence themselves. The creation of female police units, as foreseen by the new law, should serve as focal points for women and victims of sexual violence and should be stationed in every police station in the country.
However this is far from being implemented nationwide. A recent study published by the Ministry of Women, Children, and Elderly People showed that only 4000 incidents of sexual violence against women were reported between 2014 and 2019. This is an extremely low figure, considering that in 2017 a study by the Center de Recherche, d'Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme (CREDIF), a research institute attached to the same ministry, showed that 75.4% of Tunisian women have been exposed to sexual violence in public spaces. The same report suggested that 53.3% had been victims of sexual violence in public transport. As a result, CREDIF launched an awareness raising campaign under the hashtag #mayerkebch - he (the harasser) does not hop on (the transport).
At the end of November 2019, the Ministry of Women and the Ministry of Justice presented a new national strategy to combat violence against women; a strategy that is adapted to the abovementioned law from 2017. Almost simultaneously, the Ministry of Education announced the inclusion of sex education in the school curriculum. From the age of five, Tunisian students will learn about their bodies and, in the following school years, receive sex education classes that are appropriate for their age. Sex education which will also be integrated into Arabic, sports and science classes. The aim is to sensitize children to sexual violence at an early stage and to teach them how they can better protect themselves. This will break up more taboos and makes Tunisia a pioneer once again.
The protest goes on, in the net and on the streets
However, this does not mean that the fight for women’s rights and against violence will be an easy one. The majority of MPs in the new parliament are affiliated with conservative parties and the newly elected President Kais Said is also considered to be less progressive when it comes to individual rights and freedoms. In addition, civil society organizations, such as the influential Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates (ATFD) complain that in the last couple of years sexual and reproductive rights have been creepingly restricted by the state, for example by reducing subsidies for the pill. In addition, civil society reports that medical advice on unwanted pregnancies has become increasingly influenced by religious morality.
The protest for women's rights and against violence continues online and on the streets. During the UN Action Days ‘16 Days Against Violence’ the ATFD organized protest marches in four Tunisian cities. The marches, initially intended to be silent marches, developed into loud cooking pot concerts, with many other civil society organizations joining in.
These, amongst others, included the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (LTDH), organisations belonging to the diverse Tunisian LGBTIQ+ movement and the activists of EnaZeda. Armed with brooms, the demonstrators shouted “sweep away the violence” and “women's revolution”. On Saturday December 14, a group of activists organised a flash mob in the central Tunis Kasbah Square, performing the Chilean feminist song ‘El violador eres tú! - The rapist is You!’ in front of the seat of the government. These protests do not seem to show any sign of slowing down and only time will tell what their true social and political impact will be.