“…With a progressive Code of Personal Status, Tunisia is commonly regarded as the Arab world’s most advanced country in terms of women’s rights. Yet sexual harassment exists in Tunisia, too. Unlike in Egypt, sexual harassment has not entered the arena of public discourse in Tunisia, and is often dismissed as a non-issue.
A recent survey conducted by the Tunisian National Office of Population and Family (ONFP) found that physical violence against women was most commonplace, followed by psychological violence, sexual violence and last, economic violence. While the survey found that violence against women was most common in the private sphere, it also revealed that violence against women in the public sphere is sexual in 21.3% of cases, psychological in 14.8%, and physical in 9.8%.
Sexual harassment is not just physical – but includes gestural, and even verbal, harassment. According to UN Women, sexual harassment can be, “making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements,” “hanging around a person,” “sexual comments,” or “unwanted sexual looks or gestures” – not to mention rape, pressure for sexual favors, etc.
For Meriem Manar (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), a student of business and English in Tunis, sexual harassment is a daily reality. “You cannot avoid it. Men are in the street with you, and you have to go to school, you have to go to work. Because it is in our daily life, because it is our every day experience, we end up accepting it. You leave your house mentally prepared. You just deal with it,” she said.
But this comes at a certain price to her liberty. “There are places that I cannot go alone, like parks…because I know I might be not just sexually harassed, but even raped…If you walk on Avenue Habib Bourguiba at night, you will not find a single female on the street. If you are alone at night and walking in the street, and somebody sees you, they will have the idea that you are going to a nightclub, or that you are meeting your boyfriend…that you are doing something your family would not be proud of.”
For Meriem, taking public transportation can often become unbearable. The everyday hassle of public transport turns into a nightmare for women in Tunis – regardless of their age, and their dress. “The veil would never protect anybody from getting harassed, not even niqab. As long as they [men] know that under that niqab or under that veil, there is a woman, they will sexually harass you,” says Manar. While no statistics exist for Tunisia, a study conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, in conjunction with the United Nations Population Fund and the European Commission, found that in Egypt, 72.5% of surveyed victims of sexual harassment were veiled.
Meriem yearns for a car reserved for women, like in the Cairo metro. But according to Chiao, segregation is not the answer. “I ride in the women’s car. But I think that as a policy or a solution, it establishes very bad norms. It promotes this idea that if a woman is riding in the men’s car, then she is looking for harassment, or that she brought it unto herself.”
Since 2004, sexual harassment has been punishable by law in Tunisia – with one year in prison and a fee of 3,000 dinars. Halima Jouini, a founding-member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and a volunteer at the Center for Listening and Orientation of Women Victims of Violence, qualified this law as “limited” and “incriminating” for women.
“We launched this law in 2003…it was the ATFD that led the campaign. It was relatively successful – for the first time, sexual harassment was recognized as a crime. But still we are not satisfied – the law does not protect women,” she said.
At the time of the interview, Jouini was just returning from the tribunal in Tunis, where she had been defending the case of a rape victim. The woman in question was a housekeeper, who had been raped – sodomized, in fact – repetitively by her male boss. Upon confessing this to his wife, the housekeeper agreed to film the crime as evidence to take the man to court. But once this evidence was obtained, the wife pressed charges against both her husband and the housekeeper for adultery. The man, who possessed a Canadian passport, fled the country, leaving the housekeeper in prison – where she had been held for a month as of late March.
According to Jouini, the 2004 law’s definition of sexual harassment is limited in scope – as it delimits sexual harassment as strictly a repeated action. It is currently defined as “persistence in the harassment of the other by repetition of actions, words or gestures.” Citing the case of a woman who quit her job after she was harassed once in the workplace, Jouini pointed out that some women do not put up with the harassment, and choose to put an end to it after the very first occurrence. Jouini further explained that this makes it harder to collect evidence – as it is not always easy to prove that the harassment was repetitive.
The law further provides no protection to the plaintiff and witnesses, but instead explicitly states that if a case is declared nolle prosequi, or if the defendant is acquitted, then the defendant can ask for reparation, and sue the plaintiff for defamation.
Jouini questioned why this was recalled in the body of the law – when this principle underlies all laws included in the Penal Code. “This principle exists for the whole Penal Code, but to recall it in this very article is a way to say, ‘be careful women’…it is incriminating for the plaintiff.”
The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) calls for a comprehensive law on sexual harassment – one that would not only be included in the Penal Code, but also in the Tunisian Labor Code. Jouini pointed out that this was already the case in Morocco. The ATFD is also lobbying to include an article against discrimination and violence in the new Constitution – Jouini added that this has happened in several countries that underwent recent transitions, like South Africa and some Latin American countries.
Last but not least, the law against sexual harassment is couched in a moralizing rhetoric – it claims to discourage the “infringement of good mores and sexual harassment.” According to Jouini, sexual harassment is “a patriarchal discriminatory practice…You can’t justify this by good mores, or the lack of….”Share on Facebook