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April, 2nd, 2021
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10 Years After the Arab Spring, Tunisian Feminists Fight a Similar Battle
By Erin Clare Brown and Christina Nordvang Jensen
Despite some of the Arab world’s most progressive laws on gender equality, Tunisian women say they’ve been let down by the state. Now, a growing movement of intersectional feminists is pushing for change.
TUNIS— On a cold and clear December morning, fifty or so women and a handful of men gathered outside the parking lot of Tunisia’s Parliament to confront legislators on their way into work. Gray-haired women in chic puffer jackets and sunglasses stood shoulder to shoulder with millennials who brandished signs with slogans like “They piss on us and we say it’s raining!” and “I’m so tired of this I don’t know what to write anymore.” They were joined by a few teenagers, one eagerly bouncing on her toes as the first car pulled up to the gates. It was showtime.
A few days earlier, Mohamed Affes, a legislator from the ultra-conservative Al Karama coalition, had given an incendiary speech about Tunisia’s women on the parliament floor. He flew into a tirade about a landmark law against sexual violence, and labeled single mothers “whores.” None of his colleagues made an attempt to cut him off or cool him down. The women gathered outside the Parliament wanted to make sure that wouldn’t happen again.
Ten years ago this past January, Tunisia’s feminists fought in the revolution that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after a 23-year rule, and ushered in an era of newfound freedoms. In the decade since, they’ve secured some of the most progressive rights in the Arab world, including the groundbreaking law on sexual violence Affes scorned in his speech. Now they’re fighting to help the most vulnerable women in their country find their voices, know their rights, and hold the powerful to account for ignoring the laws they signed onto.
The #EnaZeda (#MeToo in Tunisian Arabic) Facebook page collects and publishes first-person accounts of sexual harassment, abuse and violence against women and LGBTQ+ Tunisians. The page, which now has over 68,000 followers, was created in the autumn of 2019, after a recently-elected legislator was caught on tape masturbating outside a girls’ high school – a charge he denies. The scandal ignited a wave of women talking about the abuse they, too, had suffered.
“The ones that impact me the most are the ones who say they want to kill themselves,” says Najma Kousri Labidi, 29, one of the founders of the page.
First-person accounts bubbled up sporadically on Facebook, but Kousri Labidi and another young Tunisian woman created the Facebook page after seeing a need for a hub to share these stories. Now a team of four, they dedicate hours every week collecting testimonies — more than 3,600 to date — from women across the country. Last summer, during the lockdown, the team was publishing around 30 testimonies a day.
Their accounts are full of conflicting emotions of pain, shame and rage. They detail everything from persistent, violent street harassment to incest and psychological abuse by family members.
One representative testimony from February reads: “I was five, or maybe seven... He was 18 at the time... He put me on his lap which seemed normal because he always did - then he showed me his penis, and told me to touch it….I can’t be close with men anymore. Is there a professional who can help me?”
#EnaZeda publishes the accounts it receives as is, only redacting graphic images and names so victims avoid defamation suits. (They don’t verify the accounts independently.) “We are on the side of victims,” Kousri Labidi said. “We believe everything they say. That's our position. We are not neutral, and we are very proud of it.”
Unlike the #MeToo movements in Europe and the U.S., which ousted high-powered men across industries, the #EnaZeda testimonies are largely familial. But their graphic yet grindingly quotidian nature has shattered the veneer of Tunisia as a stronghold for women’s rights.
A fake feminism
“Tunisia was branded as the best place for women and gender equality in the region,” said Sarah Yerkes, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program. Progressive laws dating back to the 1950s gave women autonomy in marriage, educational opportunities and access to birth control and abortion—often before those same rights were enjoyed by women in Europe. Tunisian women own property and businesses, outpace men in attending university, and actively participate in civil society. More than a quarter of Tunisia's legislators are women and they represent parties across the political spectrum.
Three years ago, after years of lobbying from feminists and with the support of then-president Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s parliament passed Law 58, a piece of anti-sexual violence legislation that is the first of its kind in the Arab world. The sweeping law criminalizes not only physical attacks—including street harassment and marital rape—but also economic, psychological and political abuse of women. Human rights organizations around the world hailed it as a major victory; UN Women called the vote “historic.”
But the implementation of the law has been troubled. Reporting mechanisms can be convoluted and demeaning, often requiring women to detail their abuses in the open areas of police stations in the presence of crime suspects waiting to be processed. Often, the police are complicit in the crimes they are supposed to guard against, rights groups say.
For decades, Tunisia’s leaders used the police to seed terror and compliance in the public. After the revolution, the Truth and Dignity Commission unearthed thousands of claims of police abuse and torture, including sexual abuse of both men and women. Though the old regime has been purged, both the leadership and the rank and file of the police and other security forces remain largely intact. And while police harassment is a universal problem for Tunisians, women feel its effects in acute ways, particularly when it comes to reporting sexual crimes.
“The law exists,” Kousri Labidi said, “but the problem is that the judges don't use it, the police don't give a shit about it, and people don't even know it exists.”
Impunity for policy makers
A lack of transparency in Tunisia’s legal system means that more than three years after its adoption, there are no official numbers as to how many cases have been brought under Law 58. (Many activists think there may only have been a handful.) It is almost impossible to tell if anyone has been convicted. The highest profile case, against the legislator caught on camera, fizzled thanks to a legal loophole that grants immunity—and many argue impunity—to those who hold political office.
“Tunisia looks really good on paper,” Yerkes, the Carnegie fellow, said. “But the gender based violence law has not been implemented.”
Many women, especially those in the impoverished interior of the country where literacy is low and media limited, simply do not know that the law protects them when their brothers hit them, their employer harasses them or their husband forces them into having sex, she added.
It is those women whom Henda Chennaoui, 37, who was protesting outside Parliament in December, is trying to reach. A longtime activist, Chennaoui was among the journalists and bloggers who disseminated information underground during the revolution through private Facebook groups and direct messages. When Ben Ali fled, “everything in my life changed,” she said. “As a journalist, as a woman, as an activist. Everything changed.”
His departure opened the door for a new kind of feminism to flourish in Tunisia, one that is intersectional and freer of government influence.
For decades Ben Ali maintained tight control over feminist organizations and their agenda, leveraging them to appear progressive in the eyes of foreign nations and organizations like the World Bank and IMF, whose aid lined his regime’s coffers. While his policies benefited upper and middle class secular women in coastal cities, the regime did little to help women in the country’s interior regions—many of whom work in grueling manual labor and languish in abusive marriages.
The previous generation of feminism was there “just to defend the legitimacy of the state,” Chennaoui said.
Tired of relying on laws that go unenforced by police, Chennaoui is using the techniques she honed during the revolution to reframe the conversation around gender equality and help women in hard-to-reach places know their rights. She produces short videos in the local dialect that break down the basics of feminism and women’s rights in straightforward, conversational ways, and puts them out on Facebook. “I want to help young women have a vocabulary, confidence and a sense of solidarity,” she said.
That desire to empower women through information comes from Chennaoui’s own experience. A victim of sexual violence at a young age, Chennaoui blamed herself. As a teen, she discovered French bloggers writing about feminism, gender-based violence and sexual assault. “I just realized that I'm not alone and all the violence that I have experienced was not because of me,” she said.
She began her own blog, with musings on culture intertwined with budding ideas of feminism. In one post, she wrote frankly about her experiences as a victim of violence, rape and sexual harassment. Replies streamed in from Muslim and Arab women living all over the world for whom her message resonated.
Patriarchy and inequalities
“I received a lot of messages from people saying they had the same experiences in their family,” she said. “I realized that feminism can save lives. Feminism, and the internet.”
But even if the mentality around women’s roles shifts, there’s still a major hurdle to overcome: economic inequality.
Despite outpacing men in receiving higher education degrees, the World Bank estimates the unemployment rate for women in Tunisia at 22.5% in 2020, or ten percentage points higher than for men. Tunisia’s low-skill economic model, which relies heavily on cheap exports and budget tourism, means that jobs available to women are often low-wage or lacking in mobility.
“There is still a very male dominated environment in the society and workplaces,” said Olfa Arfaoui, 37, a social activist and entrepreneur.
Cronyism and corruption—which Tunisians identified in a recent poll as the third most urgent issue facing their country—have long plagued Tunisia, in both the public and private sector. Without connections or capital, women languish on the lower-rung of businesses. 10.4% of Tunisian companies have a woman in a top management role, according to the World Bank: compared to 37% in France.
“Even if women led companies, they wouldn't have the same access to investments, to the banking system and to loans,” because of the same “corruption” that keeps them out of the corner office, Arfaoui pointed out.
After the revolution, Arfaoui tried to reshape how the private sector viewed women by coaching business executives. While working, she frequently heard concerns about women’s perceived volatile emotions and obligations with children getting in the way of their work. That improved over time, but Arfaoui hopes that her newest venture will speed things up.
That effort, the DJ Academy for Girls, is located within an art studio in the warehouse district in Tunis’ bustling downtown. On a recent day, a group of young women huddled around a set of turntables in a soundproof booth, bobbing their heads as electronic dance music thudded. One stood at the controls, tweaking knobs and dials as one song slowly started to morph into another. When it did, the rest of the room melted into cheers.
Arfaoui founded the Academy as a place not only to teach young women a marketable skill, which many put to use as wedding DJs or in clubs and restaurants around the country, but also to open up conversations about gender-based violence and sexism.
“Women in Tunisia face so many problems,” said 23-year-old Asma Andolsi, one of the workshop’s participants. “I was bullied because I'm a woman and they think you're inferior. That's the dominant culture here. When a boy applies for something and when a girl applies for something, they choose the boy.”
But she says the workshop has encouraged her to speak up about injustice she sees. “It's like we have a purpose and you try to find creative ways to show what you believe in and what your values are…. If you don't accept these things, you should change them instead of facing the same things every day because it's not going to change by itself. DJing is a really modern way of addressing those issues.”
A safe space for the LGBTQ + community
The DJ Academy also tacitly functions as a safe space for LGBTQ+ Tunisians, though Arfaoui doesn’t play it up, “especially if you are working with women from conservative backgrounds, who can’t say ‘Mom I am going to this feminist, queer space,’” she said.
Even if their mothers might not understand, many of the participants at the DJ academy embody the next wave of Tunisian feminists: Those who grew up after the revolution, and who want more than just the women’s rights their mothers and grandmothers fought for.
For many, that means also taking on injustice against LGBTQ+ Tunisians. Homosexuality is still criminalized in the country, and despite a small but robust queer community in the capital, LGBTQ+ Tunisians are routinely targeted for violence.
That reality played out in front of Tunisia’s parliament in December. The protest brought together both feminist and LGBTQ+ activist organizations under one banner. But when clashes erupted between the crowd and an incensed parliamentarian, it didn’t go unnoticed that many LGBTQ+ activists were targeted for arrest. Among them was Rania Amdouni, a prominent activist who in early March was sentenced to six months in prison on charges of “insulting police and abuse of morals” after she tried to file a complaint about police harassment (she was recently released after international protests).
Moments after learning her friends and fellow activists had been arrested, Chennaoui was penning a Facebook post condemning the action. “I never lose hope," she said. "There is a long way to go to get things changed, but we have to do it. It's a duty, and we have to continue at a minimum to talk about the problems.”
African continent While research from across the globe has shown the gendered implications of the pandemic, African women particularly within the agricultural industry and women’s customary land rights have been disproportionately affected over the past year. Recent research report by Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA) showed that women from rural areas were hit the hardest as fresh produce markets closed and they were unable to earn an income. Rural women travelled to market places only to find their usual selling points closed or had their goods confiscated... Some fresh produce were decomposing, this impacted negatively on them due to the Covid-19, the report states.
Additionally, a survey conducted by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) among 71 women over the age of 18 who are operating small and medium agribusiness enterprises across the four sub-Sahara Africa regions were affected by the movement restrictions put in place to decrease new infections in their respective countries. These disruptions affected their livelihoods, enterprises, their workload as well as their wellbeing and that of their families.
South Africa Women living with HIV in South Africa are yet to see justice for experiencing forced sterilisation at the hand of government nurses and doctors. In February 2020, the Commission for Gender Equality released findings of its report into the forced sterilisation of women living with HIV in public health facilities in South Africa.
The Commission found that these women were not provided with adequate knowledge on the sterilisation before being asked to consent to the procedure. In turn, their rights to information, equality and freedom from discrimination were violated.
But over a year since the report has been released, and the report showing that the South African government failed in its duties to protect the women, victims and survivors are yet to find justice. Additionally, the report found the state guilty of 26 human rights violations linked to national, regional and international law.
Mexico As the feminist movement grows in Mexico, collectives challenge institutional power. During the demonstrations across the country for the 8th March, different groups wrote the names of the victims of femicide on the metal fences surrounding the National Palace. The action was a response to President Manuel López Obrador's decision to stand behind Félix Salgado Macedonio, a member of his political party who is running for Governor in Guerrero despite the rape accusations against him.
During the weekend of 21st March, new protests took place, this time in different cities of Guerrero such as Tixtla and Chilapa. The following morning, the state awakened with graffiti on its walls exposing the candidate, and reminding that the feminist movement will not be silenced.
El Salvador The Inter-American Court of Human Rights began hearings in March in the case of Manuela, a 33-year-old woman sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering a miscarriage in 2008. At the hospital, she was accused of having an illegal abortion, and charged with aggravated homicide. In El Salvador, abortions are not even permitted in cases of rape, risk for the mother or non-viability of the fetus, and are punishable by imprisonment.
In jail, Manuela was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and died in 2010. Her case was brought to the Court by her family members and feminist organizations. If the Court rules in favour, it would set a historic precedent both in the country and in Latin America, a continent where safe and free abortion is only available in Argentina and Uruguay.
Law for transgender workers might be approved in Argentina in April
The Argentine Congress is considering a law to establish a 1% quota for transgender workers in the national public sector. This is a historical demand of different human rights organizations, in a country where three out of five transgender people are forced to work in prostitution, while only 18% have ever had a formal job.
Last September, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez together with the Minister of Women, Genders and Diversity, Elizabeth Gomez Alcorta, signed a decree that already establishes this quota, although it doesn’t have the same status as a law. The country has been a pioneer by approving the equal marriage in 2010 and the gender identity law in 2012. Organizations are calling for this law to be approved urgently before May.
Kenya’s High Court upholds Anti-FGM Act
The Kenyan High Court has upheld and validated the constitutionality of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, simply known as the Anti-FGM Act after Dr Tatu Kamau, public health professional, challenged the Act’s constitutional validity. According to the World Health Organization, FGM is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Kamau filed a petition seeking the court to declare the Anti-FGM Act is unconstitutional on the grounds of the law violating of adult consenting women’s right to culture, health and equality who may willingly choose to take in FGM.
The Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV & AIDS and the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa intervened in the matter as amici curiae and argued that consent to FGM is irrelevant to the Kenyan government’s obligation to protect human rights and eliminate violence against women.
Lawmakers reject the liberalisation of abortion laws in Malawi
Earlier in March, the National Assembly in the Malawian Parliament rejected a motion to debate liberalising the country's strict abortion laws which left activists, health experts and progressive politicians who have demanded to ease abortion restrictions for years.
The current termination of pregnancy law only allows for abortion in cases where the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Meanwhile, the Termination of Pregnancy Bill—tabled by Malawian Parliament’s head of the health committee Mathews Ngwale—seeks to allow abortion in cases where the pregnant person’s health is in danger, pregnancy as a result of rape and in cases of fetal abnormalities.
Chimwemwe Mlomba, leader of the SheDecides Malawi movement which has been advocating for the proposed bill, says rejecting the motion to debate the bill is a delay tactic motivated by religious fundamentalists who want to curtail women and girls’ bodily autonomy. “Access to safe abortion in Malawi is not a legal issue. It is a class issue and we need to accept this. People with money can procure safe abortions and get on with their lives. The [religious argument] is tired and denies the rights of women and girls to access safe abortions.”
CHILI — On April 10th and 11th, Chile will hold elections to select the 155 members of the Constitutional Convention that will write a new Constitution. While the electoral system establishes an equal representation for men and women and guarantees seats for indigenous peoples, feminist organizations have formed a coalition in order to ensure a gender-sensitiveness. The Plataforma Feminista Constituyente y Plurinacional nominated nine female candidates representing women from northern to southern Chile and defending the inclusion of women’s rights into a constitutional framework. The new Constitution is expected to be drafted by the end of the year and voted by the citizens in 2022, replacing the text inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
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For this issue of the IMPACT newsletter IMPACT, the contributors are the freelance journalists Augustina Ordoqui and Pontsho Pilane ; translators Antoine Sander and Stéphanie Williamson. The main piece of the newsletter is presented with our partner, The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women.
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