Tunisia: a reality check on women‘s rights in an abusive state

The victim filed a complaint against the three police officers only to be charged with “intentional indecent behaviour” based on the testimony of the offenders.

Unwilling to hide and do nothing, Meriem refused to be silenced and spoke out in a shaky but loud voice against her merciless rapists who stripped her of her dignity as a human being.  Fighting back seems to be a costly endeavour in a patriarchal society, as she then underwent what could be described as a second violation at the hands both of Tunisian society and the legal system.

Early last month, three policemen approached Meriem and her fiancée and pulled them from the car. While two policemen took the woman to a remote place and raped her 3 times, the other policeman took the man to the ATM machine to withdraw some money as a bribe to let them go, as the 27 years old woman declared in several local media outlets.

The victim filed a complaint against the three police officers only to be charged with “intentional indecent behaviour” based on the testimony of the offenders. If proved guilty the woman and her fiancé may face up to 6 months in jail. Several cases of sexual violence went unreported when Ben Ali was in power, since Tunisians were well aware of the corruption in the judicial system and feared shame in a society that considers virginity a prerequisite to being a morally upright woman.

When news of the rape incident went viral on social media, the case received nationwide attention. The prosecution of Meriem split public opinion into two camps, supporters who denounced the proceeding online and in a storm of protest on Tuesday outside a Tunisian court where the victim and her companion were interrogated. The other camp blamed the victim of the rape; they deemed her responsible for losing her honour.

Amnesty international has called the authorities to drop charges against the couple. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui the deputy Middle East and North Africa programme director at Amnesty International said, “At best, charging the victim of a rape by police officers instead of protecting her from intimidation and stigma highlights the deep flaws of the Tunisian law and criminal justice system." Unfortunately the laws that govern criminal justice in post- revolutionary Tunisia are deeply rooted. The independence of the Judicial Branch still remains a matter of suspicion under the rule of the troika.

Tunisia was a police state, thus police officers were given a green light to repress citizens in order to maintain the status quo. Tunisian police officers got involved in torture, rape and several ugly practices against the Tunisian populace while being immune from the rule of law. Reform inside the security system seems to be slow and inefficient.  The current leadership have failed to address the problem of police brutality and sexual violence. Rape as a means of repression par excellence is still practiced in the so-called new bastion of democracy. The crackdown on a peaceful protest on April 9 2012, which marks the Day of Martyrs in Tunisia made me feel that Ben Ali was still with us. In September, a man accused of robbery was beaten to death.

Ironically, women‘s rights in Tunisia have only come to the forefront of debate inside the first democratically elected  Constituent Assembly with the introduction of  an article in the draft of the new constitution that has now been reversed. Had this not taken place, the equality enshrined in our constitution six decades ago would have been replaced by the concept of complementarity between men and women. Women in Tunisia today will not tolerate moving backward, for they have since 1956 enjoyed the Code of Personal status, a legal code that recognizes the position of women as equal partners to men. Unfortunately, the laws of the Code of Personal Status are not fully in practice due to the traditions that favour men over women. Still, women in Tunisia do have more rights than their counterparts in the Middle Eastern region.

Women in Tunisia are still victims of blatant discriminatory laws that do not recognize for instance marital rape or emotional abuse, and proceedings against the accused are still dropped if he agrees to marry the victim. The attitude of the ministry of interior and the justice ministry suggests that rape and sexual assault will further flourish in our society as long as the victim is humiliated, stigmatized and ashamed for reporting the incident of rape.

Tunisian president Marzouki had an audience with the rape victim on Thursday and expressed utter sympathy with her upon listening to the details of the case, a move that is somehow reminiscent of the visit Ben Ali paid almost two years ago to Mohammed Bouazizi, the guy who immolated himself to protest against injustice in Tunisia. Once again – it is a cosmetic move by a head of the state lacking any robust plan to tackle the systemic violations of human rights in the new era of Tunisia.

If there is any hope of alleviating the plight of women victims of sexual assault in Tunisia, the whole society must push for an amendment of the legal system to defend women’ s rights, full humanity and dignity. In a country that witnessed a popular uprising and which claims a transition towards democracy, fundamental change in the status of women is inevitable.

About the author

Meriem Dhaouadi is a youth activist working to promote civil and human rights in Tunisia.

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