North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia’s landmark victory in the struggle against violence against women

Feminist scholars argue that the Qur’an has been misinterpreted and Islamic jurisprudence distorted by patriarchy. They regard the real enemy as patriarchy, not Islam.

Isabelle Merminod Tim Baster
19 December 2014
Meriem’s book, Guilty of Being Raped.

Meriem’s book, Guilty of Being Raped. “In Tunisia I feel in danger. Here, making a complaint against a policeman for them it is just not done,” said the slight young woman with a nervous and quick smile during an interview in a cafe in Tunis. But her gaze is strong when she talks about her struggle for justice. 

‘Meriem’ is the name used to protect her identity.  She was raped by policemen in 2012 and has courageously carried on for two years through harassment, false charges and many exhausting hearings. “From April 2013….[I have attended] I think about 14 hearings up until now.” Each time she sat near her police attackers who believed that they would be protected by Tunisia’s defective justice system and corrupt police force - the poisonous legacy of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Her attackers were found guilty and given seven year sentences earlier this year. The prosecutor appealed the lenient sentences and finally the appeal court handed down 15 year sentences on November 20, 2014

“This is the first time that a woman has made a complaint against the police [for sexual violence] and continued through the courts, ” said Monia Bousselmi, one of Meriem’s lawyers.  

Offending public decency

In September 2012 Meriem was stopped while in her car with her boyfriend. She was raped by two police officers while a third forced her boyfriend to a cashpoint to steal money. Tunisian women who are sexually assaulted rarely make complaints due to a sense of shame and the powerful social pressure to remain silent. 

In this case, the three policemen realized that she had made a complaint and that she was not going to back down. So, as a warning, she was charged with ‘atteinte a la pudeur (offending public decency). Outrage at this charge exploded both inside Tunisia and internationally. The International Federation of Human Rights notes that, “So, the victim was transformed into a criminal and deemed to be responsible for the rape.”

Although the charge of ‘offending public decency’ was eventually dropped, another investigation was recently launched by the police. Her attackers complained that she had issued death threats.

15 years sentences

The hearing of the prosecutor’s appeal started on 17 November in the busy surroundings of the central court in Tunis. Meriem was surrounded by a group of supporters from campaigning groups. About ten metres away a group of men from the families of Meriem’s attackers waited. When the hearing started the police cleared the public gallery including Meriem’s supporters. She hugged her supporters as they left and then turned back alone but straight and courageous to the five judges and lawyers - and her attackers. As the day ended it became clear that her evidence had been so powerful that lawyers defending her attackers had asked for two days adjournment. Lawyers for Meriem suggested that lawyers defending the attackers clearly needed time to work out a defence.

On November 20, after two tense days of evidence and lawyer’s submissions, the five judge appeal court threw out the policemen’s case and doubled the sentences. The two policemen received 15 years each.

Rights in theory but repressive social values in practice 

Commentators frequently stress that Tunisian women have enjoyed a broadening of legal rights since 1956 when Tunisia’s independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, created the Code of Personal Status (since amended). The most radical articles of this law: outlawed polygamy; divorce allowed only before a judge (thus ending ‘repudiation’ by the husband); and men and women required to be 18 years old before marriage - so ending the practice of ‘child brides.’

But Tunisian culture is profoundly patriarchal. “The very conservative mentality which dominates every social class in my country imposes obligations from a different epoch on women.” says Meriem in her book Guilty of Being Raped.

Some commentators blame this repressive attitude on Islam, but feminist scholars are critical of this view. They argue that the Qur’an has been misinterpreted and Islamic jurisprudence distorted by patriarchy. They regard the real enemy as patriarchy, not Islam.

As this case was heard, Amnesty International Tunisia handed in a petition to the government demanding action on violence against women.  A draft law on violence against women should soon be presented to Tunisia’s new parliament. This law is required by Tunisia’s new 2014 constitution which states that: “The State shall take the necessary measures to eliminate violence against women.”

Photograph taken by Isabelle Merminod.

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