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Attacks on Tunisia’s transitional justice process threaten women’s advancement

Continued attacks on the transitional justice process in Tunisia will weaken the gains made by women, and prevent an inclusive transition to democracy.

Protesters raise slogans in the march called by the Maniche Msamah campaign (I will not forgive) on Habib Bourguiba Street in Tunis September 16, 2017 after the Tunisian Parliament approved the Administrative Reconciliation Act. Picture by Mohamed Krit/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Tunisia’s parliament passed a reconciliation law in September offering amnesty to former officials of the Ben Ali regime charged with corruption. Supporters claim Law 49, a diluted version of the contested Economic Reconciliation Law that was first introduced in 2015, will allow the country to move forward without alienating past politicians. But the bill entrenches impunity for many of the crimes that sparked the 2011 revolution, and encroaches on the mandate of the existing transitional justice process, which has been working since 2013 to uncover the stories of victims of the regimes and bring perpetrators to justice.

Tunisia’s transitional justice process, which has been far from smooth, remains critical to Tunisia's continued democratization. It also includes a number of advances that have serious implications for women in Tunisia and beyond.

Tunisia is the first nation to formally recognize socio-economic violence as a violation meriting recognition and material reparation

Tunisia is the first nation to formally recognize socio-economic violence as a violation meriting recognition and material reparation, alongside more traditionally recognized crimes such as killings, torture, and imprisonment. This is particularly important for women, whose experiences of oppression- sometimes referred to as “indirect” victimization- are often overlooked and are only now seen as worthy of redress. 

Incorporating women’s experiences into transitional justice processes often begins and ends with the prosecution of sexual violence. The Tunisian process marks a necessary shift in thinking, and is a model for understanding the many ways in which conflict and oppression touch women’s lives. By including harms such as forced divorce, harassment of family members of prisoners, and the enforcement of Circular 108, which banned veiled women from public sector work and education, Tunisia’s transitional justice process acknowledges the broad spectrum of harms faced by women.

A recent report by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women Peace and Security traces why these innovations were possible. It notes that women have held official leadership roles in Tunisia’s formal transitional justice mechanisms since 2012, including half the Truth Commission (Instance vérité et dignité, IVD). In these roles they pushed to institutionalize access points for women’s organizations and women victims to participate more fully in the process. For instance, the creation of a Women’s Commission in the IVD gave space to consider the particular gendered violations against women victims.

When the first reports of testimony submission to the IVD were released, women made up barely 5% of the total submissions. Women’s civil society groups worked to raise awareness about the process, and improve understanding among men and women that women’s experiences were serious, reducing stigma around submitting testimony. They also identified procedural barriers to submission and operationalized strategies to overcome them, such as creating mobile units to register victims, and ensuring privacy measures were enforced. Thanks to their work, women’s testimonies ultimately made up 23% of the total submissions. The submissions of women victims broadened the understanding of what it meant to be a victim, and allowed the process to acknowledge and begin to address a more diverse set of harms that characterized the oppression of the preceding dictatorships.

The stories of women victims helped to re-write the history of a country that once used state feminism as a smoke screen for oppressive and violent policies towards much of the population

The stories of women victims helped to re-write the history of a country that once used state feminism as a smoke screen for oppressive and violent policies towards much of the population. The gains of the women’s movement under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, such as the reform of family law, often came about through the hard work of women’s groups in civil society. But the state co-opted the women’s rights agenda, and touted these legal reforms in order to present a progressive face to the international community. Even while many women were denied education and employment, harassed for their political beliefs or those of their family members, and jailed for speaking out against the government, the regimes used their supposed commitment to women’s equality to gain international legitimacy.

This pattern seems to be recurring today. The day after the Assembly passed the Reconciliation Law, it revoked a longstanding ban that denied Tunisian women the right to marry non-Muslim men. The latter development has received considerable positive press, especially in the west, while the implications of reconciliation law are not widely known or discussed. As we praise Tunisia for continuing to make crucial advancements in the area of women’s rights, we can’t lose sight of the ways in which regressive political developments will influence women’s lives, and the broader project of democratization, from which women’s empowerment and equality is inextricable.

The Reconciliation Law threatens to undermine the legitimacy and mandate of the IVD and Tunisia’s other transitional justice bodies. The success of the transitional justice process is a necessary element for the success of Tunisia’s democratization, and also has serious implications for women in Tunisia. By formally recognizing socio-economic violations, including those that disproportionately affected women, the process is a model for how transitional justice can begin to address systemic oppression of marginalized groups. Continued attacks on the process will weaken the gains made by women, and prevent an inclusive transition to democracy. 


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