By Lilia Blaise
August 1, 2017
Tunisia has long been regarded as a pioneer for women’s rights in the Arab world, but the day-to-day life of many Tunisian women is still one of abuse and harassment. So when Parliament passed a measure last week outlawing violence against women, some burst into ululation and passed around bouquets of jasmine.
The new law makes it easier to prosecute domestic abuse, and it imposes penalties for sexual harassment in public spaces. It says that citizens are entitled to notify the police if they witness violence against women, and that children should be educated in schools about human rights. And it calls for both the police and judges to be trained on how to handle violence against women.
Tunisia already stood out among Islamic countries because of its legal arsenal of protections for women. Its code of personal status, adopted in 1956, allows divorce and outlaws polygamy, for example. But women’s rights associations and human rights groups say the new law is a major step forward, in part because it so broad, outlawing not just physical violence but psychological abuse and even economic discrimination.
“This is why the new law is so important, because it also takes care of the preventive side of violence against women in general, not only the reform of the criminal side,” Monia Ben Jemia, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, said in an interview.
Still, change may be slow to come to a culture in which many women experience domestic and public abuse daily. In 2016, the Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood reports, 60 percent of Tunisian women were victims of domestic violence. And 50 percent of women said they had experienced aggression in a public area at least once in their lives.
Another study published the same year by the Centre for Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women, a Tunisian group that works with the United Nations, found that 70 percent to 90 percent of women had been victims of sexual harassment, mostly on public transportation, from 2011 to 2015.
When women speak out, it is often to little effect.
“We had too many reports over the years from victims of domestic abuse who said they were not taken seriously by the police when they filed a complaint,” Ms. Ben Jemia said. During Tunisia’s years of dictatorship, many women who were political activists or simply had ties to the opposition endured violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of the police.
Legislators drafting the new protections also joined a movement across the Middle East to do away with so-called marry-your-rapist laws, which allow men who wed their victims to escape prosecution. Although that part of the Tunisian penal code had largely fallen from use, last year a judge ordered a 13-year-girl who had been raped and become pregnant to marry her attacker. The case stirred up a national controversy and led to a push to change the law.
“We finally managed to amend this in the final version of the law, and this is a victory, because apart from one small party, there was a general consensus on the need to change this,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a member of Parliament.
Mrs. Belhaj Hmida recalled the years after the Arab Spring when the Islamist party Ennahda was on the rise and women worried that their rights would be rolled back. Four years ago, Ennahda suggested that women were “complementary” to men, not their equals.
The debate on the law just passed by Parliament shows that there has been improvement, Mrs. Belhaj Hmida said. “It was completely different this time,” she said. “I felt that every woman agreed on the need of this law. The debate was more heated between men and women than between parties or political ideologies.”
Parliament also agreed to raise the age of sexual consent to 16, from 13.
The new legislation also enacted fines and jail time for people who employ minors as housemaids; last year, Tunisia ratified a law on human trade. And workplace discrimination is now punishable by a fine of up to $800.
But for women’s rights associations, the hard work is only beginning. Human Rights Watch, while praising the new law, urged the Tunisian authorities to allocate money to enforce it.