Debate on Violence Against Women in Tunisia

Obstacle Race for a Draft Law · In Tunisia, the draft law “on the elimination of violence to women,” adopted by the Council of Ministers on 13 July 2016 is currently under revision by the Rights and Freedoms Committee of the Tunisian Parliament. After months of waiting, the Tunisian civil society, gathered around the Ligue des droits de l’homme and the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD) is still actively demanding a faster enactment of the procedure, which is dragging its heels.

Working meeting at the ATFD.
© Giulia Bertoluzzi, Feb. 2017.

Violence to women is widespread in Tunisia. In a study by the Centre d’études, de recherches, de documentation et d’information sur la femme (Credif), published in March 20161, 53.3% of the women interviewed declared having endured at least one form of violence (psychological, physical or sexual) between 2011 and 2015. According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, it is difficult for victims to obtain help from the law, health agencies or support organisations: “Few social and medical services are designed to deal with sexual and gender-related violence and they are inadequate. Rape victims have great difficulty accessing contraceptive services, psychological support or other necessary forms of health care. Furthermore, for lack of protective measures, especially in shelters for women and girls who have suffered violence, they are exposed to more assaults.”

The notorious “article of shame” No. 227a of the Penal Code, which allowed a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim and which the women’s defence associations have long demanded it be repealed, was finally scrapped last March. This revision came about following an umpteenth case of abuse which deeply shocked public opinion: a judge decreed that a thirteen year-old girl would be married to a twenty-year-old man who had made her pregnant.

A Big Step Forward

Khadija Cherif is a historical figure in Tunisian society. Formerly vice-president of La Ligue des droits de l’homme, she was in line to be minister of women’s affairs in 2015, only to be rejected in the end on account of her feminism. In her opinion, law No. 60/2016 would be a big step forward in the struggle against violence to women. It is an umbrella law, and is triply complete, in that it covers the prevention of violence, the protection of the victim and the punishment of the guilty party and also stresses the importance of disseminating the principles of human rights and equality of the sexes. An active program of prevention would be set up, school programs would be made to conform with the principles of the law and gender stereotypes would be banned from the media as they are believed to encourage violence to women and discrimination against them. Professionals in direct contact with the victims—such as judges and police officers would receive special training.

Halini Jouini, a member of the steering committee of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, believes the draft law confirmed essential notions “by linking the issue of violence to women with the respect of universal human rights” and by taking account of economic violence. “A concept essential for an understanding of women’s actual situation, especially in rural areas” where life is very precarious and women are often subject to abuse.”2

A Tug-Of-War Between Progressives and Conservatives

“The examination of that law was perturbed by the political instability with a succession of six governments in as many years,” Monia Ben Jeina, prosodient of the Association tunisienne de femmes démocrates (ATFD) explains. She was one of the group of specialists who wrote the first draft of the bill under the Mehdi Jomaa government (2014-2015). At that time, the secretary of State, Neïla Caabane, was at the origin of a very ambitious draught law which located the source of gender-related violence in the practices of discrimination and was consequently aimed at doing away with all the discriminatory measures on the law books.

“In 2014, the public debate was very rich, and several cabinet members took part: the ministers of justice, education, women’s affairs, economic affairs and health,” Monia Ben Jemia remembers. That same year, at the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Tunisian Government withdrew the reservations it had formulated in 19853 , much to the chagrin of the country’s feminist associations : reservations about equality before the law, matrimonial and inheritance rights, and a mother’s right to transmit her nationality (to this day, filiation remains exclusively patrilineal).

The period seemed favourable for the passage of an umbrella law, but Neïla Chaabane who was a member of the cabinet as “an independent,” was forced to give up her struggle after the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014 when Beji Caid Essebsi took power. “An enormous amount of work had been accomplished but the project had immediately run into many stumbling blocks,” Khadija Cherif observes. The resistance, essentially political, came from the most conservative parties like the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, the country’s most powerful political force between 2011 and 2014, and Nidaa Tounes, the party founded by the current president.

A short time later, the draft law was revised and rewritten, then submitted to the cabinet in May 2016 by Samira Merai, Neila Chaabane’s successor as Minister of Women, Family and Children. The new minister, who could scarcely be suspected of feminism, did away with the clauses that would have upset the Islamists, such as the reforms of the Code du statut personnel (CSP) which had been in the previous version.

Reluctantly, the associations representing the civil society, when consulted, ended up rejecting the law: “We wanted this law to pass and we realised that certain measures were over-ambitious, the conservatives and the Islamists would never have approved the draft as it stood,” Monia Ben Jemia explains. In her opinion, “there are priorities which simply cannot wait, such as the creation of shelters for battered women.”

Taboos Still to Be Broken

With this last revision, all the reforms of discriminatory measures, especially those contained in the CSP, were removed.

Promulgated by Habib Bourguiba on 13 August 1956—which became National Women’s Day in Tunisia—the CSP was a visionary text in its day. Among other things it abolished polygamy and the possibility for a husband to divorce at his sole discretion. Today, however, many legal experts accuse it of being out of date and call attention to the contradictions with the Penal Code and with the recognition of gender equality by the 2014 Constitution and the Cedaw Convention.

Concerning conjugal rape, for example, the CSP is in total contradiction with the recent legislative advances in the matter. It stipulates that sexual relations in marriage are an obligation at that once the wife’s dowry has been paid the husband may consummate the marriage. Thus the lot of a woman who has suffered conjugal rape and lodges a complaint will depend largely on the interpretation of this or that court. Similarly, inheritance procedures as defined by the Code are biased against women who are thus financially disadvantaged in comparison with their male siblings and denied the custody of their children.

“In spite of the gaps in the draft law it is vital for us to see it passed,” Khadija Cherif concludes . . . and then adds, “many men still believe it’s normal to educate their wives by beating them. So from their point of view, to admit the abusive character of violence is to endanger the family institution.”

2See La violence fondée sur le genre dans l’espace public en Tunisie, op. cit., p. 33.

3To read the declaration in its entirety, see Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Treaty Collection.