TUNISIA: Talk is Cheap: Addressing Sexual Harassment in Tunisia

Saturday, April 14, 2012
Tunisia Live
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

“Breaking the silence is the first step.”

“The whole issue blew up because of a really simple survey,” remembered Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarassMap Egypt, a non-profit organization that aims to battle sexual harassment. At the time, she was working for the Egyptian Center for Women Rights. “We asked women to tell us their story. Did you ask anyone for help? What happened? It was the first time they talked about this issue, and they started getting angry.”

Sexual harassment is widespread in Middle Eastern countries. Discussion of the issue often zeroes in on Egypt, and the notoriously mean streets of Cairo. When typing “sexual harassment Middle East” into a search engine, the entire first page alone is filled with links that exclusively discuss the issue in Egypt and Cairo.

It seems that within Egypt itself, the discussion around sexual harassment has grown in recent years. Chiao explained that the issue blew up several years before the revolution, riding the same wave of change that was underway before January 2011. “The bloggers were using the issue of harassment as a political issue,” she said.

With a progressive Code of Personal Status, Tunisia is commonly regarded as the Arab world's most advanced country in terms of women's rights. Yet sexual harassment exists in Tunisia, too. Unlike in Egypt, sexual harassment has not entered the arena of public discourse in Tunisia, and is often dismissed as a non-issue.

A recent survey conducted by the Tunisian National Office of Population and Family (ONFP) found that physical violence against women was most commonplace, followed by psychological violence, sexual violence and last, economic violence. While the survey found that violence against women was most common in the private sphere, it also revealed that violence against women in the public sphere is sexual in 21.3% of cases, psychological in 14.8%, and physical in 9.8%.

Sexual harassment is not just physical – but includes gestural, and even verbal, harassment. According to UN Women, sexual harassment can be, “making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements,” “hanging around a person,” “sexual comments,” or “unwanted sexual looks or gestures” – not to mention rape, pressure for sexual favors, etc.

For Meriem Manar (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), a student of business and English in Tunis, sexual harassment is a daily reality. “You cannot avoid it. Men are in the street with you, and you have to go to school, you have to go to work. Because it is in our daily life, because it is our every day experience, we end up accepting it. You leave your house mentally prepared. You just deal with it,” she said.

But this comes at a certain price to her liberty. “There are places that I cannot go alone, like parks…because I know I might be not just sexually harassed, but even raped…If you walk on Avenue Habib Bourguiba at night, you will not find a single female on the street. If you are alone at night and walking in the street, and somebody sees you, they will have the idea that you are going to a nightclub, or that you are meeting your boyfriend…that you are doing something your family would not be proud of.”

For Meriem, taking public transportation can often become unbearable. The everyday hassle of public transport turns into a nightmare for women in Tunis – regardless of their age, and their dress. “The veil would never protect anybody from getting harassed, not even niqab. As long as they [men] know that under that niqab or under that veil, there is a woman, they will sexually harass you,” says Manar. While no statistics exist for Tunisia, a study conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, in conjunction with the United Nations Population Fund and the European Commission, found that in Egypt, 72.5% of surveyed victims of sexual harassment were veiled.

Meriem yearns for a car reserved for women, like in the Cairo metro. But according to Chiao, segregation is not the answer. “I ride in the women's car. But I think that as a policy or a solution, it establishes very bad norms. It promotes this idea that if a woman is riding in the men's car, then she is looking for harassment, or that she brought it unto herself.”

The Legislation

Since 2004, sexual harassment has been punishable by law in Tunisia – with one year in prison and a fee of 3,000 dinars. Halima Jouini, a founding-member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and a volunteer at the Center for Listening and Orientation of Women Victims of Violence, qualified this law as “limited” and “incriminating” for women.

“We launched this law in 2003…it was the ATFD that led the campaign. It was relatively successful – for the first time, sexual harassment was recognized as a crime. But still we are not satisfied – the law does not protect women,” she said.

At the time of the interview, Jouini was just returning from the tribunal in Tunis, where she had been defending the case of a rape victim. The woman in question was a housekeeper, who had been raped – sodomized, in fact – repetitively by her male boss. Upon confessing this to his wife, the housekeeper agreed to film the crime as evidence to take the man to court. But once this evidence was obtained, the wife pressed charges against both her husband and the housekeeper for adultery. The man, who possessed a Canadian passport, fled the country, leaving the housekeeper in prison – where she had been held for a month as of late March.

According to Jouini, the 2004 law's definition of sexual harassment is limited in scope – as it delimits sexual harassment as strictly a repeated action. It is currently defined as “persistence in the harassment of the other by repetition of actions, words or gestures.” Citing the case of a woman who quit her job after she was harassed once in the workplace, Jouini pointed out that some women do not put up with the harassment, and choose to put an end to it after the very first occurrence. Jouini further explained that this makes it harder to collect evidence – as it is not always easy to prove that the harassment was repetitive.

The law further provides no protection to the plaintiff and witnesses, but instead explicitly states that if a case is declared nolle prosequi, or if the defendant is acquitted, then the defendant can ask for reparation, and sue the plaintiff for defamation.

Jouini questioned why this was recalled in the body of the law – when this principle underlies all laws included in the Penal Code. “This principle exists for the whole Penal Code, but to recall it in this very article is a way to say, ‘be careful women'…it is incriminating for the plaintiff.”

The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) calls for a comprehensive law on sexual harassment – one that would not only be included in the Penal Code, but also in the Tunisian Labor Code. Jouini pointed out that this was already the case in Morocco. The ATFD is also lobbying to include an article against discrimination and violence in the new Constitution – Jouini added that this has happened in several countries that underwent recent transitions, like South Africa and some Latin American countries.

Last but not least, the law against sexual harassment is couched in a moralizing rhetoric – it claims to discourage the “infringement of good mores and sexual harassment.” According to Jouini, sexual harassment is “a patriarchal discriminatory practice…You can't justify this by good mores, or the lack of.”

The causes

The origins of sexual harassment are hotly debated – is it a societal issue, a religious issue – or neither?

Najet Araari is a student of sociology at Université du 9 avril, who wrote her master's thesis on sexual harassment in universities. According to Araari, the roots of harassment are social, rather than cultural or religious. They lie in the socialization common to “traditional societies,” that is based on the “difference between the two sexes, and the domination of the masculine sex.” Araari stressed that this was a cultural phenomenon and not a religious one. “The Muslim religion gives a very, very important value to the woman, as a mother, as a sister…in the Sunnah, Mohammed said to respect women,” she said.

Araari also spoke of the “culture of taboo” and shame in Tunisian society. “It always comes down to the lack of sexual education within the families. If we don't talk about it within the family, we're not going to talk about it elsewhere. So it is a problem that starts with the family and continues in the schools.” As to the verbal and gestural harassment typical of the Tunisian street – this is not sexual harassment but a mere “reaction,” a symptom of the lack of “sexual equilibrium,” according to Araari. It is a way for males to exteriorize their desire.

For Araari, the real problem is the culture and stigma that stops victims from speaking out and targets them when they do choose to speak out. The perception is that “it is always the woman, who was being sexually provocative.” Another reason is the sacredness of virginity, and the perception that a woman is soiled if this is “compromised.”

“Most victims do not declare it,” she lamented. But importantly, Araari explained that women, who have been harassed, have a pressing need for re-integration, psychological treatment; they need to “feel their value again.”

“It was a big problem when I decided to work on the subject of sexual harassment…I was told I had to separate my personal opinions and my work. The issue was to find someone who had the courage to work with me [as a thesis advisor].” Araari explained that the university where she completed her undergraduate degree would not accept her for a master's degree, because of her work on sexual harassment – and despite the fact that she had received the best grades. Araari said the director of her former university was a “great harasser,” and she was disallowed from continuing her studies there “without argument.”

Or is it religion?

According to Manar, it all boils down to the taboo surrounding sex in Arab societies. “Sex is taboo in Arab countries,” she said. Manar explained that sexual harassment is a way for Tunisian men to exteriorize their desire, without breaking religious taboos – a win-win situation, as she put it.

“Tunisian men or Arab men in general, they know inside themselves that they are not allowed to have sexual relations because religion forbids it [sex] before marriage. But also they are not able to get married because they do not have jobs, or whatever, so they enjoy themselves by sexually harassing people.”

Manar also pointed to the gender divide that exists in Tunisian society, whereby female-male interaction is extremely weighted. “They [Tunisian men] are not supposed to talk to women, you are not raised with this courage to go to a woman and ask her for a date, ask her out, so from a distance you try to shake her feeling…then you wind up sexually harassing her.”

The Solution?

HarassMap uses Ushahidi platform to map the incoming reports of sexual harassment

In Egypt, Chiao tackled this issue by trying to change the “social acceptability” of sexual harassment on the Egyptian street, when she first co-founded HarassMap Egypt.

According to Chiao, advocacy alone cannot solve the issue of sexual harassment. It needs to be addressed at the grassroots level rather than at the legal, abstract one. “Our theory is that sexual harassment needs to be dealt with on a social or a community level…In an environment like this,” she said, speaking of the Cairo streets, “I don't think it [advocacy] is useful…It doesn't matter what the law is, because in your everyday experience, enforcement is not standard, to put it lightly. We don't have rule of law in this country, even if the government wants to make a law, it doesn't mean it gets written, and even if it gets written, it doesn't mean that anything will change…Sometimes police are actually some of the worse harassers.”

What is needed is a change in mentalities, says Chiao. “Back in the day – twenty or thirty years ago – the slightly older generation of women remembers a time when if a guy harassed them on the street, people would speak out. There is a story that everyone tells here…harassers would be chased down, and their heads shaved, so everyone knew. This wasn't that long ago. Today, we came up with this idea that we wanted to tackle the problem by building up the community, by helping people feel that they have agency over their own society, their own community, their own streets.”

Victims of harassment can send a report of what happened to them, and where it happened, via SMS, HarassMap's website, Twitter, or Facebook. Once reported, the instances of harassment appear on a map of Egypt, forming a cautionary web of large red circles.

“But the website is only 5% of what we do,” Chiao continued. “We spend all of our time organizing in the streets.” Each month, mixed-gender outreach teams go out in their own neighborhoods to talk to café owners, gas station employees, local policemen, and other people who are on the street on a regular basis – to raise awareness about the issue of sexual harassment, and recruit local neighborhood “guardians.” The aim is to change the environment in the Egyptian streets so that harassers are no longer tolerated and encourage bystanders to speak up and defend victims of sexual harassment – whenever it happens.

For Manar, hope for change in Tunisia lies in education. “In Tunisia we have this masculine society, where the male is the dominator of everything, and men are allowed to do anything. Even women are convinced that they are inferior, and they raised their children the same way. If woman has a daughter and a son, she will raise her son as a superior to her daughter. So we end up with a society that thinks that the men are a superior creature, and that's why (…) they dare to do anything.”

“All women who were sexually harassed or who have ever experienced sexual or verbal harassment or assault of any sort…should really raise their kids to not be like these men in our streets today.”

Whether or not amending Tunisia's existing law on sexual harassment or attempting to instill the principle of non-violence and non-discrimination in the new Constitution will actually make a difference remains to be seen. What it will do is provide women with better tools for when they speak out. But it seems that effective change may only stem from bottom-up initiatives – one that does not rely on advocacy or law enforcement.

“The basis of this gender problem is the society. If you want to treat this matter and solve this problem, you should stay with the base, you need to start working on changing the mentalities in Tunisian society,” Manar said.