The case of a young Tunisian woman allegedly raped by two policemen has created outrage and anger among ordinary Tunisians and human rights’ defenders.
They are appalled by the fact that the woman has been charged with public indecency when she filed the complaint - a charge which could yield up to six months in prison.
‘At best, charging the victim of a rape by police officers instead of protecting her from intimidation and stigma highlights the deep flaws in Tunisian law and criminal justice system,’ said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International. ‘At worst, it is an insidious attempt to discredit a rape victim and protect those she accused of raping her.’
Tunisian feminists have also decried the treatment of women by police since the Islamist-led government came to power a year ago. A group of local rights organisations say women are regularly harassed by law enforcement officials over their style of dress or during evening outings when they are not accompanied by a male relative.
On the recent case of the young Tunisian woman named Meriem, she told several media outlets that three policemen approached her and her fiancé. While two policemen took Meriem to a remote place and raped her three times, the other policeman took the man to an ATM machine and ordered him to withdraw some money as a bribe to let them go.
When the case became public, there was sympathy and admiration for Meriem’s courage but also condemnation. Both men and women questioned her conduct rather than the horrific crime of the police officers. They suggested that she asked for it by being alone with a man she claimed to be her fiancé.
Watching Tunisian TV recently, the view from the street on this case reminded me of an incident I witnessed as a young girl growing up in Tunisia. On the bus going to my secondary school one day, I noticed a young woman wrapped up in the traditional ‘Safsari’ dress.The bus was packed and this particular woman looked uncomfortable as she was trying to wiggle herself out of the intense closeness to a man behind her. The man wouldn’t let go and the journey was unbearably long. After many failed attempts to whisper to the man to back off, the woman couldn’t bear it any longer, turned and shouted: ‘You should be ashamed of yourself! Would you accept this for your wife, mother, sister or daughter?’ The culprit immediately denied any wrong doing. He said she was the one eyeing him since he got on the bus and that if she was a decent woman, she would be at home not out on public transport. Every man on the bus agreed with him and addressed all the other females not to complain as they would face the same fate. The poor woman jumped off the bus in tears!
But unlike the woman on the bus who was forced to withdraw to avoid what many considered ‘bringing shame to herself’, Meriem with the help of her fiancé, refused to be silenced and spoke out against a corrupt patriarchal society.
What’s shocking many about this particular case is that it happened in the ‘new Tunisia’- the cradle of the ‘Arab spring’ that overthrew a police state. Under Zin El Abidine’s 23-year rule, any policeman regardless of his rank, was king. I recall seeing policemen stop people at random asking for bribes; policemen putting their caps at the back of their cars when off duty as a deterrent. Several cases of torture, brutality and sexual violence went unreported, as most Tunisians feared retaliation. Another case of police brutality was made public around the same time as the rape case. A young man accused of burglary was tortured to death while in police custody, leaving a wife who suffers from cancer and a young child. Tunisians are wondering how can they go to the police for protection after such incidents?
Women in Tunisia have held a unique position in the Arab world since the country’s independence in 1956, thanks to the Code of Personal Status - a legal code that recognizes the position of women as equal partners to men. But challenges remain. Tunisian society as a whole still favours men over women and frowns on women’s independence. Recently, there have been attempts by the first democratically elected Constituent Assembly to reverse the equality article enshrined in the constitution six decades ago and replace it with a new concept whereby women would ‘complement’ men instead. A relentless campaign by women’s rights defenders has managed to stop that from happening. But Tunisian women are still victims of blatant discriminatory laws that do not recognize, for instance, marital rape or emotional abuse, and when a woman is raped by a stranger, proceedings against the accused can be dropped if he agrees to marry the victim. Only last month the government rejected a UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation to abolish discrimination against women in areas such as inheritance and child custody.
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* Mounira Chaieb is a Tunisian Journalist based in London formerly working for the BBC.