Ten years after, defending women’s and minorities rights
Synthesis of the second panel of the 20th of January 2022 workshop day
By Victor Lachenait, Juliette Denis-Senez and Elyssa Koepp
Within the framework of the conference ”Ten years after, defending women’s and minorities rights, we were honored to welcome Ms. Bochra Belhaj Hmida (Tunisian lawyer and politician), Ms. Bochra Triki (executive director of the association Chouf), Ms. Nedra Ben Smail (psychiatrist and author) and Ms. Sana Ben Achour (Lawyer and activist).
Bochra Belhaj Hmida
She is a Tunisian lawyer and politician, and the former MP and chair of the Commission for Individual Liberties and Equality. In her opening statement, she paints a positive picture of the success of the plight for women’s rights in Tunisia since the fall of the ancient regime in 2011. She starts by retracing the greatest obstacles to the preservation and enactment of women’s rights during the revolution. The overthrow of the old regime, a dictatorship in nature, but a state that she describes as “a feminist state even in its darkest moments of democracy“, embodied a vulnerable political transition that could have triggered a loss of protection of the rights of women acquired under Bourguiba and preserved under Ben Ali.
For Bochra, the strength of civil society during these pivotal years is what shaped a positive future for women’s rights in the system that emerged from the ashes of the Arab Spring: “Civil society was very mobilized because there was this fear of losing what we had already gained. Today, after 10 years, we can strongly assert that not only have the gains been preserved, but we have also won many more battles“. Among the battles won she includes the organic law combating gender instigated violence, the abolition of the law prohibiting the marriage of Tunisian women to non-Muslims and the right of mothers to travel and give their children a passport without the authorization of the father. Bochra Belhaj Hmida also describes a shift in responsibility born out of a rapid rise of civil society activism. It is no longer solely the state that is the only responsible entity for the preservation of women’s rights, but the whole Tunisian society that now carries the burden of responsibility for enhancing equality in all realms. Thus, today, “even if at the head of the State we notice the total absence of commitment to the upkeep of the debate around women’s rights, this does not prevent that the rights of women are no longer threatened“.
On the issue of individual freedoms, Bochra Belhaj Hmida explains that since the revolution, the biggest accomplishment has been social rather than political or judicial. The rights of sexual minorities are no longer taboo and have entered the realm of public discussions, but unfortunately, there has not yet been a real transition within the laws or justice system. In fact, conversion therapy and anal testing for proof of sodomy are still active practices. Despite a complicated situation today with a State that is incapable of “proposing anything for women’s rights and unable to even apply the laws that are already there“, her assessment remains positive. Indeed, Bochra concludes by stating that the element of fear is now behind us: “Despite everything that happens in politics, women have shown themselves to be strong, and the Tunisian civil society, despite all of its difficulties and divisions, has never been as vigilant as it has been after the revolution. […] Although there are many things to be done in terms of individual freedoms and equality, what is certain is that there will be no more backtracking […] Tunisian women, citizens and individuals will continue to win battles.”
She is a French teacher, a cultural operator and the executive director of the association Chouf. Through a more personal perspective drawing from her own experience in the activist sphere after the Arab Spring, she provides an overview of what the feminist and queer struggle in Tunisia is today. Bochra talks about the structuring of feminist and queer initiatives after 2011. During a period marked by an “explosion of possibilities” and under the pressures of a “tsunami of fundings“, Bochra describes the main obstacles such a transition meant for activists on the ground. Following the fall of the regime in 2011, people “finally had the right to dream and to make some of them come true“. These dreams materialized into different collectives, associations, and organizations.
An important element that was neglected in this transformation of civil society: grassroot activism, or informal activism outside of external funding. The activism attached to the influx of funds created projects “based on the checkboxes suggested by the funders […] or because the funds demanded it.” In contrast, grassroots activism, for Bochra, “is fueled solely by the desire to get closer to the utopia of social justice and freedom, and to dispose of one’s body and soul”. For her, this drawback is not the responsibility of civil society. In fact, in a time of such uncertainty, she says “it would have been foolish to say no to all these possibilities, especially in 2011 when we had no idea how long this funding and this possibility would remain“.
From here she recalls the period of 1987-1988 which saw the birth of the DFA and a window of opportunity for an active civil society: a short lived period quickly followed with close to 23 years of repression shattered only by the uprisings of 2011. Thus, the reasoning of the activists during the period after 2011 can be summed up as: “act quickly, take what is available to us now, and assess the consequences at a later date“. Within this explosion of civil society actors, Bochra also describes the widening gap between the established institutions and the new initiatives from the post-2011 era. Among the causes, she highlights a generational conflict, as well as “the lack of understanding and a feeling of being overwhelmed [by] new forms and subjects of activism“, such as queer activism in Tunisia. In 2015-2016, coinciding with a wave of arrests, there seemed to be a reversal of this mentality and a rise in solidarity that elevated these initiatives into strong political forces, no longer isolated and closed off to other civil initiatives.
Today, the dynamic of solidarity is beginning to crumble due to activism burnout, internal tensions within the collectives, and most importantly, policies and politics that do not seem to change: “The government has built a wall in front of activists [and] a gap has emerged between the institutionalized form of struggle and the needs and interests of a new generation”. The consequence of these conflicting dynamics: a new generation of social activism leaning closer and closer to the overlooked form of grassroot activism in the initial phase of opening.
Bochra ends her speech by underlining the importance of intersectionality, which for her, “carries one of the most accurate discourses in terms of the concordance of struggles” something “that we have been learning about for years without necessarily knowing how to actively apply“. The question that remains today: how to learn and benefit from a transmission of the experiences of activist struggles, successes and failures?
Nedra Ben Smail
She is a psychiatrist and the co-founder and president of AFPEC, the Tunisian association of psychoanalysis. She is also the author of different books such as ‘Virginity: the new sexuality of Tunisian women’, and more recently ‘Abandoned youth; violence and jihadism’. Nedra addresses the association between women’s bodies, sexuality and the revolutionary movement through a psychoanalytic lense. For her, “the question of democracy is played out on women’s bodies who often pay a high price for it“. The taboo of virginity – the right or not right to love or have sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage – serves as “a real anthropological marker […] from which [we] can understand what the collective is made of […] how the relationship between sexes is organized, and more broadly, the relationship of society to the prohibitions that govern each person’s ideals”.
In spite of the retardation of the average age of marriage for women in Tunisia, today at almost 30 years old, the matrimonial institution remains well anchored in Tunisian society. Nedra explains the conflict between two contrasting normativities; “a society that is transformed with globalized practices” and “a conservative tradition that opposes this transformation.” To illustrate this phenomenon, she talks about the surgical repair of the hymen, which she depicts as the process of ‘revirginization’. According to Nedra, this act “is situated at the crossroad of the social body, which prohibits it, and the personal body which is that of women“. This constitutes the “identity tension that every Tunisian woman lives in her flesh“, giving sexuality both a political and religious connotation.
She then describes her conversations with Nour, a young girl from a conservative family who decides to organize her defloration on Facebook at the age of 17. For Nour, “abusing her body -a body in which she feels trapped- and by offering to a stranger her hymen which is fetishized by society and culture”, Nour feels like she is bringing down the system. Nedra describes this act as taking on “the value of a murder, not only of the hymen, but also of the patriarchy that demands her virginity”, shatteringa system of societal control on the body and sexuality.Nedra then recalls the story of the femen Amina, who in 2011 posted a photo of herself on Facebook, bare chest, cigarette in the mouth, with red lipstick, and a message written in Arabic stating ‘my body belongs to me‘. This act highlights the “alliance between the body, sex and blood, by the presence of lipstick” and claims “a new relationship between Tunisian women and society”.
Nedra’s speech thus describes the emergence of sexuality in Tunisia, the societal transformations since 2011, and the new ways women have opted to circumvent tradition.
Sana Ben Achour
She is a lawyer specializing in public rights, a Tunisian activist and president of the Beity association. She shares both Nedra’s idea “that the social norms carried by the law concern the bodies of women” and the words of Bochra Belhaj Hmida and Bochra Triki concerning the victories with regard to women’s rights, yet remains cautious about the fragility of these achievements. “Many things have been achieved, many things remain to be done, but the threat is permanent on women’s rights: rights have been obtained but never equality”. Sana finally describes the path of Tunisia towards the constitutionalization of women’s rights: “equality without discrimination […] this is the essence of the Constitution since 2011, article 46“. According to Sana, there is uncertainty about the possible reintroduction of fundamental feminist rights into a new constitution.
Sana defines feminism as a way “to be together in our diversities, our diverse backgrounds and paths […] to be able to build together the political tools to pour into the public space in order to achieve social change.” She offers here a jurist’s point of view on the ambivalence of the legal system in Muslim countries “where the legal rule is never sufficient in itself but must be legitimized by a religious discourse. It is not independent and has no force in itself [but] remains dependent on its compatibility with the religious rule, and this is why the debate on women is very quickly pulled back into a debate on charaic or religious law”.
This ambivalence is reflected in Tunisian society through a contradiction between rights in the public and private spheres: “rights in the public space remain limited by the few rights that women have in the private space”, a major obstacle to gender equality in Tunisia. Sana concludes that the reality remains the same today as it did in 2011: “the personal status code and the penal code remain the glass ceiling of Tunisian women and all sexual minorities” constituting the basis of the obstacles to come.