Tunisia’s historical commitment to women’s rights is being used by Ben Ali as a smokescreen for the persecution they now suffer

Tunisia’s adoption – 54 years ago this month – of the most protective women’s rights legislation in the Arab world is increasingly used by President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali as a veil to hide his declining human rights record.

Tunisian women undoubtedly benefit from the pioneering personal status code, which abolished polygamy, instituted judicial divorce and required that marriage be based on mutual consent of the future husband and wife. Their enriching participation in the country’s social and economic life is made possible by other groundbreaking reforms, also initiated by the late President Habib Bourguiba in the wake of independence from France in 1956.

Today, though, Tunisian women are not spared from the long and ruthless war on freedom of expression and association, of a kind unseen even under the French protectorate and which can no longer be camouflaged by the personal status code or Ben Ali’s “achievements” or by western public relations firms.

The launch of this dirty war in the early 1990s coincided with new amendments to the personal status code and more rhetoric about Ben Ali’s trumpeted commitment to women’s rights, widely seen as an “attempt to project an image of modernity and democracy” while hiding another part of Tunisia’s picture. The raging war at that time in neighbouring Algeria (between the military-backed government and armed groups infuriated by the cancellation in 1992 of the results of legislative elections the Islamists were poised to win) led many to overlook the merciless repression in Tunisia.

The first victims among women were scores of alleged supporters of two banned political opposition parties. They were jailed or held for interrogation, intimidated and threatened with prosecution and rape at police stations and the interior ministry, according to local and international groups. Most of them were close to or related to the jailed or exiled activists of the Islamist an-Nahda movement. A few others have been accused of supporting the Tunisian Workers’ Communist party. None of the thousands of prisoners used violence or advocated the use of force to achieve their political goals.

The war on freedom of expression and association, which saw nearly 40 political detainees die under torture or of lack of medical care, never abated. Women from different walks of life, including academics, journalists, lawyers, medical doctors and students, are routinely harassed or assaulted by ubiquitous plainclothes police agents for seemingly harmless things such as signing a petition, or even for heading to meetings at the offices of authorised groups or to government agencies to register an NGO or apply for a licence to establish a newspaper or a radio station.

The right to establish media outlets seems to have become a privilege solely bestowed on Ben Ali’s relatives and supporters. The last to enjoy such a privilege is one of Ben Ali’s daughters, the owner of a business group, which received a licence to start broadcasting its new radio station, Shems FM, next month.

Repeated applications to establish a private radio station or a newspaper by many journalists, including Naziha Rejiba (a winner of the Committee to Protect Journalists international press freedom award) and Sihem Bensedrine, managing editor of the banned Kalima radio and magazine, have been ignored over the past years.

Women played an active role in the struggle for independence and a better status, and under Bourguiba campaigned against autocratic rule and discrimination and for bringing Tunisian legislation into conformity with international standards for women’s rights. But they never came under the kind of Soviet-style persecution typical of Ben Ali’s “new era”.

Many of those who used to gather each Saturday at the Tahar Haddad club in Tunis nearly three decades ago to discuss ways to further protect women’s rights or to contribute to the now-defunct feminist magazine, Nissa’a, have been forced gradually to retreat from public life. Haddad, who in 1930 authored a book, Our Women in the Shari’a and Society, still inspires women’s rights advocates.

The widening repression and smear campaigns are not only engulfing female rights defenders and critical journalists and their families, but also women whose children, husbands and brothers have been jailed for political dissent or peaceful protests against unemployment and corruption or simply for covering these protests for a media outlet.

Even women inclined for professional reasons to keep away from public life, like Kalthoum Kennou, secretary-general of the democratically-elected board of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates (AMT), which was toppled by the government in 2005, have been facing with their families different forms of persecution for discreetly calling on Tunisian authorities to protect the independence of the judiciary. Kennou, who was assaulted in 2009 while performing her job at the Kairouan court, and other leading figures of AMT, including Wassila Kaabi, Raoudha Karafi and Leila Bahria, have been arbitrarily forced over the past five years to work hundreds of kilometers away from their families.

“If such a punishment is inflicted on honest magistrates whose sole crime is to defend the independence of the judiciary, which is one of the cornerstones of the republican regime, what would they do to powerless ordinary people?” Kaabi asked earlier this year during a meeting at the beleaguered and harassed Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.

Kamel Labidi