Women constitute 3.2% of Tunisia’s prison population, according to October 2021 data from the General Committee of Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR). The statistic is cited in a study carried out by the association Beity and Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB) and entitled « No way out: Study on the social exclusion of incarcerated women in Tunisia ». Presented in April 2022, the report details the conditions inside prisons for women in Tunisia.

The low number of female prisoners relative to their male counterparts is a trend which reinforces the marginalization of incarcerated women. Historically and still today, the study observes, these women are perceived as witches, or as being hysterical. Female criminality is seen as « exceptional » in comparison with criminality among males.

« Defense of the sexual public order explains this dualism in the criminal treatment of violence committed by women and the fluctuation of sanctions between severe, clement or indulgent, according to whether or not the crime fits within gender stereotypes. Even more than the murder of a husband by his wife which shakes patriarchy to its core, what society simply cannot tolerate is parricide, then infanticide and any kind of sexuality considered « anormal », or which disrupts the purity of filiation (adultery committed by the wife) or procreation and passing on the family name, like homosexuality ».

Histories of instability and violence

Behind every incarcerated woman often hides a man who has pushed her into delinquency, or to purge a sentence in his stead. According to the study by Beity and LWOB, the logic behind this trend is patriarchy. Beity’s legal coordinator Halima Jouini describes the classic mechanism that is set into motion when a young woman loses her virginity and can no longer remain under her parents’ roof: « She runs away and falls into delinquency, even though she was the initial victim of stigmatization and social condemnation for a question of individual liberty ».

Asma does not fit the profile of a typical prisoner. After completing five years at university, Asma was hired by a large company in Bizerte. The thirty-something was subsequently imprisoned for four months on the grounds of « extreme violence » and « property damage ». She resumed work with her former employer, but took a position at the company’s branch in Tunis in order to preserve her anonymity. None of her colleagues today are aware of the time she served in prison. « No one is to know about this», she tells Nawaat.

Asma doesn’t come off as « marginalized ». Well-kempt and soft spoken, she has a calm and reserved appearance. She insists upon her innocence and evokes an unfair trial in which her rights were undermined by the plaintiffs’ influential position. It was just four days between the date of her arrest—along with her sister—and the pronouncement of a verdict on her case.

Asma and her sister spent those four days behind bars, sleeping on a single mattress on the floor of their cell. « The mattress was insect-infested and the blanket was filthy », she recalls. Their three meals a day (a sandwich at morning, noon and night) were served to them in the same cell where they used the toilet. Water was scarce, and often cut. « I told myself it was only a nightmare that would end once the trial began. I was hopeful of my release. I promised myself I wouldn’t fall apart » recounts Asma. In fact, she didn’t have the choice: « The police silenced our complaints. We didn’t have the right to cry. In their eyes, we were already criminals », she remembers.

Tribulations faced behind bars

Once the verdict was pronounced, Asma was transferred to the Manouba Prison for Women. Until this point in her story, Asma recounts the details of her experience without pause. But the flow of words is immediately broken as she recalls the body search carried out when she entered the prison. Her words are interrupted by sobs as she describes being stripped naked, ordered to squat down and cough.

This kind of body search is a security measure to prevent detainees from concealing dangerous items on their person and smuggling them into the prison. Intrusive and frequent, the body search for Asma was experienced as « a violation of [her] dignity ».

Each time we left the cell to take care of administrative paperwork, we were subjected to this search. I felt humiliated. The agent would stand, fully dressed, before me. I felt like a nothing in those moments,

recounts Asma, distraught by the memory.

Afterwards, Asma and her sister were moved to a transitional cell, where the majority of women were newly arrived at the prison. Three beds were available for some 25 inmates. Asma slept on the ground. Soup was served three times a day. At 6am each morning, the women were brusquely awoken as the prison guards did a head count.

Each day, I woke up to the shouts of the prison guards. Some inmates refused to get up. Furious, the guards spewed all kinds of insults on them. Their voices mixed with recitations from the Quran which emanated from the television first thing in the morning.

She remained thus for 20 days. After this time, a strange procedure executed by the prison warden was used to remove inmates from this transition cell. « She showed up and said she would count to five, in which time we were to grab our things as quickly as possible. We were panicked, running in every direction. I didn’t have time to collect all of my things or say goodbye to a few cellmates », says Asma mournfully. With a rush of emotion, she adds,

It was tragic and funny, like a scene straight from a movie. The warden wanted a laugh, and she got it.

Inmates were divided into smokers and non-smokers. Asma and her sister were put into the non-smoking dormitories where, as they awaited the judge’s ruling, they met others who had already been sentenced. Inmates accused of terrorism mingled with others convicted of prostitution and bounced checks, reports Asma.

Whereas prisons enforce the strict separation of male and female prisoners, the separation between female inmates pending trial and those having already received a sentence remains exceptional. Upon their arrival at the Manouba Prison for Women, inmates are assigned to cells based on criteria such as whether or not they smoke, might be pregnant or carry an infectious disease.

Asma’s dormitory housed more prisoners than available beds. To avoid sleeping on the ground, inmates share beds.

Cited by Beity and LWOB, a Penal Reform International (PRI) report describes cramped, overcrowded cells with little space between bunk beds and for tables, chairs or exercise. In Asma’s case, a cell leader organized daily life inside the cell:

Just as in normal life, cronyism prevails. The cell leader’s friends enjoyed more comfortable conditions, ate better. No one bothered them. Prison is a micro-society. Confinement renders it even uglier, more brutal.

Some prisoners appropriated the space between beds, claiming it as their own and forbidding others from setting foot there. As a consequence, inmates sometimes ran the risk of spending an entire day confined to their beds.

They especially fought over space for prayer. Almost all of the prisoners became more religious in prison and wanted to pray all at the same time. This isn’t easy in an overcrowded dormitory,

Asma remarks.

The study also discusses power relations inside the prison. These relations are determined by the developments in a prisoner’s judicial situation, her economic standing and personal connections within and outside of the prison.

Despotic prison wardens

Inside their cells, inmates ate meals, prayed, played cards, watched television and relieved themselves using nearby squat toilets.

One day, the toilets became clogged and overflowed into the cell. For one week, the excrement was visible, and we just had to live with it. We begged the guards to resolve the issue, and they shouted back at us, arguing that their work wasn’t with the ONAS (national waste management authority),

recalls Asma with disgust.

With similar aversion, she explains how inmates took turns disposing of the waste. « Each day, one of us was in charge of this task. The prison guards ordered the person to pour all of the prison waste into the big court. In doing so, we would be overcome by a repugnant smell and mosquitoes. It was unbearably humiliating ».

Inmates were also responsible for cleaning the prison cells, including their own, the pavilion, etc. « Cleaning was done in shifts. Some got out of their shifts by doing favors for others who replaced them », explains Asma. Nothing was free, and certain means were required for anything beyond the bare minimum provided by the prison. Asma needed 50 dinars a week for coffee, cookies, drinking water, etc.

When purchasing these items, the guard imposed her own preferences for certain brands and pretended to forget others,

Asma tells us with marked resentment.

The young woman led a solitary existence throughout her time in prison. « I didn’t cry. I was still stunned », she tells us. But Asma has since become « hardened »: « In the beginning, I was shocked by the image of a woman in suffering or attempting suicide. But I became used to this kind of scenario. Sometimes we’d simply continue eating our lunch with a prisoner in distress close by ».

Suicide attempts, Asma reports, were frequent. Women arm themselves with the straps of their bras or head scarves. More often than not, such attempts are usually a lever of pressure on the prison management. In some cases, these individuals were deprived of visits or particularly mistreated by the wardens. Their hope was to draw attention to their situation. Others opted for psychotropic medications to avoid falling apart.

The majority of prisoners took psychotropic drugs. This also suits the wardens since it keeps the prisoners calm, an effect chemically obtained through medication.

A reality also described in the Beity-LWOB study. Citing PRI’s findings, the authors observe that for incarcerated women, mental illness and dependence on drugs are often the consequence of past violence.

Asma says she « held out » to avoid taking such medications. One day, she asked to see a psychologist, and recalls with bitterness the group sessions that ensued, and that were devoid of privacy. To pass the time without using medication or fighting like the majority of inmates, Asma preferred to devote herself to reading. This required devising certain stratagems. « I couldn’t simply ask to go to the prison library. I had to attend the weekly session on STI/HIV prevention in order to get a book ».

She adds, « The prison wardens do whatever they can to keep the pressure on us, to bring out the worst in us, and not the opposite », she says ruefully. Even the slightest efforts towards self-care were banned.

For example, Tunisian inmates were forced to undo the African braids that their Subsaharan cohorts had done for them. Shapely women had to wear loose-fitting clothes to hide their curves. Women with long hair had to keep it tied up, while those with short hair had to wear head scarves,

explains Asma.

According to Beity and LWOB, « Access to work and social reintegration programs is also unequal. In practice, only a small number of inmates truly have the opportunity to participate in training or work, since the prison administration is not subject to any obligations in this regard ».

Beyond this, Asma notes, inmates are better off not falling ill in prison:

Oftentimes, the prison guards believe that prisoners are simply pretending just to make more work for them. They say that we get what we deserve, that we shouldn’t have been there if we wanted to be treated. I didn’t dare fall ill.

Many prisoners fear retaliation from prison wardens. Asma says that the guards instruct certain inmates who are close to them to make life difficult for other inmates with whom they are at odds.

In spite of the power they exercise, I heard them expressing nostalgia for the time of Ben Ali, when there were no human rights organizations breathing down their necks.

Once out of prison, Asma did not want to return to her hometown. « I was stigmatized, the image of an aggressive woman followed me wherever I went », she laments. Today, she is fighting to be self-sufficient. Like Asma, the majority of inmates have lost their closest family members (have been disowned by parents, lost custody of their children or become incapable of supporting them) as a result of their incarceration. Moreover, their social ties in general are affected; some have been abandoned by their friends or spouses and live in isolation. For these women, the hardest punishment is not always the one faced behind bars.