In her seat beside Amine Gara, TV personality Baya Zardi goes into her weekly tirades on the show « Jeu dit tout », aired on the station El Hiwar Ettounsi. One day, assuming a serious tone which contrasts with the flashy colors of her make-up, Zardi commences her diatribe. « People learn from our experience », she asserts, self-assured.


Normalization of polygamy


The television starlet has neither covered war atrocities nor traveled across the globe to report on the great challenges of our time to enlighten us through her experiences. Zardi is, of course, no exception. But she is one of the few who presume to give life lessons to the audience. Her experience? A tormented, at times painful one, says Zardi. Which is more or less true for everyone, and makes her neither martyr nor symbol of resilience. And yet she is certain that her experience will help women to overcome the tremendous obstacles they face. « After sharing my story, I sense that many have been able to get through painful experiences ». Astounding! No need to see a therapist—just listen to Baya Zardi.

Baya Zardi. Credit : El Hiwar Ettounsi TV

But careful, ladies, what you are about to hear might be upsetting. Commenting on remarks made by television host-turned politician Nizar Chaari condoning polygamy, Baya Zardi rallied in support her of colleague’s cause.

She understands women’s suffering, but preaches that their husbands should be able to marry a second wife. But hold on, ladies! Not to worry: this would not be without your consent. Putting on the hats of theologist and legal expert, Zardi argues that the possibility of marrying a second wife should depend on the consent of the first. After all, she observes, the prophet had a number of wives. Above all, Zardi makes sure to articulate her main concern: the rate of « 3ounoussa » (derogatory expression referring to female celibacy) in Tunisia, which she sees as an ill plaguing the country. Her proposed solution? To restore polygamy.

The legitimacy of Zardi’s argument was contested by Rim El Kefia, a former singer who became known for her role on the show « El kol fel kol » which aired last year on the station Attessia. According to El Kefia, Nizar Chaari and Baya Zardi stole the intellectual property for her theory regarding the reestablishment of polygamy.


Tolerated harassment


Fortunately, there are other female commentators to turn things down a notch on this kind of show. Their qualities, aside from being caked with make-up like a young Tunisian bride on her wedding day, are the impressive number of followers they have on Instagram. Clearly the appropriate criteria for the numerous candidates vying for a seat on the set of a show or role in a TV series. But don’t be fooled: life behind the scenes, lament the instagrammers themselves, is not easy. Hanène Elleuch and Malek Oueslati express as much on the set of « Labes avec Naoufel » which airs on Attessia. « I really struggled to bring in designer brand shoes from Spain », Elleuch complains on « Jeu dit tout ». The toils of such a feat are spectacularly demonstrated in her segment dedicated to selling a foaming gel. Agricultural laborers watching all of this on television will most certainly not know whether to laugh or cry.

Nor will women who are or have been victims of sexual harassment. What might have crossed their minds when one commentator, Hedi, bit his colleague Khaoula Slimani in early October on the show « Sakerli el Barnamej » hosted by Ala Chebbi?

« It was a spontaneous video that was filmed off set », Slimani explains. « This man represents at least 85% of Tunisian males » she adds in his defense. « He absolutely has his place on TV » argues another of the show’s female commentators, Najla Ettounsia. According to Ettounsia, he resembles many Tunisian men.

This sort of televised performance is not only in poor taste, but is also anachronistic with a certain reality that these TV personalities claim to know so well.


Preponderance of entertainment television


During the month of October alone, 85% of complaints voiced by women on the Ministry of Women’s emergency telephone number were related to marital violence. Feminist associations have continually warned of the increase in violence against women. And yet the audience of « Saffi Kalbek » hosted by Jaafer Gasmi which airs on El Hiwar Ettounssi seems to find this type of harassment funny. Reality shows of this kind have received numerous warnings and sanctions from the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) for their tolerance and promotion of violence against women. As a result, television commentators have started to cover these themes with greater caution, though not enough to completely renounce their bad biting habits. Jaafer Gasmi may well claim to be a women’s advocate but cannot prevent himself from deriding the experience of one woman who complained of her husband’s extramarital relationship.

For certain media figures, however, the role of television is not to change mentalities. Its purpose, according to Naoufel Ouertani, is to entertain. Entertainment shows do most certainly exist in other countries. Ouertani himself, for instance, often follows the lead of Cyrile Hanouna, who had a show called « Balance ton post! » on the French station C8 in which young women such as Mariem Dabbagh—who was once invited onto the show—had their place. The difference is that, on the same station much as on the panoply of French television stations available, the viewer can choose to watch fluffier shows like « Racines Des Ailes » or more serious ones such as « Envoyé spécial » or « La grande librairie ».

The Tunisian public, on the other hand, is deprived of this choice. TV program schedules are inundated with so-called entertainment shows. In addition to talk shows, other programs are dedicated to publicity campaigns for cosmetic products. Another type of show, such as « Ahla ma feek » which aired last season on El Hiwar Ettounssi, specializes in promoting a female archetype.

In this context, women are scrutinized to emulate a model of beauty: they must be thinner, not have rings under their eyes or blemishes on their faces. It is the great existential dilemma of our era! If you’ve missed it on your Instagram feed, you certainly won’t miss it on the TV set, a staple furniture item in every Tunisian household.


Sounding the alarm


This sensationalized representation of women in the media is confirmed by the HAICA’s 2019 report entitled « Place and representation of women in Tunisian TV fiction ». Despite some progress, the place of women in the media « is still marginal, and their image often biased and stereotyped », the report indicates, further warning that there is « a predominance of female characters perceived as young and whose worth is measured by their physical appearance ».

On this topic, Rim Saoudi, member of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalist (SNJT) executive bureau, evokes « a race towards mediocrity » among Tunisia’s television stations.

« I am not against female commentators from Instagram being on shows, so long as they bring some added value into public debate. As it is now, however, they do nothing but participate, alongside their male colleagues, in superficial exchanges that distract Tunisians from the real issues facing the country » she denounces.

According to Saoudi, this female presence that is essentially based on the criteria of appearance falls within the context of a culture that is all about entertainment and buzz. « We are asking for a greater female presence on TV shows. Today what we see is the objectification of women. Women on television do nothing more than spill out their personal stories. What’s worse, some defend outdated ideas like polygamy at a time when other women are fighting for more rights and equality », she concludes.