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Alessandra Bajec

Tunisian women lead battle for truth and justice

Human right victims attend an open forum organised by the Truth and Dignity Commission [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 July, 2018

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Women are watching closely to make sure the transitional justice process will give dignity to those who suffered violence and abuse, writes Alessandra Bajec.
As Tunisia's Truth Commission nears the end of its mandate, women are stepping up to make sure their calls for justice are addressed.

Established in 2013 and formally launched in 2014 by then-President Moncef Marzouki, the Truth and Dignity Commission [TDC] uses both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to investigate gross human rights violations.

The Commission has tracked human rights violations committed between July 1955, a year before Tunisia gained its independence from France, and December 2013.

Led by human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine, the independent tribunal aims to provide compensation and rehabilitation to victims.

The Commission is now stepping up efforts to wrap up its work before the end of the year, issuing more indictments since the first case came into court in late May in the southern town of Gabes.

Victims of murder, rape and torture under successive dictatorships started testifying on live television - in a rare move for the Arab world.

The first case concerned the forced disappearance of a young man named Kamel Matmati, a member of the Islamist movement Ennahdha, who was arrested in 1991 during Ben Ali's rule, and tortured to death.

Fourteen people, including former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his interior minister Abdallah Kallel and several police chiefs, were charged with his disappearance, torture and killing. They are being tried in absentia as none of them turned up for the trial.

"We want those who killed him, tortured him, to be tried and convicted... We are happy because the truth will be finally unveiled," Matmati's wife Latifa told AFP. 

Despite the defendants not being present, the hearing was welcomed by family members and all those who have suffered under six decades of dictatorship, with hopes that justice will be served. 

People arrive for a hearing before the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunis on December 16, 2016 [Getty]

Kamel Matmati's trial is just one of the many cases that are expected to be presented at the special courts. The commission rushed to issue 16 indictments covering the cases of 245 victims since March, and more are expected.

Read also: 'The citizen is tired': Tunisia's quiet class struggle against austerity measures

Hearing women's voices 

Tunisian women play a special role in the transitional justice seeking process and are watching closely to make sure it gives dignity to those who have suffered. 

Addressing the gender dimension of human rights violations in this process will not only help foster women's participation and leadership, but also help to prevent the recurrence of such injustice, generating social change in the country.

The TDC consists of a women's sub-commission which ensures that women's voices are heard, and the difficulties they endured are dealt with - a crucial innovation in the Middle East and North Africa region, where women struggle for recognition of their rights.

Women were direct victims when they were in political opposition, and indirect victims when a spouse, a father or brother were persecuted by police

"At the beginning, many women were unaware that they are victims, and have the right to demand redress. They thought that only their imprisoned spouses are victims," noted Ibtihel Abdellatif, head of the Women's Committee of the TDC.

Thanks to the efforts of the civil society in collaboration with the TDC, women victims have increasingly taken part in the transitional justice process by filing their stories. 

The number of complaints filed by women victims with the TDC has risen significantly from five percent at the start of the campaign to 25 percent, the women committee's president revealed.  

Listing abuses perpetrated against women, notably under the regime of Ben Ali, Ibtihel explained that women were direct victims when they were in political opposition, and indirect victims when a spouse, a father or brother were persecuted by police. 

Often, women struggled far more as indirect victims. With their fiancés or husbands serving jail time as dissidents, women would typically face police persecution, sexual harassment and social stigma, as well as being the only breadwinner left in the family. 

But given the taboos of a patriarchal society, women in Tunisia did not feel comfortable discussing the violations they were subjected to.

"There are many taboos that we need to break to help women unveil the truth," Ibtihel said. "They want to get their rights while feeling protected."

The female committee thus stepped in for reassurance, providing guarantees that their depositions and hearings will be kept private and strictly confidential. The Commission also ensures that their testimony is taken by a woman, unless they ask for a man, in the event their torturer was a woman. Transportation is also provided to facilitate case filing and travelling to TDC's regional offices, particularly for the vulnerable, old, ill or disabled.

Relatives of abuse victims watch a live broadcast of testimonials by abuse victims before the Truth and Dignity Commission [Getty]

Holding perpetrators to account

Not just victims, Tunisian women are active actors who fought in the dark days of their country's history. 

Many continue their fight either to get reparations or to know the truth and hold the perpetrators to account. 

Such is the case of Hamida Ajengui, a former Islamist activist tortured under Ben Ali's regime. She testified before the TDC in a televised hearing in December 2016.

In 1988, Hamida was denied entry from her school after she showed up wearing a headscarf. Circular 108, enacted during Habib Bourguiba's rule in the 1980's, banned the wearing of the veil in public places, thus forbidding veiled women access to state education and public-sector employment.

Choosing to continue wearing her headscarf, Hamida dropped out of school and began taking private IT classes instead. She then faced restrictions in job applications due to her hijab, so began focusing on religious classes and charity work. She would often take food and money to the wives and children of political prisoners jailed for their Islamist beliefs - and it was after this she was picked up by officials. 

The then 21-year-old was arrested by Tunisia's state police for "raising money to help support families of Islamist detainees." She was taken to an interior ministry office, known for its brutal practices under the former regime.

During interrogations, police threatened to sodomise her with a baton, hung her upside down, naked, for hours, insulted and beat her hard. The "roast chicken" position was a notorious torture technique that involved tying a detainee's wrists together under the knees and passing a pole between the arms and thighs.

"I felt like I was going to die. I recited the Quran in my head, and prayed God to help me," Hamida said.

Hours later, she was dragged to a cell where late in the night a police officer assaulted her and threatened to rape her unless she revealed more information. She was held in detention for 13 days.

She was dragged to a cell where late in the night a police officer assaulted her and threatened to rape her unless she revealed more information. She was held in detention for 13 days

A couple of months later, she was rounded up with the same charges and sentenced to six months in prison. 

"Appearing in public hearings and telling my story made a lot of difference to me. We have to talk to avoid repeating the past," the now 47-year-old asserted. "We have to fight for Tunisia's future."

The mother of four, who married a fellow activist, now hopes her case will be handed over to a special court before the end of year. 

Stigma 

In the conservative society of Tunisia, cases like Hamida's are often difficult for women to bring forward due to the stigma associated, especially with the sexual violence.

Since many victims come from deeply religious Muslim families, they are particularly sensitive to the sexual nature of much of the abuse. Whether related to a member of the opposition, or activists themselves, women were not only ostracised, but also blocked from jobs and education.

Yet, despite the added stigma, several women took the courage to tell their stories. This was made possible thanks to Ibtihel who crisscrossed the country encouraging women to come forward.

"Women were at the forefront of much of the violence that had unfolded in Tunisia during the dictatorship. The experiences they went through need to come out," said Sufiya Bray, a senior advocacy officer at South Africa-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation [CSVR].

"Their voices have been acknowledged within the commission's space." 

However, Sufiya noted that not much discussion went into introducing specific measures to protect women or help provide security. She said that many women were scared to speak knowing that some of the perpetrators were still occupying positions of power.

The CSVR advocacy officer also stated that Tunisia's commission "gave little space" to the active role played by women in fighting the dictatorship. 

"There could be a next phase in the process in which the civil society moves the Commission's work forward by facilitating alternative spaces of dialogue where victims' stories are acknowledged," Sufiya suggested. 

True justice is a long-term process

Since it began work, the TDC has received over 62,000 allegations of human rights violations and interviewed close to 50,000 people. The Commission has referred at least 32 cases of "serious violations" of human rights to Tunisian courts.

While the TDC's work has progressed at an arguably slow pace, true justice and healing for a society is a long-term process.

"The TDC now needs to be clear and honest about what its priorities are going to be in the coming months and what can realistically be done," Sufiya said.

The truth-telling and justice-seeking process remains the last chance for victims to expose the abuse they have experienced, and hold those responsible accountable.

Ibtihal emphasised the value in women's contribution to the transitional justice. 

"Women's participation can help pre-empt impunity. Listening to their stories, and addressing their experiences can prevent abuses from reoccurring," she said. 

"This is vital, so it is never repeated again."


Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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