Tunisian civil society is rallying in support of a young woman who was raped by police officers in what they say is part of a broader assault on women’s rights by religious conservatives.
There is widespread outrage after 27-year-old victim was summoned by the investigating judge on Wednesday to face chargers of “indecency” from the two men accused of raping her, in what many argue is an attempt by the authorities to intimidate her.
Leading human rights, feminist groups and other prominent members of civil society have formed a committee evening to co-ordinate a campaign in support of the woman, including the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and the Tunisian League of Human Rights.
Faïza Skandrani, the head of the Equality and Parity organisation, told Al Jazeera that the case was an important one for two reasons: it marked the first time a woman allegedly raped by the police had taken the case to court, and it was the first time the authorities were trying to publicly shame a woman into dropping such charges.
“The investigating judge is turning her from the victim to the accused, to help the police officers get away with it,” she said. “I’ve heard about similar cases in Pakistan, but this is a first in Tunisia. Next they will be charging her with prostitution.”
Activists are planning a protest outside the courthouse in Tunis on Tuesday, when the police are due to appear on rape charges.
A Facebook page supporting the protest called on Tunisian couple to bring signs saying “We love each other: Rape us!” More than 1,200 people had confirmed that they would be attending at the time of writing.
There are also calls for a nationwide “Women’s strike” in the public sector on Tuesday.
Many Tunisians expressed their solidarity with the woman online, writing “Rape her then judge her” on the ministry’s Facebook page. The messages had been deleted at the time of writing.
The outrage is not only directed at the ruling coalition. The interior ministry is seen by many Tunisians as a relic of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s oppressive rule and many bureaucrats from the old regime have managed to hold on to influential posts.
Since Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, there has been little progress made in reforming the security forces, or to investigate many allegations of torture, rape and other human rights abuses.
There have been many reports of police bullying ordinary citizens, including reports of them accusing women of prostitution in an attempt to solicite money.
Khaled Tarrouche, a spokesperson for the interior ministry, told the AFP news agency that the ministry “had nothing to do with” the proceedings against the young woman, emphasising that the decision to summon her was taken by the magistrate.
“In this case, we acted as was required of us. What had to be done was done, and the three police agents were arrested straight away,” he said, insisting that cases of police assaulting women were “isolated”.
“We shouldn’t read into this anything organised, or generalised,” he added.
“The police are also citizens first and foremost, and when they commit crimes, the law is applied unequivocally.”
Activists see the case as an important one because of the symbolism in the wider cultural battles between those who want Tunisia to maintain its position as one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world, and religious conservatives.
“This is a drop in the ocean of the problems we’ve been fighting,” Skandrani said. “Each time we close one door, they open another.”
“The revolution was about freedom and democracy, not about undermining women’s rights.“
– Faïza Skandrani, the head of the Equality and Parity organisation
“The revolution was about freedom and democracy, not about undermining women’s rights,” she said. “They want to build a society where women can be used and treated like objects and where the man is always right.”
The controversy over the rape case comes as supporters of women’s rights reportedly had a significant victory on another front.
There were protests in August after news emerged that Tunisia’s new constitution, currently being drafted by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), would replace the term “equality” between men and women with “complementary”.
The vague wording would, activists feared, pave the way for the erosion of the progressive legal rights Tunisian women have enjoyed since 1956.
Pressure from civil society finally forced the NCA to back down on Monday, according to media reports.
“Decision makers restricted complementarity to the articles pertaining to the family, but when it comes to the Article 28, we replaced the word ‘complementarity’ with ‘gender equality’,” Hassna Marsit, a NCA member from the leftwing Congress for the Republic party, was quoted as saying by the independent website Tunisia Live.
The young woman and her fiancé had been “apprehended” by police on September 3 in Ain Zaghouan, suburb of Tunis.
In an interview with the French news organisation France 24 published on Thursday, her fiance said the couple was arrested in their car.
They demanded money from him, handcuffed him, and took his partner in the back of their car where they raped her, he said.
Karima Souid, an MP who belongs to Ettakatol, a centre-left group that partners the Islamist party, Ennahdha, in Tunisia’s ruling coalition, denounced her party’s support for the government in protest at the proceedings against the rape victim.
“I completely dissociate myself from this government. The rape case and the summoning of the victim this morning is the last straw,” she wrote on Facebook.