Rape in the context of democratic transition

Instead of uniting the country, the rape case has been used to “promote the most tired and cliched of narratives”.

Ennahda is the only part block in the legislative assembly with almost as many female members as male [EPA]

So much has been written about the deplorable case of the young Tunisian woman raped by two policemen that there is little to be added. We all await the final verdict in the hope that it will send a clear message to the police that their age of impunity, from which Tunisians have suffered for decades, is well and truly over.

Beyond the horrible crime of rape and police brutality that this case raises, there are a number of dimensions worth reflecting on and which have been absent from domestic and international analyses. This shocking episode could have provided an opportunity for information, education, reflection, reform and solidarity in a polarised post-dictatorship country still finding its way through the democratic transition. These opportunities have been lost. Instead, the case has been used as a perfect opportunity to promote a narrative of Tunisia as being in the grip of a fundamentalist dictatorship that encourages systemic abuses and fanatical misogyny.

The case could have drawn a clear line between reformers and those who wish to maintain as much of the old system as possible, strengthening the former against the continued efforts of the latter to fight any reform and change. Instead of uniting the country behind this aim, the case has been used to promote the most tired and cliched of narratives – the secularist/Islamist dichotomy.

The long history of a culture of police brutality and impunity in the country, as documented in countless reports by international human rights organisations is evidently at the heart of the case. The police have enjoyed impunity for decades and it is expected that it will take some time to change this mentality.

Misrepresentations of the article

Yet the entire scenario has been reduced to misogyny – and specifically to Islamist misogyny. Even if one reduced rape merely to an expression of misogyny, that leaves the question – how, in nine months of governance by “Islamists” (itself an erroneous reduction since it is a coalition of Islamists and secularists in government) who have no influence on the effective tools of indoctrination of media, culture or education, has there been such a significant mentality change? To fill the intellectual weakness of this proposition, we are pointed towards cases (real and anecdotal) of women harassed to change the way they dress. 

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We are also alerted to the ultimate proof that Islamists are responsible for the supposed deterioration of the situation of women and for rape-inducing misogyny, that is the proposed, later rejected, inclusion of the word “complementary” in an article of the new constitution.

Although the “controversy” had already reached international headlines, the same misrepresentation which characterised its first media appearance was played out once again in the context of linking the rape case to the general Islamist threat to women – an ever-present threat that the media is preoccupied with since the pre-election phase. 

While I am not personally in favour of the article’s wording, I found its ubiquitous appearance in almost every single article on the rape case intriguing. Moreover, this second resurrection of the controversial article repeated the same misrepresentations of the article in question. In order to avoid a lengthy discussion of all the misrepresentations, I will do something which – hard as it is to believe – none of the dozens of article on the controversy did – include the full text of the article:

The state guarantees the protection of women’s rights and defending their gains as a real partner with men in building the country, and their roles complement one another within the family.

The state guarantees equal opportunities between women and men in assuming all responsibilities.

The state guarantees the ending of all forms of violence against women. 

Another article about the family in the constitution reads:

The state looks after the family and its stability so as to enable it to play its role within the framework of equality between the spouses.

While another article explicitly states:

All citizens are equal before the law in terms of rights and obligations without any form of discrimination. 

Political exploitation and polarisation

Contrary to what we were (mis)informed by the discussions, the article does not describe “women as complementary to men”, and does in fact mention “equality”, as do additional articles in other sections. This is not to defend the originally proposed article, since I do not think it adds anything (except controversy) that is legally enforceable – as well as the potential misunderstanding and misuse of the word “roles”. It is rather to point out that reporters and commentators are free to analyse and evaluate information in the way they prefer, but they should make an effort to get the right information. 

“As Tunisia treads slowly along the path of rebuilding itself, it is these pitfalls of amnesia and polarisation that it must carefully avoid.”

Observers should also be objective and not selectively focus on what fits the pre-conceived expected scenario, but also occasionally highlight facts that don’t quite fit into it. For instance, no one has heard that the head of the Commission on Rights and Liberties (which approved the controversial article) is the only female head of a constitutional commission, out of six – nor that out of the eight legislative commissions, only two are headed by women, again from Ennahda – the only party block in the assembly with almost as many women as men.

This reduction of the case to Islamist misogyny, to hijab, and to constitutional discussions did nothing but deepen polarisation. This was seen in offensive, polarising and irrelevant slogans such as “the Tunisian woman is not Mehrezia”, “the Tunisian woman is not ‘nahdawite'” or “in this country women are either veiled or raped”.

Can such slogans foster anything other than defensiveness, rejection and further polarisation? And does this exclusionist conception of “the Tunisian woman” and hypothetical link between rape and veiling explain the silence of so many of the new champions of human rights and feminism vis-a-vis the horrific cases of rape and sexual abuse over decades, since the majority of their victims were of the “veiled variety”?

An opportunity for reflection and reconciliation was turned into one for political exploitation and polarisation. The same instrumentalisation was also seen in the controversy of “compensation”, under which the government proposed that thousands of Tunisian women and men who had suffered imprisonment, torture and rape under previous regimes have the right to recognition and compensation – an important part of any transition process and a right championed by all parties before the elections.

Instead, many have jumped on it as a new opportunity for political point-scoring and Islamist-bashing, with the media playing a significant part in misinforming and manipulating the public, instead of using the opportunity to inform the public of the hideous crimes that took place in their country against their fellow citizens over decades.

As Tunisia treads slowly along the path of rebuilding itself, it is these pitfalls of amnesia and polarisation that it must carefully avoid. As pointed out by studies such as that of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, “the Islamist-secularist divide… now presents the greatest challenge to the current transition” which must not be reinforced as it would “stall current attempts at creating a more inclusive political discourse”.

Yusra Ghannouchi is the international spokesperson for the Tunisian Ennahda Party. She is active in bridge building between different communities, interfaith dialogue, advocacy for the rights of Muslim Women and has lectured internationally on these topics. She is currently completing her PhD on Nineteenth-Century Gender Reform at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.