When I first visited Tunisia a few months after the end of the 23-year-old rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the optimism and hope for the future were palpable. During my visits over the following decade, however, I witnessed Tunisians gradually grow skeptical of the transition to democracy and how it failed to meet the goals of the revolution. An unapologetic nostalgia for the dictatorship years quietly surfaced as the institutional reforms that were hailed by the international community and that gave Tunisia its reputation as the Arab Spring’s sole “success story” did little to change people’s everyday realities. This was especially true of women’s rights, an arena in which Tunisia prides itself on being a pioneer, wherein gender injustice is intimately bound up with regional and class inequalities. Multiple cases of rape, police brutality, and sexual harassment against women became a rallying cry for feminists adamant on dismantling the authoritarian and violent legacy of more than half a century of state feminism under which women’s rights were mostly extended in a top-down manner rather than the result of grassroots organizing.
After Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first president, promulgated the Code of Personal Status, which abolished polygamy and established the nuclear family as the basic social unit (rather than the tribe), as part of a broader modernist project of social and cultural transformation. Women were granted the right to vote in 1957 and in the following decade, their participation in the workforce and political life increased. While the dictatorship used women’s rights to consolidate state power, postrevolution reforms have so far failed to rectify decades of gendered injustices that are inseparable from the profound inequalities between the affluent coast and the impoverished rural interior.“Even as the #EnaZeda movement brought to the fore an alternative mechanism for redress, it also revealed class and regional fault lines that sustained decades of authoritarian rule and that the democratic reforms have so far failed to address.”
Here, reflecting on 18 months of fieldwork in Tunisia, I examine #EnaZeda, a movement modeled on #MeToo, and illustrate the ways it lays bare the failed promises of democracy as well as opens new possibilities for imagining radical futures. In the decade since the fall of the dictatorship, the country passed a slew of progressive legislation advancing women’s rights, most notably Law 58, the Violence Against Women Act passed in 2017. Yet these laws have mostly remained ink on paper, doing little to expand women’s actual access to citizenship rights. Even as the #EnaZeda movement brought to the fore an alternative mechanism for redress, it also revealed class and regional fault lines that sustained decades of authoritarian rule and that the democratic reforms have so far failed to address. Under the dictatorship of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, state investments in infrastructure and jobs have disproportionately gone to the coastal strip whence the post-independence political elite hailed, leaving the rural inland provinces such as Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, suffering from high rates of poverty and unemployment. Women in particular bear the brunt of regional disparities; 70 percent of farmworkers in Tunisia (concentrated in the interior) are women who don’t have contracts or access to social security and healthcare and are earning daily wages below the national minium wage of 13 dinars per day1These figures are cited in a 2016 study by the Sidi Bouzid-based organization Association Tunisienne D’Action Culturelle. Link to the study in Arabic is available here. (around $5). Even though Tunisia has a fairly robust nationwide information and technology infrastructure, high poverty rates undermine women’s access to the internet in rural areas, unlike the thousands of urban, tech-savvy women who joined the #EnaZeda movement.
Genesis of a movement to break the silence
After photos of newly elected parliament member Zoheir Makhlouf masturbating in a car in front of a high-school student circulated online in October 2019, Tunisian women flooded social media with messages of support for the 16-year-old victim and stories of their own encounters with sexual harassment and gender violence. Aswat Nissaa (Women’s Voices), an NGO, set up a Facebook page that drew more than 41,500 members2Tunisia’s population is 11.8 million. (as of November 2021). The page gave victims a safe space to share their testimonies anonymously or through pseudo profiles as well as seek psychological and legal advice.
Despite large-scale protests calling for blocking Makhlouf’s ascent to parliament and while the investigation into his case was opened, a constitutional mandate giving parliamentary members immunity shielded him from prosecution. Makhlouf’s swearing in triggered angry reactions among Tunisians. A photo of Makhlouf seated in the hall of parliament, with a calm smile on his face, was posted on the #EnaZeda Facebook page captioned with comments on his apparent impunity: “He is participating in writing the history of Tunisia after all that he’s done. We should never be silent in the face of a perpetrator, because our silence empowers him.” What began as a hashtag on Twitter morphed into a broader movement to break the silence on sexual violence, help victims heal, and organize against perpetrators. In response to the lack of accountability, feminists flocked to virtual spaces to contest the state’s inaction over sexual violence, re-imagining what gender justice looks like in the aftermath of a revolution calling for human dignity.“Violence against women, especially sexual violence, was swept under the rug as the decades-long dictatorship deployed state feminism to gain legitimacy at home and whitewash its image on the international stage.”
Building on decades of local activism around violence against women and the globally circulating language of #MeToo, #EnaZeda sought to radically transform the way sexual misconduct is addressed in political office, the workplace, and the family. While Tunisia’s two largest women’s rights organizations, Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) and Association des Femmes Tunissiennes pour la Recherche sur le Développement (AFTURD), have for decades provided legal and psychological aid to victims of sexual violence, the #EnaZeda movement brought heightened public visibility to sexual harassment and violence. By drawing on the political and social affordances of new digital technologies and the globalization of the #MeToo format, it offered victims an alternative space for healing and redress. The movement re-envisioned justice as entailing the involvement of the larger community in the process of arbitration and the pursuit of justice for sexual harassment and violence, and the reframing of individual harm as a public issue that requires collective solutions and state intervention. Violence against women, especially sexual violence, was swept under the rug as the decades-long dictatorship deployed state feminism to gain legitimacy at home and whitewash its image on the international stage.3Lilia Labidi, “State, Institutional and Symbolic Violence Against Women: The Struggle Since the «Arab Spring» and the Contribution of Arab Women Cartoonists,” Feminismo/s no. 26 (December 2015): 145–174. The veneer of institutional feminism masked the deeply gendered nature of state power wherein sexual assault and rape were used as weapons of torture against political opponents, both men and women. After the revolution, activists placed gender violence at the heart of their efforts to address human rights violations of the dictatorship and proffer reparations upon its victims as part of a wider project to reshape the state.4The Truth and Dignity Commission (known by its French acronyms, IVD), which was tasked with investigating human rights violations committed by the dictatorship, set up a committee to specifically investigate crimes against women that revealed the systemic use of rape as a form of torture by Ben Ali’s police forces.
Resulting from decades of campaigning, Law 58 expanded the definition of sexual harassment and violence and toughened the penalties associated with such crimes. For example, under Law 58, an action qualifies as sexual harassment if it’s conducted only once, overwriting a requirement in the Penal Code for repetition thereof. Yet enforcing the law faced many hurdles, including lack of resources and the patriarchal views of law enforcement officials. Oftentimes, women are forced to withdraw complaints against their perpetrators under pressure from police, which in some cases ultimately leads to the death of the victim. This occurs despite a clause in the law stipulating a fine on officers who attempt to dissuade victims from filing complaints. Even for cases that are prosecuted, victims are most of the time unable to provide incriminating evidence and are revictimized under a legal system that is enmeshed in gender and class inequalities.
A court case that I followed during my fieldwork in 2018 exemplifies how these dynamics play out. An 18-year-old student brought charges against her physics tutor in the province of Al Qayrawān, but the judge dismissed the case on grounds that there was no evidence of “sexual harassment” in recorded conversations with the perpetrator. As such, victims of sexual violence have chosen not to report those incidents for fear of retaliation, not being believed, and being blamed, especially if the perpetrators are in positions of power. In a study published by the National Office of Family and Population (ONFP) in 2011, 14 percent of women reported having been sexually abused by an intimate partner and one out of every six has been the victim of conjugal sexual violence.5Projet de Coopération ONFP/AECID, Enquête Nationale Sur la violence à l’égard des femmes en Tunisie (Tunis: December 2010). Sexual violence faced by teenage girls in Tunisian schools were the least reported.6Feten Fekih-Romdhane, Rym Ridha, and Majda Cheour, “Violence sexuelle exercée sur les femmes en Tunisie,” L’Encéphale 45, no. 6 (2019): 527–529. Although no statisics are available, activists and psychologists I interviewed during fieldwork say that most of the time, victims decide not to file official complaints against perpetrators, citing the fear of being discredited or of dishonoring their family and jeapordizing their careers or studies.
Women push back online against aggressors“Although Makhlouf was ultimately sworn in to parliament in a defiant show of impunity, the incident created a vibrant space for discussion and activism around sexual violence and offered victims an alternative mechanism for redress.”
The high-profile case of Makhlouf, however, was a turning point in the fight against gender violence. Although Makhlouf was ultimately sworn in to parliament in a defiant show of impunity, the incident created a vibrant space for discussion and activism around sexual violence and offered victims an alternative mechanism for redress. By using social media to amplify the voices of victims, #EnaZeda reconceptualized sexual misconduct and sexual crimes not only as a violation of the bodily integrity of the individual but also as an attack on the revolutionary ethos of social justice and human dignity around which millions of Tunisians mobilized during the Tunisian uprising. The impunity enjoyed by Makhlouf is both a grim reminder of and a launching pad for the fight against decades of immunity accorded to the political elite and the police under the dictatorship.
Members of the #EnaZeda online community were called upon by the moderators of the Facebook page to respond to victims with a show of solidarity and empathy through emojis or comments, redefining healing as a collective act. Victims sharing their testimonies were encouraged to identify their perpetrators by name as a mechanism of healing through the shedding of shame. “Please show your solidarity with victims when you are reading their comments so that they would feel supported and not have the sense of being alone,” read one of the guidelines posted by the page administrators. In contrast to the secrecy of court proceedings in cases of sexual violence, the publicness of online testimonies and the speed of their circulation offered victims a novel mechanism for the pursuit of justice that sometimes reinforced their cases in the official justice system. Coupling technological affordances with the democratic ideals of accountability and participatory citizenship, #EnaZeda advanced a vision of transformative justice that not only seeks to remedy decades of state-sanctioned violence against women but also reshape the very gendered framework upon which such injustices rest.“Only when multiple testimonies came out on the #EnaZeda page, rallying 47 victims and supporters of the movement to sign a fresh letter of complaint against Hacen did the institute’s administration finally dismiss him from his post in December 2019.”
The story of Aymen Hacen, a professor of French language and civilization at the ENS, the country’s most distinguished higher learning institute, is a case in point. Over the years, Hacen has sexually harassed and assaulted numerous women, using sexual innuendos in his classes and touching their body. In 2017, nine of his students decided to file an official complaint to the the institute’s board, but the institute’s director at the time did not take any steps to investigate the allegations. Only when multiple testimonies came out on the #EnaZeda page, rallying 47 victims and supporters of the movement to sign a fresh letter of complaint against Hacen did the institute’s administration finally dismiss him from his post in December 2019.7Lou Bes and Haïfa Mzalouat, “#EnaZeda: Aymen Hacen a l’ens, dix ans d’impunité,” Inkyfada, January 7, 2020. “A huge bravo for all the victims who denounce their aggressors and those who reveal their names. May justice be served! Good luck, women!” wrote an #EnaZeda page member in response to the testimonies against Hacen.
By bringing together an online community of empathetic supporters and through the rapid and amplified circulation of testimonies on social media platforms, #EnaZeda offered victims a space to organize and to pressure the institute’s administration to investigate Hacen. As such, it offered victims an alternative mechanism of healing and redress in a social field shaped by asymmetrical gender relations and a lack of accountability for men, especially those in positions of power.
The digital divide and the future of gender justice in Tunisia
While the Islamist/secularist divide is overdetermined in the narrative of the Tunisian revolution and the Arab uprisings more broadly, #EnaZeda brings to sharp focus another divide: the digital divide that maps onto and reflects gender, class, and regional fault lines. While Tunisia’s women’s rights debate has been mostly framed as an opposition between the liberal ideals of universal human rights and the Islamists’ defense of “traditional values,” activism around violence against women cut across ideological lines. Law 58, whose failure to stem violence against women gave rise to #EnaZeda, was passed with consensus among Islamist and liberal lawmakers. While the #EnaZeda movement gave a much needed (virtual) safe space to victims, that’s only half the story. What is left out is that women who lack internet access, a cell phone, or a computer cannot reach these safe spaces like their tech-savvy and economically advantaged counterparts to seek advice, help, or receive expressions of empathy or solidarity. Many of them end up being revictimized, sometimes to the point of death.“In rural areas, where Cherni lived and died, smartphones and computers are not as widespread as they are in the privileged coastal regions from which the majority of those involved in the #EnaZeda movement hail.”
The killing of Refka Cherni, a woman in the interior rural province of Kef, at the hands of her husband after she was pressured by police to withdraw her complaint, highlights not only the failure of the law but the idealization of alternatives to the law, in the case of #EnaZeda, that are based on narratives of technological utopias. Cherni is among millions of Tunisian women who do not have the economic, cultural, or social capital to become a subject of the law or the alternatives that are offered to those it does not protect. In rural areas, where Cherni lived and died, smartphones and computers are not as widespread as they are in the privileged coastal regions from which the majority of those involved in the #EnaZeda movement hail. Only 66.7 percent of the population in Tunisia is connected to the internet (according to the World Bank), and men are more likely than women to have access to a smartphone (according to Pew Research Center), the average price of which is the equivalent of $100 (a computer is at $200) in a country with an average income of $480 per month. The digital divide in the country is reflective of and contributes to deepening socioeconomic inequalities and the feminization of poverty (the widening inequality in living standards between men and women due to differential access to opportunities and resources).
As such, #EnaZeda may end up reproducing exclusions in a way similar to the institutional justice system. The challenge for the movement is to expand beyond the virtual space and collaborate more extensively with organizations on the ground in rural and remote areas as feminists seek to reconfigure gender justice and rectify the uneven feminism tied to the violent legacy of the dictatorship that reproduced deep regional inequalities in the country.
Banner photo: “Activists and students organize a protest in solidarity with a victim of sexual harassment in front of the courthouse in the city of Al Qayrawān in December 2018.” Photo Credit: Ola Galal.