Terms of Abuse

On paper, Tunisia’s revolution has boosted legal protections for women. The reality is starkly different.



Azza, 32, who works at a beauty salon in Tunis, showed me a group of big purple bruises on her left arm. The culprit, she explained, was none other than her own husband, who hits her periodically. Those bruises were from the most recent beating, which took place just three days before she and I met. Azza (whose name I’ve changed to protect her identity) is not the only victim of her husband’s abuse; her 4-year-old daughter has been affected as well.

“A few days ago, my daughter fainted when she saw her dad hitting me,” Azza told me. “I took her to the doctor. She said that my child is in shock.” By now, Azza had tears in her eyes as she spoke. “She’s pale, and she barely eats.”

Though Azza shares a house with her husband’s family, no one there has ever offered to help her when the beatings start. “They usually act as if they don’t hear or see anything, but when we talk about it, they say that it’s my fault,” she said. “They say that I must have said or done something that provoked his anger.”

Azza earns around $150 per month, close to the Tunisian minimum wage. Her husband, who works as a fruit vendor, stopped supporting her and their child once she started working at the beauty salon two years ago. “Sometimes he asks me for cash, then attacks me when I refuse to give him the money that I’ve been saving to buy milk for my daughter,” she said.

Tunisia has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the best places for women in the Middle East and North Africa, starting even before the 2011 revolution. Observers widely regard Tunisian women as the most liberated in the Arab world. (Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, which has been in place since 1956, grants women both the right to abortion and the right to divorce — still quite exceptional in most of the surrounding region.) Post-revolutionary democracy was supposed to have confirmed that status: The 2014 constitution contains an uncompromising statement of gender equality.

Yet violence against women — and domestic violence in particular — seems to be as prevalent as ever. In most cases, attacks go unpunished mainly because women are reluctant to report them, though the law is supposed to protect women from domestic violence. So Azza’s struggle is far from exceptional, even if the sort of abuse she’s suffering tends to be more common among women from lower-income families.

Map of northern Tunisia

According to a 2010 survey by Tunisia’s National Board for Family and Population, nearly one in two women in Tunisia have experienced some form of violence at least once during their lifetimes. Physical violence is the most common form of abuse, with 31.7 percent of the women surveyed reporting it at least once. (In almost half of those cases, women name their husband or boyfriend as the perpetrator.) Psychological violence comes next, at 28.9 percent. And 15.7 percent of women say they have experienced sexual violence, putting that category in third place.

Even though domestic violence is criminalized, most cases go unreported due to social stigma and a tendency to blame victims rather than perpetrators. Azza said she considered suing her husband, but her mother advised her against it.

“Sometimes I think about filing a complaint against my husband or even leaving him, but then I get scared,” Azza said. “I’m afraid people won’t take my side or defend me. They’ll say that I’m selfish, that I’m putting my own interests before my daughter’s.” She said the other women around her, like friends or family members, seem unfazed by the fact that her husband is violent with her. “They say that all women get beaten by their husbands, [that] it just happens, and that I should try to understand him.”

Samia Abbou, a member of parliament affiliated with the centrist Democratic Current party, said the problem of domestic violence doesn’t lie in the law but rather in the mentality and the very nature of Tunisian society. The constitution, she noted, even includes a clause obligating the state to eradicate violence against women. “Domestic violence laws in Tunisia are not bad,” she said. “The problem isn’t the laws, but rather how to implement them.”

Abbou added that many women in Tunisia experience abuse by their husbands but refrain from reporting the incidents out of concern for their children and marriages. For them, the kids and the survival of the marriage come first.

But there also areas where Tunisian law does fall short — marital rape, which is not illegal, being one of the most prominent. Azza said her husband often tries to force her to have sex with him when she refuses. Most of the time, she ends up giving in simply to avoid another beating. Speaking out against domestic abuse is hard enough; speaking out against forced sex isn’t even an option. A society that thinks it’s okay for a man to hit his wife is likely to condone marital rape. Even though Abbou, the parliamentarian, personally favors criminalizing marital rape, she said it would be a difficult discussion in a patriarchal society like Tunisia, which still expects women to obey their husbands.

While having a proper legal framework against domestic violence is vital, Abbou says, laws are not enough on their own. She notes that civil society groups have an important role to play in raising awareness and gradually changing attitudes. The state has a responsibility to educate children and provide tools like sexual education classes and psychological counseling, which generally don’t exist in most Tunisian schools.

Such ideas may help women down the road, but they won’t solve Azza’s problems today. While she’s aware of her legal rights as a wife, she told me she’s more concerned about the way society will treat her if she decides to leave her husband. She said her mother once insinuated that she wouldn’t want anything to do with a divorced daughter, adding that she’d be on her own if she chose to leave her spouse.

“Maybe it’s better for me to stick around and be hit by my husband,” she said. “I’d rather be abused by one person than be abused by a whole society.”

Image credit: HYLTON WARBURTON for Foreign Policy

Read more from Tunisia: In Sun and Shadow:
Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion:The dawn of democracy is something to root for — but the forces that have pulled the other Arab Spring countries back into upheaval still threaten to undo its progress.
A Verdict on Change: This ambitious young judge wants to change Tunisia’s justice system. But he still has to type out his own verdicts.
The Storyteller: Shukrii Mabkhout is not just a novelist — he’s the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Missing the Old Days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
El Khadra Still Can’t Breathe: This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one’s listening.
Not Arab, and Proud of It: Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
The Tourism Crash: Terrorist attacks have left the sector reeling — but its problems actually go much deeper..
Crisis of Governance: Local Edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And that’s a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
Tunisia’s Dying Jazz: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
Five Years of the New Tunisia: From revolution to disillusionment and back again: Milestones on Tunisia’s rocky path to democracy.
The Mainstreaming of Tunisia’s Islamists: The Ennahda Party’s latest moves put its political astuteness on show once again.
Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?

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