For four evenings, Tunisians were gripped by the unprecedented unveiling of the horrors visited on fellow Tunisians of diverse backgrounds under the dictatorships of Habib Bourguiba between 1956 and 1987, and of Zin El Abedine Ben Ali between 1987 and 2011.
Among the most shocking and moving testimonies were those by a number of women witnesses, bravely coming forward to contribute to this national exercise of confronting the painful past, revealing the truth, and rewriting history as a step towards reform, justice, and reconciliation.
Who is testifying?
Women suffered under dictatorships both as direct and indirect victims. While many women were persecuted for their own political activism, many were targeted simply because they happened to be the mother, wife, daughter, or sister of someone wanted by the state. The wives and mothers of prisoners described how they would be continuously harassed, followed and prevented from holding down a job by security forces.
Other women described how they were actively used by the regime to put pressure on prisoners, brought in and stripped naked, and tortured in front of them.
Those who testified included a number of the mothers of martyrs of the revolution that brought down the regime in January 2011. They were mainly the mothers of young men, but also the parents of a baby girl killed as a result of inhaling tear gas, as well as mothers and/or wives of Islamist youth activists killed while under torture (Faycal Barakat, Kamel Matmati, Rachid Chamakhi), and the wife and mother of trade union activists from the Redeyef mining region, Layla Haddad.
The Myth of a Progressive Tunisia
Anyone listening to these women’s gripping testimonies would have noticed the glaring contrast between the pervasive image of a liberal Tunisian state that projected itself as a defender of women’s rights, and the painful and shameful reality of systematic violations of women’s rights and dignity that went on for decades by those who paid lip service to women’s rights.
Ben Ali’s wife, Leila, portrayed herself as patron of women’s rights, presiding over the Arab Women Organization. The persistent myth of a regime that portrayed itself as “very different from the rest of the region”, and cultivated a progressive image, has been well and truly shattered.
In fact, under the guise of modernisation and liberation of women, tens of thousands of Tunisian women found themselves either prevented from choosing the way they dress or deprived of access to education and employment.
Witnesses like Hamida Ajengui and Mehrezia Belabed painfully spoke of abandoning their earlier educational and professional ambitions as a result of the hijab ban in schools and state institutions. The ban was over-zealously applied to the extent that women who chose to wear the hijab were harassed in the streets, deprived from access to basic services such as healthcare, and had their male relatives blacklisted.
But the state’s version of “women’s rights” was not limited to forced unveiling of religious women. It included the torture, sexual abuse, forced miscarriages, harassment of women, activists, and relatives of male activists as described in the testimonies of Islamists Basma, Mehrezia and Hamida, and leftists Najwa and Layla. All those watching were confronted with the exposure of the myth of an “exceptional” Tunisia protecting women’s rights.