Tunisia: Harassment, Gender, Sexism in the City

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Tunisia: Harassment, Gender, Sexism in the City
By: Soha Ben Slama, Wall Street International Magazine
22 January 2022
 

Tunisia: Harassment, Gender and Sexism in the City

Eternal struggle for the reappropriation of public space by women

It all started with a polemic, around an informal debate, together with friends in the struggle, among feminist women in their sixties, fifties, forties, and thirties and young adults, in all fields, student, researcher, artist, doctor, craftswoman, peasant, poet, farmer, high school teacher, gathered around a coffee, in one of the charming cafés of the capital Tunis, formerly almost exclusively male, invested by women since the popular uprising of 2011. A polemic about the right to the city favouring men, at the expense of women, exercising contemptuous sexist discrimination towards them by patriarchy at the height of its power.

The Manifesto of Women`s Right to the City and the agenda to be implemented

if the legendary founder of Carthage is Queen Alyssa Dido, around 814 BC, and if modern Tunisia, in its first republic founded by Bourguiba, revolutionised the region of North Africa, the Greater Maghreb, the whole of Africa, and the time of independence in 1956 through avant-garde reforms in favour of women`s rights, why are there no monuments and very few streets named after women? Why this ungrateful non-recognition of those who made Tunisia?

Even if to honour the health professionals who are in the front line in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, a banknote was put into circulation (replacing Alyssa Didon, a Phoenician princess) with the image of Tawhida Ben Cheikh, the first woman doctor in Tunisia, in Africa and in the Muslim world, we are far from practical recognition. A Tunisia that has been boasting since 1956 about the abolition of polygamy, the replacement of repudiation by judicial divorce, the abolition of the institution of the matrimonial guardian, the structure of the Tunisian family and of the whole society by the disappearance of the extended family in favour of the nuclear family, and the progressive replacement of the patriarch by the parental couple, and which prides itself on its true pillars, exceptional women who have engraved their names in its history, recognises only 10 of them, in 2019, immortalised on plaques bearing their names and a place of activists which has finally seen the light. It is a small price to pay for the sacrifices and struggles they have made, and that their descendants continue to make, in defiance of threats and intimidation, aggression and attacks on their person, their freedom and their rights as active citizens in their own right.

Many of them have distinguished themselves through their struggle, their commitment, their artistic creativity, their courage, their sporting achievements and their progressive political strategy and vision to move the country forward. But very few have had the honour of having their name attributed to a road, an important artery in the public space, a banknote, or a law. And even though we have the first female head of government in 60 years, women are not only looking for recognition and dignity, but also for the means to carry out their duties in substance and form, because we are not shop windows!

The exclusion of women from the right to the city, a sexist discrimination exercised by patriarchy

As our discussion deepened, after going through history, eras, street names, we landed on the real burning issue of all times and many countries, whether developing, underdeveloped or developed: patriarchy and its role in maintaining inequality between men and women in the use of public space, private/public corporate space, political, economic and private space.

And if we limit ourselves this time to addressing public space, or the right to the city, other subjects will always follow around gender inequality and insecurity.

It is true that the street has long been thought of, and built for and by men, and patriarchy, or what is known as `masculinist domination`, has exercised the first form of globalisation in urban space: sexism does not respond to women`s dreams, does not give them a voice or listen to them. Yet it is against the confinement to private space and to the restricted spheres of the home and the immediate neighbourhood that women have fought.

The right to secure mobility denied to women

And although we are in the 21st century, despite women`s occupation of public space for many millennia, if we are to believe the history books, and the stories of our grandmothers for some, and feminist leaders, their inclusion in equality.

Being carefree women in the countryside as well as in the city, and feeling free to move around in public space remains difficult, even if they are users of this space through their work, studies, shopping, walks, and participation in public and political life. However, between the places they pass through and those they avoid, there are invisible walls, which delimit their path, marginalise them and vary according to the place and the level of fear it arouses. In some regions, due to personal or family constraints, the dangerous nature of the journey to school and the increase in attacks in rural areas and towns, they even abandon their studies, their work and their school, with absenteeism exceeding 20% in some regions, with parents invoking, in addition to their financial difficulties, the need to preserve the honour of their daughter by preventing her from travelling to school and mixing with boys, or for safety reasons linked to the dangers of the road and the distance. Some even, despite their daughter`s financial autonomy, increase her apprehension about using certain places, even daring to make her feel guilty and forbid her to go out.

Some women are even afraid to cross the threshold of their own home, without asking themselves where to go, how to dress, and which neighbourhood to avoid. The city has not been adapted for their use, the absence of public toilets adapted to them, and the absence of public transport in their area, in addition to insecurity, sexism and the refusal to rent to them because they are young students, intimidation, daily verbal aggression from male drivers, and harassment, are all factors that have pushed a large number of girls and women to give up going out even to do their shopping.

The 2011 popular uprising and new public spaces

The symbolism of the female body, which is highly sexualised and which men used to cover, veil, and forbid from appearing and being seen in the past and even today in some extremely conservative families, is sharing the public space with these same men, who continue to this day to consider them as a dangerous provocation, and an object of desire to be absolutely tamed, through moral, or sexual harassment in the streets, public transport, and building halls, and to exercise their touching, tailing, and threats of reprisals in case of denunciation. But women`s fears are not systematically linked to violence, although they are based on violence, but on experience, daily life and political positioning, between legitimacy and power relations.

The Tunisian popular uprising of 2011 was at the heart of women`s reappropriation of the public space and the discursive, political, social and economic space. It underwent a renaissance through organised debates, political meetings, sit-ins and other demonstrations, informal discussions on café terraces. Politics is no longer practised in closed circles as it was in the days of the dictator Ben Ali, but in the street.

Our feminist activists, a fundamental pillar of Tunisian civil society, have always fought, are fighting and will continue to fight with determination and determination for the promotion of the rights of all women while respecting their differences and diversities, and continue to mobilise against injustice, violence and segregation in public and private spaces. Neither the denial of their rights acquired at the price of sacrifices and incisive struggles nor the attacks on their dignity will succeed in destabilising them and weakening their determination.

Moreover, under pressure from national civil society, under the leadership of the National Coalition to Combat Violence against Women, our country has developed a legal arsenal against gender-based violence with a law against sexual harassment in 2014, and an organic law 58-2017 for the fight against violence against women and girls covering prosecution, protection, prevention and care for victims. And has previously ratified most of the conventions relating to women`s human rights based on gender equality, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women since 1985, albeit with reservations, and has always been committed to implementing the various action plans of the conferences it has attended, such as the 1993 Vienna conference, the 1994 Cairo conference, and the Platform for Action of the 1995 Beijing conference.

There is an urgent need to free ourselves from the anxiety that the public space creates for some. Women`s place is no more at home than men`s, and the fear that harassers and potential aggressors want to create is a tool for controlling the territory as they see it, which hides their fear of being invaded by women. The harassment, intimidation, attacks, verbal and physical assaults by these men, whether conservative, Islamist, or just macho, are the expression of a power struggle, inherited from generation to generation, like a handover, aided by a system that has been in place for decades. And, however `progressive` it may seem, this system remains corrupted by unshakeable machismo and patriarchy.

But when the Salafists in 2012 attacked a girl who was swimming in the sea in front of her house, the next day and throughout the summer, all the beaches of the Tunisian coast were invaded by hordes of girls in bikinis! And when they attacked bookshops and broke their windows and ordered the booksellers to close down, and remove books written by women, or on subjects considered by them to be against bisexuality, or containing photos of women, the next day, thousands of us sat on the sidewalks of the streets and avenues in every major city, a book in our hands, on the ground, daughters, wives, grandmothers and grandfathers, fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, companions, comrades. The power of resistance of our women and countrymen is also unshakeable.

It is for this reason that women have always chosen, along with the youth marginalised by the current government, to take the path of struggle and resistance to a corrupt, patriarchal, backward-looking system that is hostile to rights and freedoms, which are the real forces of change in our country.

New paradigms to implement the right of women to the city, beautiful because rebellious

Any feminist struggle in our country has been followed by a strong and increasing presence at the international level, and the debate on inequality in public space and the need for its occupation and feminisation is a global scale component of feminist struggles in unity and solidarity around the world.

We have never been a country of stammerers, and our women will not let the pendulum of history swing back towards the strengthening of patriarchy but towards its unravelling: Women`s Right to the City is essential for a vibrant and beautiful city. A beautiful city because it rebels against patriarchy, based on new paradigms to adopt all the necessary measures, normative, urban, economic, and social, of which the Manifesto for Women`s Right to the City is an essential reference. Promoted since 2019 at the international level by a network of organisations around the Global Platform for the Right to the City, it stimulates to date the debate, the awareness, and the implementation of consequent policies everywhere, Tunisia included.

This Manifesto aims to combat all forms of discrimination against women and girls, guaranteeing their full personal development and equality in the exercise and realisation of their rights to citizenship: Parity in political participation; exemption and protection of women from all violence, physical, psychological, verbal, material or symbolic; freedom of movement; guarantee of adequate housing, including the security of tenure and inheritance rights; recognition, valuation and redistribution of care work for dependents and community care; fair and affordable access to public goods, services and opportunities offered by cities, taking into account women`s diversity; that women have an active and decisive voice in the planning, design, and implementation of policies and programmes, and that women have the right to participate in the development of their communities. A dream book or an agenda for work and mobilisation?

Until now, public authorities have been much more concerned with solving the problems of day-to-day urban management, based on the patriarchal paradigm, than with finding out how they could design democratic urban planning and territorial governance based on equal opportunities for women and men, which would make it possible to envisage changes in the methods of production, and therefore the uses, of public spaces.

This is the challenge, from debate to action, from a book of dreams to an agenda of work and mobilisation. Time for immediate action: women`s right to safety.

Women no longer have to deal with insecurity individually. It is time for public authorities to pay specific attention to the issue of women`s safety in cities, to machismo, to the obstacles they face. They must put on their glasses to fight against this spatial discrimination which feeds insecurity, through good practices, underlined by UN Women, and education for citizenship and gender equality, which is essential from the youngest age.

The design and layout of a space can either accentuate gender inequalities or advance gender equality.

The safer, more welcoming, cleaner, more open spaces are, the more women and men can live in harmony in public space. Easy access to and from the space, working on volumes, floor materials, light, more benches, public toilets, easy movement within the public space, good lighting so that people can see and be seen, easy to read signs, well-maintained clear passages where users can easily see each other, good visibility of the whole space, no nooks and crannies to hide in, facilities for children and older people (many of whom women care for), urban environment (low and wide pavements for pushchairs, wheelchairs and walkers and low-speed zones, clean, safe, easily accessible toilets with places to change nappies.

An agenda for all, to be discussed and implemented, not just on women`s days and not just by women.

References:

Féminisons les noms des rues ! Ville de Paris, 23/06/2021.
Pierre-Nicolas Schwab, The feminisation of street names: useful debate or a political artifice? 11 March 2020.
Harcèlement sexuel : Un jour… un combat. Nawat, 18/11/2015.
Corinne Luxembourg, Le Droit à la ville pour les Femmes. Silomag, septembre 2021.
Ana Falú, ¿Cómo pensar el Derecho de las Mujeres a la Ciudad? Plataforma Global por el Derecho a la Ciudad de las Mujeres, 2021.
Navya Khanna and Prarthana Puthran, Women In Public Spaces: When Gender Is Ignored While Shaping Cities. 12 November 2020.
Consultation en ligne sur la dénomination des noms d`espaces publics du futur quartier Flaubert. Rouen.fr, 2 September 2021.
Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls Global Flagship Initiative: Second international compendium of practices. ONU Femme.
Manifesto per il diritto delle donne alla città.

Original article

Photo: The struggle of Tunisian women takes to the street. Source: Wall Street International Magazine.

Themes
• Advocacy
• Gender Equality
• Legal frameworks
• Local
• Local Governance
• National
• Norms and standards
• Public policies
• Public programs and budgets
• Right to the city
• Women



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