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Interview with Khedija Arfaoui, Women’s Rights Activist

There are Extraordinary Women in our Organizations: Tunisian Women’s Groups Unite for Change

By Sussan Tahmasebi

Tuesday 8 March 2011


Change for Equality:

Q: As a feminist activist were you surprised by the developments in Tunisia?

Like everyone else here I had come to believe that the situation was going to last forever. Opposition groups were constantly spied upon, including their whereabouts, regular mail, e-mail, travels, telephone calls, etc and were victims of violence. Ben Ali, his wife and their clans controlled the entire economy of the country. They also controlled the media, such as newspapers, magazines, radio stations, the Internet and Television channels. As a matter of fact, they were so sure of themselves, they so firmly believed that the country’s riches rightfully belonged to them that they conducted their business very openly, so much so that everybody knew about all what they were doing, or almost so.

The events in 2008 and even more recently that took place in the southern region of Tunisia, most particularly in Gafsa mining basin and the hard line adopted by the government to silence protestors demonstrating for their right to work also seemed to mean there was no hope for change.

Civil society did a lot to draw attention to the situation in Gafsa and asked for the freedom of those imprisoned but to no avail. However, the stand taken by the General Labor Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) proved to be confrontational, showing that the trade union had started distancing itself from the government.

What happened in Sidi Bouzid could have been unsuccessful, like past efforts intent on drawing the government’s attention to the situation of unemployed graduates and the impact of unemployment. The marches that followed young Bouazizi’s immolation and death had the support of UGTT and this was significant support. The country needed a strong support. Helping the young unemployed population—whether they were college graduates or not—to organize protests and draw attention to their plight. These protests were followed by different sectors taking stands and denouncing the corruption: lawyers, journalists, medical doctors and civil society. Corruption and bad governance were at the root of this revolution

Yes, I was surprised, because, until then, nobody had dared organize marches (they were prohibited), and suddenly, everybody, throughout the country was in the street, demanding change. Suddenly, people seemed not to be afraid any more. And there were no bearded Islamists among the crowds. They were mostly youth of both sexes.

Q: What factors (besides the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17) do you think contributed to the protests in Tunisia that resulted in the ousting of Ben Ali?

I have answered this question to some degree, but mainly the firm stand taken by UGTT in support of the marches was a factor in these protests. The support given by civil society but also different sectors like lawyers and journalists, who also stood up in the streets denouncing the many corruptions they knew about and having people speak out their grievances and the injustices they had suffered. The outburst of anger and protest that had taken place a few years earlier in the mining Basin of Gafsa that had been violently repressed was not forgotten either as there still were people in jail. Our national media did not report on all of these developments because the media belonged to the “families” to the Ben Alis, Trabelsis, Matris, but the Internet provided information and the information was spread through videos via the Internet, particularly on facebook. The youth and others uploaded their videos immediately to make them available.

Q: What role did civil society, including NGOs and workers unions play in these uprisings?

Civil society also used Facebook to send information. Although civil society had no access to the media, it never stopped addressing the issues, organizing meetings to discuss them, looking for ways to help, informing the world about the situation, getting in touch with the families, sending petitions to the government, providing help. ATFD (The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, but also AFTURD, the Tunisian League for Human Rights…) have continually campaigned against injustice.

Q: Women’s NGOs held a protest on January 29. What were your demands and why did you feel the need to hold a women’s protest?

Women’s NGOs together with other organizations marched to demand equality, dignity, citizenship, and equality. My personal belief is that if a new constitution is to be drawn, now is the time to express these claims. Our first President, Habib Bourguiba promulgated the Code of Personal Status immediately after independence in 1956. So, the time to claim these rights is now, particularly with the return (after a more than twenty years of exile) of Sheikh Rashed Ghannouch, the leader of El Nahdha, the Islamist party, who in the mid 1980s had stated he was against the Code of Personal Status and for polygamy. Therefore, the march was for protecting the gains brought by the Code of Personal Status.

Q: The women’s protest was disrupted by some Islamic groups. Do you feel that with the changes in Tunisia, women face the possibility of losing some of their hard won rights?

I really hope not. But, one never knows for sure. We have to be vigilant. Women’s and men’s protest against Islamism (and not against Islam which is our religion and part of our identity) was disrupted by some Islamic groups that shouted things like: “Women at home, in the kitchen!” but also by other rioters, probably belonging to the “families,” who have been responsible of many of the riots we have seen in the country.

Q: Have secular women’s groups and Islamic women’s groups engaged in any collaboration or dialogue? What does the relationship of these groups in Tunisia look like?

I do not think so. For the time being, we are and must remain vigilant, making sure first that nothing happens to what we already have: the gains we made in 1956 with the promulgation of the Code of Personal Status and the few others that were added in the 1990s and later have to remain. We believe in every group’s right to exist, provided no one infringes on anybody’s rights.

Q: What role are women playing in the transition to democracy? Are women included in the transition government? And have women’s NGOs advocated for the inclusion of women and a women’s agenda in the transition government?

I have to tell you that we are deeply disappointed by the fact that there are only three women in this provisional government: one is minister of health (she is a medical doctor), the second is in charge of the ministry of women, the third is secretary of State of Higher Education.

No woman has been appointed among the governors, no woman has been appointed as chair of a company.

For a country that prides itself on having a Code of Personal Status that is the most advanced in the whole Arab world, it is rather disappointing.

Women NGOs are mobilized to stand for their rights and for the inclusion of women in the next government. They are busy working on strategies to sensitize women and youth on the importance of elections, of secularism, particularly on the separation of religion from the State, making it clear that it does not mean being against Islam which is our religion, rather emphasizing that religion is something personal and that it does not have to infringe on people’s freedom.

Q: What was the situation of women’s NGOs in Tunisia before these recent developments? When we spoke 2 years ago, you mentioned that women’s NGOs like other organizations faced a lot of pressure and restrictions, but managed to do some work toward women’s rights. What issues were they focused on?

Before January 14, or until that date, the situation of the two single autonomous women’s NGOs was like the few other autonomous NGOs (The Tunisian League of Human Rights, Amnesty International, etc.). We had the police in front of our offices, our mail, telephones, email… were under constant scrutiny. We knew that whatever we said was listened to. Some of us had their cars broken into. Lawyers like great activist Radhia Nasraoui often had her office broken into and her files taken away. We had no access to the media—none of them, newspapers, radio stations, TV channels. We could not hold our seminars or general assemblies in a public place. Even when we travelled we had our suitcases’ locks broken and our belongings searched. All of these pressures impacted people’s attitudes towards us and they avoided us so as to not face problems because of their association with our groups.

In spite of all of that, women activists were able to address many significant issues like violence against women. When ATFD started working on this issue, the government’s immediate response was that there was no such thing as violence against women in our country. The same was said about sexual harassment and poverty. The funny thing is that later on, when these issues were presented as key issues at the UN and elsewhere, the government took up to these issues. President Bin Ali’s wife, who as you may know, was aspiring to become the next president of Tunisia, adding to our achievements since 1956: the first Arab country to have a female president! Indeed, she had started expressing feminist views as if she were the one who had invented them, never mentioning not even the pioneer feminist of the early 1930s, totally ignoring the women fighting for women’s rights for several decades already in spite of their limited means and the obstacles they faced. Examples of these obstacles include the blocking of the funds that NGOs received, forcing them into a very difficult situation where they were not even able to pay their rent, or their staff and researchers.

CEDAW is a major concern, and several campaigns were organized in Tunisia and abroad particularly with our Algerian and Moroccan sisters.

Q: You were sentenced to serve time in prison last year. Can you tell us about that? Why were you handed such a sentence, what were the charges against you and did you go to prison? Were such prison terms for women’s rights activists common under the rule of Ben Ali? How about for other civil society activists?

I had received a message on Facebook warning about the kidnapping of children at a kindergarten in Tunis and of course, I was asked to forward it, which I did, believing it was true as the rumor had been circulating all over the country for some time already, with newspapers denying this news. I had not written the message, they knew the name of the person that had sent it to me, but they chose me I suppose because I belonged to an autonomous women’s groups and attended meetings organized by several opposition groups. I was a good scapegoat in the scenario they had planned to silence the opposition particularly as it was a period of elections.

I had to appear in court four times, with lots of police around, checking on who was attending as if I were a terrorist. I never went to jail, although their reports on the media stated I was in jail. My sentence was 8 months suspended prison term. This meant that if I made any “mistake” I would be taken to jail immediately to serve my sentence. As a result, I took a very low key approach to my work and did not attend any meetings, etc.

Q: How do you envision the priorities of women’s NGOs will change in a more open social and political environment?

Women activism will continue but this time we will be free to organize and meet in public places. We will have access to media outlets, and we are seeing this already as TV stations come to our offices and report on our activities now. We never could dream of such things before. We will be able to reach more people now. ATFD is already thinking about opening branches in other cities, which we could not before. Women activists are seen on TV channels, they are invited to talk at round-tables. All of this is new. And believe me there are extraordinary women in our organizations.

** Dr. Khedija Arfaoui is a Tunisian women’s rights activists and member of the Feminist Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development and founder of the Association of Development and Protection of the Environment.

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