Attacks on Tunisia’s transitional justice process threaten women’s advancement

Continued
attacks on the transitional justice process
in Tunisia will
weaken the gains made by women, and prevent an inclusive transition
to democracy.

Protesters raise slogans in the march called by the Maniche Msamah campaign (I will not forgive) on Habib Bourguiba Street in Tunis September 16, 2017 after the Tunisian Parliament approved the Administrative Reconciliation Act. Picture by Mohamed Krit/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Tunisia’s
parliament passed a reconciliation law in September offering amnesty
to former officials of the Ben Ali regime charged with corruption
.
Supporters claim Law 49, a diluted version of the contested Economic
Reconciliation Law that was first introduced in 2015, will allow the
country to move forward without alienating past politicians. But the
bill entrenches impunity for many of the crimes that sparked the 2011
revolution
, and encroaches on the mandate of the existing
transitional justice process, which has been working since 2013 to
uncover the stories of victims of the regimes and bring perpetrators
to justice.

Tunisia’s
transitional justice process, which has been far from smooth, remains
critical to Tunisia's continued democratization. It also includes a
number of advances that have serious implications for women in
Tunisia and beyond.

Tunisia
is the first nation to formally recognize socio-economic
violence as a violation meriting recognition and material
reparation

Tunisia
is the first nation to formally recognize socio-economic
violence as a violation meriting recognition and material
reparation, alongside more traditionally recognized crimes such as
killings, torture, and imprisonment. This
is particularly important for women, whose experiences of oppression-
sometimes referred to as “indirect” victimization- are often
overlooked and are only now seen as worthy of redress. 

Incorporating
women’s experiences into transitional justice processes often
begins and ends with the prosecution of sexual violence. The Tunisian
process marks a necessary shift in thinking, and is a model for
understanding the many ways in which conflict and oppression touch
women’s lives. By including harms such as forced divorce,
harassment of family members of prisoners, and the enforcement of
Circular 108, which banned veiled women from public sector work and
education, Tunisia’s transitional justice process acknowledges the
broad spectrum of harms faced by women.

A
recent report by
Georgetown University’s Institute for Women Peace and Security
traces why these innovations were possible. It notes that women have
held official leadership roles in Tunisia’s formal transitional
justice mechanisms since 2012, including half the Truth Commission
(Instance
vérité et dignité
,
IVD). In these roles they pushed to institutionalize access points
for women’s organizations and women victims to participate more
fully in the process. For instance, the creation of a Women’s
Commission in the IVD gave space to consider the particular gendered
violations against women victims.

When the
first reports of testimony submission to the IVD were released, women
made up barely 5% of the total submissions. Women’s civil society
groups worked to raise awareness about the process, and improve
understanding among men and women that women’s experiences were
serious, reducing stigma around submitting testimony. They also
identified procedural barriers to submission and operationalized
strategies to overcome them, such as creating mobile units to
register victims, and ensuring privacy measures were enforced. Thanks
to their work, women’s testimonies ultimately made up 23% of the
total submissions. The submissions of women victims broadened the
understanding of what it meant to be a victim, and allowed the
process to acknowledge and begin to address a more diverse set of
harms that characterized the oppression of the preceding
dictatorships.

The stories
of women victims helped to re-write the history of a country that
once used state feminism as a smoke screen for oppressive and violent
policies towards much of the population

The stories
of women victims helped to re-write the history of a country that
once used state feminism as a smoke screen for oppressive and violent
policies towards much of the population. The gains of the women’s
movement under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, such as the reform of family
law, often came about through the hard work of women’s groups in
civil society. But the state co-opted the women’s rights agenda,
and touted these legal reforms in order to present a progressive face
to the international community. Even while many women were denied
education and employment, harassed for their political beliefs or
those of their family members, and jailed for speaking out against
the government, the regimes used their supposed commitment to women’s
equality to gain international legitimacy.

This
pattern seems to be recurring today. The day after the Assembly
passed the Reconciliation Law, it revoked a longstanding ban that
denied Tunisian women the right to marry non-Muslim men. The latter
development has received
considerable positive press, especially in the
west,
while the implications of reconciliation law are not widely known
 or
discussed. As we praise Tunisia for continuing to make crucial
advancements in the area of women’s rights, we can’t lose sight
of the ways in which regressive political developments will influence
women’s lives, and the broader project of democratization, from
which women’s empowerment and equality is inextricable.

The
Reconciliation Law threatens to undermine the legitimacy and mandate
of the IVD and Tunisia’s other transitional justice bodies. The
success of the transitional justice process is a necessary element
for the success of Tunisia’s democratization, and also has serious
implications for women in Tunisia. By formally recognizing
socio-economic violations, including those that disproportionately
affected women, the process is a model for how transitional justice
can begin to address systemic oppression of marginalized groups.
Continued attacks on the process will weaken the gains made by women,
and prevent an inclusive transition to democracy. 

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