Tunisia, An Ambiguous Role Model For Women's Rights In The Arab World

Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed caused a stir by appointing Najla Bouden, the first female head of government in the Arab world. But as the president has assumed full powers a decade after the launch of the Arab Spring, it is a choice with a mixed message.

TUNIS — On Najla Bouden's recent visit to Paris to participate in a conference on Libya, every step was being watched closely. The new head of the Tunisian government appeared both at ease and discreet. Her public agility may explain why Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed chose Bouden for this position with limited political weight, two-and-a-half months after he took full powers of the North African nation, where the Arab Spring began a decade ago.

Watch Video Show less

Tunisia, Where The Arab Spring Blossomed And Democracy Now Withers

North Africa correspondent Frédéric Bobin analyzes Tunisian President Kais Saied’s recent decision to suspend parliament and sack Prime Minister Mechichi and what it means for the legacy of the Arab Spring — for Tunisia and for the region.


In Tunis, suspending an elected parliament and ordering the army to cordon off the surrounding area is a symbol that speaks volumes. Tunisia, the true pioneer of the 2011 Arab Spring movement, is trapped, both geographically and ideologically, between neighboring countries that saw it as a hope for democracy. So much so, in fact, that what is happening in Tunisia has ramifications across the region.

Keep reading... Show less

African LGBTQ Activists Fight To Undo Colonial Legacy

Both north and south of the Sahara, Africa's gay, lesbian and trans activists are fighting for their rights … and for many, that means returning to a much earlier history.

Ten years after Tunisia's pro-democracy revolution, activists are continuing to fight for the rights of all … and that increasingly also includes members of the LGBTQ community. Like Tunisia, other African countries are confronting the challenge of overcoming conservative attitudes and the legacy of colonialism that too often still stands in the way of providing equal protection and dignity to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens.

History might surprise you

Keep reading... Show less

Femicide In Tunisia: Why A New Law Couldn't Crack The Patriarchy

A recent spousal killing in El Kef demonstrates how vulnerable Tunisian women remain despite the introduction, four years ago, of a law specifically designed to protect them.


TUNIS — Her name was Refka Cherni. She was 26 years old and had a whole life ahead of her when, on May 9, in the city of El Kef in northwest Tunisia, five shots fired by her husband snuffed out all her hopes and dreams.

Before falling victim to her husband — a national guard officer who used his service weapon to end a marital quarrel — this mother of three children was first a victim of those who refused to hear her.

Cherni had suffered from domestic violence for some time, just like an estimated one-third of Tunisian women. She even tried, finally, to put herself under legal protection by filing a formal complaint. That was three days before she was shot at close range.

"Although she presented a medical certificate and the attacker was an agent of the security forces, the deputy prosecutor on duty had not seen fit to arrest him," says Karima Brini, president of the Association Women and Citizenship of El Kef.

Since its implementation in 2017, Law 58/17 has aimed to eliminate violence against women and provide a protection tool available to all, one that police and legal stakeholders can't ignore. Better still, a specialized brigade including female agents is dedicated, in each delegation, to following up on cases.

Nevertheless, Cherni did not benefit from this system, and that's because all the laws in the world will not change the archaic and conservative mentalities that magistrates often display. The law banning violence against women has disturbed their established order: that of a patriarchal and macho world where the family unit must not be touched, even if it means that the woman will keep silent about abuse.

It's as if the wife, the mother or the sister has to sacrifice herself and be an accomplice of the silence that accompanies the domestic violence to which she herself is a victim.

It's an unmentionable disease enshrined in the texts of law.

The first to pave the way for these unspeakable acts are the women themselves. With incredible confidence, some women on social media advocate obedience to their husbands and castigate those who do not understand that the man is king and that the aggression of a husband is an act of love, even a benevolent one.

"He who loves well, punishes well" still has meaning for those who also have a role in influencing the younger generations.

It is on this foundation that values are biased, that society loses its compass in wanting to judge good and evil. But this is not what is asked of it. Some people get panicky and are embarrassed at the idea of condemning a practice that seems to them to be an ancestral custom, legitimized by time.

Social media tribute post to Refka Cherni — Source: Association Femme et Citoyenneté via Facebook

The magistrates, the investigating judges, the police and more generally all the representatives of the law are children of this society that uses and abuses denial so as, above all, not to recognize that it is sick and that its pathology is transmissible and potentially fatal.

It's an unmentionable disease masked by the emancipation of the woman which is, in fact, enshrined in the texts of law. The most devious will object that Tunisian women are lucky to be protected by the Personal Status Code (PSC). But after 65 years of existence, it needs a facelift in terms of equality and rights.

Refka Cherni is a victim of this ambivalence that is no longer hidden by common sense, as it has long been in Tunisia. Indeed, all Tunisian women are victims in this sense, albeit some more than others.

At fault is a conservatism fed with religious preconceptions by pseudo exegesis who in the media dispense clichés and calls to violence without being contradicted. Their words are even used in popular Ramadan soap operas, whose heroines justify the rape and aggression suffered by women.

This state of affairs is part of everyday life and does not bother anyone. On the contrary, some people consider it to be freedom of expression, an encouraging aspect of a democracy that is taking hold. No one denounces these increasingly widespread reflections, no one points out the absurdity, no one protests against an erroneous approach to religion and even less against the fact that crimes are absolved in this way.

What are they afraid of by simply enforcing the law?

Sooner or later, these issues related to Islam and society, which directly concern Tunisian women, or some 50% of the population, must be addressed. Is it because of these retrograde references that, too often, judges do not take into account the complaints of women who have suffered violence? In any case, they seem to confuse violence, which sometimes leads to death, with domestic accidents.

The main thing is to keep quiet, to diminish the importance of the facts, to reduce them to a simple incident. What are they afraid of by simply enforcing the law? These are questions that none of them answer, as they are so unseemly.

Refka Cherni"s blood has not yet dried and they already argue that she had reconciled with her husband and that only the peace of the household counts. None of them has the decency to keep quiet, especially since her murderer is a member of the National Guard who used his service weapon. To the preconceived ideas is added the corporatism which makes the representatives of the judicial apparatus of El Kef accomplices of a murder.

In fact, in the absence of an authority and a political will, small arrangements between friends are the order of the day, especially since they have a free hand; the system tolerates abuses and ensures impunity for abusers. And after all, why be indignant? When a woman is beaten or shot, no man is killed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dominique Moisi

Ten Years Later, How Arab Spring Delusion Feeds Islamist Rise

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, it first triggered a wave of revolts, then hopes of a historic liberalization in Arab countries. But the doors of democracy, barely half-opened, have been shut ever since.


PARIS — Exactly 10 years ago, on December 17, 2010, a low-key Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller felt so harassed and abused by public officials that he set himself on fire. Bouazizi's fatal act of desperation and revolt would mark the beginning of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, and then on to Libya and Syria.

Watch Video Show less
Lilia Blaise

In Tunisia, A Digital Revolution For Agriculture Takes Root

A new crop of Tunisian engineers are coming up with clever ways to help farmers streamline their operations and adjust to a changing climate.

TAKELSA — Mahmoud Bouassida has a worried look on his face as he tastes his oranges. In recent days, torrential rains have fallen on his 12-hectare orchard in Takelsa, on the northeastern tip of Tunisia, where he grows different varieties of the citrus, including sanguine, sweet oranges and clementines.

Rainfall is welcome, but in reasonable doses. "We had a dry spell just before, so with the rain, the fruit can get too much water and explode from the inside," says Bouassida, who gave up a career in the oil industry 10 years ago to buy a piece of land and start cultivating oranges. "It's like a thirsty human being who will rush on a bottle of water and drink too quickly, and then have a stomach ache afterwards."

Watch Video Show less

The Latest: HK Security Law Trial, Last Miami Building Victim, Tesla Record

Welcome to Tuesday, where the first person charged under Hong Kong's national security law is found guilty, the final victim of the Miami building collapse is identified, and Tesla reports skyrocketing profits. Meanwhile, The Conversation offers a deep dive into the Australia vs. UNESCO spat over the decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger."

• First person charged under national security law: The first person charged and tried under Hong Kong's national security law, 24-year old Tong Ying-kit, has been found guilty of terrorism and inciting secession. This landmark case came out a year after the law, imposed by Beijing, was implemented.

• Tunisian president accused of staging coup: After suspending parliament and sacking Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, President Kaid Saied has also removed the defense minister and acting justice minister from their posts. He imposed a month-long curfew and banned public gatherings, moves that critics describe as a coup.

• South and North Korea restore hotline: South and North Korea have restored hotlines, a year after Pyongyang severed them. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have exchanged multiple letters since April and agreed to restore relations.

• COVID-19 update: Australia's Victoria state may lift its current lockdown but neighboring New South Wales, which includes Sydney, faces an extension as daily cases are spiking. The U.S. has said it will not lift any travel restrictions, in place since early 2020, due to concerns over the Delta variant and the rising number of cases within the the country/ Meanwhile, India has reported 29,689 new cases, its lowest since March.

• Final victim of the Miami building collapse identified: Authorities have identified the final victim of the Miami Surfside collapse, thereby ending a month-long search and recovery operation. A total of 242 people are accounted for, according to Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

• Naomi Osaka surprise Olympics exit: The 23-year-old Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka suffered an unforeseen exit in the Olympics after Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic earned a straight-set victory in Tokyo. Osaka, born in Japan, lit the Olympic cauldron to officially open the games and was considered one of the event's biggest local stars.

• Britney Spears asking for new conservator: An attorney for Britney Spears has asked that a new conservator be named to oversee the singer's finances, following allegations that her father, her current conservator, had used the arrangement to mistreat her. Her lawyer requested that accountant Jason Rubin be named conservator of Spears' estate instead.

Watch Video Show less
Frida Dahmani

In Tunisia, Women's Healthcare Is Collateral Damage Of COVID-19

The pandemic added an extra layer of obstacles for patients with already limited access to quality attention for their sexual and reproductive health needs.

TUNIS — Malek has been nursing for three weeks, but she still can't believe her eyes. "This birth is a small miracle," she says. "I was very afraid of the coronavirus and that something would happen to the baby."

The young mother says the anguish and confinement made her see the virus everywhere, even though she delivered her child in a private clinic where all precautions were taken. As her obstetrician, Faouzi Ariane, explains: "My facility has the strictest hygiene rules. It was especially important to manage the apprehensions of new parents."

Watch Video Show less
food / travel
Bertrand Hauger

Carthage Must (Not) Be Destroyed

Carthago delenda est. "Carthage must be destroyed."

As I was wandering the ruins of the ancient capital (near modern-day Tunis) I had Cato's famous oratorical phrase stuck in my head ... Clearly a remnant of my Latin-learning years!

Watch Video Show less
Frédéric Bobin

Inside Tunisia's Battle Over Inter-Religious Marriages

Since 2017, Tunisian women have had the right to marry non-Muslims. But reality is playing out in different ways down on the local level amid an Islamist resurgence.

KRAM — It's marriage season in Tunisia, and the town hall of this municipality north of Tunis, is staying open late into the evening. They have to accommodate everyone. Howls resonate inside the expansive hall, where a blissful couple — the groom in a striped tie and pink shirt and the bride draped in immaculate muslin — moves timidly forward along the tile floor.

In his second-floor Kram office, Fathi Laayouni, wearing a fuchsia shirt, spreads out sheets of notes in front of him. Some passages are noticeably underlined in red. Laayouni, a lawyer by trade, prepares to speak. Before starting, he holds out a saucer with a baklava — a diamond shaped cake stuffed with pistachio and dried fruit — covered with a patina of honey. This is the heart of what is known, unofficially, as the Islamic Emirate of Kram. The moniker was conceived by a columnist from, an online Tunisian news outlet, who apparently does not hold Laayouni close to her heart.

Watch Video Show less
Khadija Belmaaziz

Merkel, May And A New Wave Of Women Mayors Around The World

PARIS — When they met Thursday in Berlin, Angela Merkel and Theresa May were two leaders in crisis: the German Chancellor trying to salvage her governing coalition in the face of criticism of her migration policy, while the UK Prime Minister is being dragged ever deeper down in the Brexit quagmire. The meeting, mocked in a less-than-flattering cartoon in The Guardian, took place between two of the world's most powerful women whose "hold on power is starting to look precarious," as Mary Dejevsky writes in The Independent.

Despite the hard times for these female national leaders in Europe, a series of "firsts' on the local level in the rest of the world may hint at a new momentum for women politicians.

Watch Video Show less
Niccolò Zancan

For A Tunisian City, The Mediterranean Offers Hope And Death

In the southern city of El Hamma, young Tunisians attempt to emigrate all the time for a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. One recent tragedy left dozens dead.

EL HAMMA — Departing in mass from this small southern city, 74 young, unemployed Tunisians left in search of a brighter future in Europe. On June 3, 44 of them died in the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sitting on a plastic chair outside his house in El Hamma, Ben Farah Adouni confirms that his son Tarek died that day. "They should've at least organized a state funeral. But for the Tunisian government, our sons are worthless whether they're dead or alive."

Watch Video Show less
Hatem M’rad*

Tunisia, The Long And Fragile Arc Of Democratic Revolution

The attachment to autocracy prevails over the current appreciation of the state of democracy. Still tottering, to be sure.


TUNIS — The Tunisian revolution was supposed to mark a radical break with the past. Seven years later, we are surprised to see that many fringes of Tunisians remain attached to the past, its vestiges and customs. And they're vocal about it. The very insistent reminders of God, Tunisian independence leader Habib Bourguiba and his ousted successor President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have sounded loud in the years after the revolution, and ushered in a period of regrets.

We speak of freedom, and yet we would like to restore old despotism. We speak of democracy, and we would like to make room for an Islamist providence. In 1789, after the French aristocracy and clergy were guillotined and rendered meaningless by the French Revolution, could they have brought back everything that the currents had carried away? Seven years after the Tunisian revolution of January 2011, which launched the Arab Spring, those nostalgic for God and state authority are finding common ground.

Islamists are attached to the immovable law of God, seen and lived through the mores and ideals of the "pious ancestor" — a model particularly immune to the 14 centuries that followed. The social and spiritual state of 7th-century Muslims thus sums up the whole history of Arab-Muslim humanity. It is valid at all times and in all places. No need to add that the law of men no longer counts, it is desecrated. History stops there.

Similarly, lay modernists are attached to the vestiges of the past more than they are to the idea of progress. They venerate a vision of history that flowed until it was stopped by one man: Bourguiba, the father of modern Tunisia who, in their eyes, has become a sort of prophetic being, transhistorical even: He is everywhere and nowhere, he lives within all Tunisians across time.

After the Bourguiba idolatry comes the cult of Ben Ali, a military man who loved brutal methods, who loved to govern through the rule of silence. The man was skilled in the art of de-Islamization. He applied a police-like treatment on a political and social phenomenon. It's a stark contrast to the leaders of today, who are complacent with the Islamists, themselves Machiavellian.

In short, for some modernists, order was as much the privilege of the past as confusion is that of an entangled present. The attachment to autocracy prevails over the current appreciation of the state of democracy. Still tottering, to be sure. Yet their anger against the revolution or against the men in power leading the political transition is a fact of revolution, a fact of freedom, coming after their ancestral passivity or their humiliation by the authority, the single party and the ruling family. These modernist fringes are still thwarted by the massive influx of Islamists in the transition, as if they'd come from nowhere.

Islamists make up one-third of the Tunisian electorate.

Thus, it's customary, after a quickly reviled revolution, to joyfully appeal to the past — distant or contemporary — to preserve traditions of an outdated regime, even to regret privileges. But then, how can one remove a dictator and establish a new democratic order, without the Islamists, themselves first-degree victims of the dictatorship?

Islamists make up one-third of the Tunisian electorate, and they should henceforth be fought using democracy, and not terror — as was the case under Ben Ali — nor by trying to cut off their heads, as Bourguiba wanted to do on the eve of the 1987 coup by Ben Ali. In a democracy, opposites confront one another. We try to civilize through freedom, through the rule of law. Democracy requires much more courage than expeditious methods. Democracy, unlike other regimes, dares to face vices head on, even if it's in the midst of apparent chaos.

The revolution, seven years ago, was both happenstance and predictable. People make revolutions because the previous social and political state becomes unbearable, because it no longer matches the movement of ideas and opinions. It is not, at first glance, ideas nor intellectuals who provoked the "revolution of dignity," but it was brought about by shapeless masses of ideas and opinions which, considering the spectacle of half-a-century of daily indignity, have slowly set physical and material forces in motion.

Even if they do so in silence and in slow motion, revolutions are also feats of opinion that move forward, sometimes become agitated, circumvent resistance to progress. In Tunisia's case, this opinion had been in an accumulation phase since the outbreak of the democratic movement of the late 1970s: when the Bourguiba regime started to collapse, coinciding with the emergence of an embryonic civil society represented by the triptych Movement of Socialist Democrats, Tunisian General Labour Union, and Tunisian Human Rights League.

Now, after the revolution, it is the democratic state which should forge the political and moral civilization. Democracy remains chaotic, sometimes disappointing. But it cannot be rejected on the pretext that it challenges a long-gone past, which won't come back, which no longer expresses the need of the people. Can we bring back slavery, the hereditary system, the birthright, repudiation or polygamy? The answer, of course, is no.

Those nostalgic of regimes say the freedom the revolution has brought is harming us.

Even the discrimination of women's inheritance rights is being swept away by History, progress of civilization and opinion. Civilization moves forward, not backwards. Even if it gives the impression of receding, after an accident of History (war, crisis, famine), it does not eliminate the ideas of philosophical and moral progress. Both immediately resume their natural march as soon as History rights the moments of misguidance and upheaval.

Those nostalgic of regimes, be it religious or secular, always declare that the freedom the revolution has brought is harming us. In reality, what is harming us is that the revolution has suspended freedom, the real one, the one that remains misunderstood and abused by parties (those in power as well as those in the opposition), agitators and movements that are ignorant of its meaning, who want it for themselves only, not for others. This is what happens in political transitions.

We should let History do its work. Let us prepare the reforms that must improve things, let us accept the necessary consequences and deformations of the revolution and the transition that shook an entire political and geopolitical order, with its traditions, its privileges, its discriminations. Let us not pretend we can solve everything with a strike of the sword. Let us follow the path opened up by freedom; it will lead us to ever more freedom. Islamism is an evil, a gangrene — no one denies it. But let us not misjudge the situation. The struggle is now political, legal and democratic, provided it's fought within the field of modern institutions.

Let us be neither backward-looking nor brutal or intolerant. Let us trust in progress, in the coming consolidation of new institutions, without departing from our vigilance, which always gives us the right to punish evil when it is punishable. The revolution sowed a good seed. We will have to wait until the right moment comes for harvest. The most important thing is to live in one's own century, not in that of others. Let us not be "modern imitators of Antiquity," to reuse the beautiful wording of Benjamin Constant. Let us instead be progressive creators of modernity.

Watch Video Show less
Niccolò Zancan

The Arab Spring Didn't Change My Life, A New Tunisian Exodus To Italy

SFAX — Plastic bags litter the fields that separate the highway from the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisian fishermen sail their boats in the Gulf of Gabes, between the cities of Sfax and Zarzis — and just 120 kilometers from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Indeed, recently the fishermen's haul has begun to include migrants picked up from these shores, with 136 intercepted by the Italian government in one recent night.

That boat had almost reached the port of Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily, but the migrants were waiting in the dark to safely disembark and evade authorities. Their reasons became clear once they were processed at the local refugee hotspot, where all the migrants were identified as Tunisian nationals from the Sfax area. Italy and Tunisia have a repatriation agreement, and any Tunisian caught entering the country illegally is subject to deportation. Thirty of those 136 have already been given notice to leave the country within six days, but many of them are intent on continuing northward toward France.

Watch Video Show less
Giacomo Tognini

As Libyan Route Shuts Off, Migrants Turn To Tunisian Coast

We have seen far fewer grim accounts of rescues and drownings of would-be immigrants in the Mediterranean in recent weeks, as the human trafficking route-of-choice between North Africa to Europe shuts down. But another dangerous route appears to be opening up right next door.

The recent efforts to crack down on traffickers operating along the Libyan coast have led to a major decline in arrivals from a country still facing political instability and unrest. While the 3,900 people rescued during the month of August is still troubling, it's a major drop from 21,000 in August, 2016, Le Monde reports.

Watch Video Show less
Maryline Dumas

Migrants' Many Shades Of Death Along The Tunisian Coast

In the south of Tunisia, near the Libyan border, an ancient dump serves as a cemetery for immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean illegally. But the living remain undeterred.

ZARZIS — "May God forgive them," murmurs Chamseddine Marzoug. Both corpses, inside mortuary body bags, are covered over with sand with a backhoe. Through the surrounding trash that has accumulated, Marzoug looks some signpost to mark the piece of land. He says he would want something better than a broken piece of black pipe to mark his own grave. The two buried men underwent an autopsy, which is quite rare — maybe one day they will once again be given their names …

The former Zarzis dump serves as a cemetery for migrants who died trying to cross the Mediterranean. In the 2000s, the bodies of migrants were welcomed in a Muslim cemetery in the southern Tunisian town near the Libyan border. This is still the case for corpses found a bit further south towards Ben Guerdan, in the cemetery of El Ketf. "But in Zarzis, people said it was not good to bury strangers with Muslims," said Marzoug. "There are only 5 to 7 places left in this cemetery where the conditions are not respectful for the dead."

Watch Video Show less