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.
*Frida Dahmani is a Tunisia correspondent for the publication Jeune Afrique.