While the outcry over sexual harassment has grown in the U.S. and Western Europe, the media in these countries have paid little attention to major changes related to associated issues in the Middle East and North Africa. These changes should be noted, if only to counterbalance commonly held perceptions about the treatment of women in the region. For example, continuing a long history of policies that expanded women’s legal rights and placed it at the forefront of the Arab world, Tunisia recently modified its legislation regarding rape. In September 2017, it repealed the “marry-your-rapist” law. Tunisia also criminalized marital rape and domestic violence.
Repeal of the “Marry-your-rapist” Clause
In a major step toward reforming Tunisia’s family law, legislators removed a clause from the Code of Personal Status (CPS), the national body of legislation on family law initially promulgated in 1956 at the end of colonial rule and intermittently amended since then. The clause, part of article 227, erased the rape conviction or allowed the offender to leave prison if he married the victim. In practice, the victim’s family often arranged marriage with the rapist in order to protect the family’s honor and avoid shame. Women’s rights organizations had long debated the “marry-your-rapist” clause. Its repeal not only prevents rapists from escaping punishment but could also change the perception of rape in the long-run in the society at large. The recent changes in the CPS represent the unambiguous criminalization of rape. Other countries in the MENA region have followed suit, with Jordan and Lebanon recently repealing their “marry your rapist” laws.
Criminalization of Marital Rape and Domestic Violence
On July 26, 2017, the Tunisian parliament approved law no. 58, or the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This new law criminalizes marital rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment in public spaces, and unequal pay for women in the workforce. Of these changes, we focus in this commentary on marital rape and domestic violence against women. Before the law was passed, judges did not recognize marital rape as a crime and women who had reported marital rape were “shamed into withdrawing their complaints.” The new law now defines rape as “any act that leads to sexual penetration of any nature and means used against a female or male without his/her consent.” More specifically, any perpetrator who uses “violence, weapons, threats, or substances such as pills, drugs, or medications” will be imprisoned for 20 years to life.
The new law also reinforces the criminalization of domestic violence. Chapter 3 of the law defines such violence as “any physical, moral, sexual, and economic attack against women on the basis of gender difference, which causes injuries and pain, and physical, psychological, sexual and economic harm to women.” Tunisia criminalized domestic violence against women in 1993, but the law was ineffective in practice because of a lack of social awareness about the legislation in existence and because there was little public discussion of domestic violence. Another reason was that the police received no institutional support or training to investigate such matters. Even though it is too early to tell whether the police will receive relevant training, we can safely suggest that the new 2017 law brings renewed and focused attention to the issue of domestic violence.
Similar but Different
The Arab Spring and the fall of the authoritarian regime in 2010-11 marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Tunisia, which has experienced a process of democratization — the only country to do so among those where protests of the Arab Spring occurred. Democratization in Tunisia is in flux and has an uncertain future, but it is nevertheless real. President Caid Essebsi has declared that he aims to create “total, actual equality between men and women citizens in a progressive way.” Critics have questioned the motives of those in power, suggesting that recent government leaders, like their predecessors, are using women’s rights as a cover for the lack of true democratic progress. For example, Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch said, “By championing women’s rights while at the same time expanding impunity for acts of corruption, the Tunisian government is reminding us of how these two contrasting realities worked in the past.” Although we do not know how the new 2017 law will be applied in the years to come, women’s rights advocates have received it with enthusiasm in the hope that it could protect Tunisian women from domestic violence. Past and present Tunisian governments may exhibit similarities in their approach to women’s issues, but the current political era may at the same time open possibilities for the effective application of the new law.
Mounira M. Charrad, Ph.D., is a nonresident fellow with the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program and an associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
Hyun Jeong Ha, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.
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