Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Tunis on Saturday, November 30 for a demonstration, or what organizers called a “national action,” denouncing violence against women. The demonstration comes after weeks of protests associated with an online movement called #EnaZeda, or #MeToo in Tunisian dialect.
Demonstrators of different ages and genders marched down Bourguiba Avenue in the early afternoon chanting slogans and holding handmade as well as printed signs on numerous political and social issues relating to gender-based violence, before gathering in front of the National Theater.
“No violence after today,” read one of the large banners held by several people marching at the front. The banner included the logos of 55 organizations, most of them civil society groups operating in Tunisia.
Other signs called for gender equality, rights for transgender people, an end to the state practice of anal examinations for men suspected of having sex with other men, and justice for the victim of sexual harassment allegedly committed by newly elected member of parliament Zouheir Makhlouf. His case sparked the #EnaZeda movement and its related Facebook page with over 20,000 members who have been sharing testimonies of personal sexual abuse, harassment, and violence. Some demonstrators held placards targeting Makhlouf specifically.
“The numbers of cases of gender-based violence is increasing in all its forms: physical, verbal, sexual and economic as well,” Neila Zoghlami, the Secretary General of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), told Meshkal on the sidelines of the march.
ATFD was one of the main organizers of Saturday’s march. The march occurred during the “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” an international campaign launched in 1991 that runs every year from November 25 until December 10. November 25 is celebrated as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women while December 10 is International Human Rights Day.
Similar demonstrations also took place on 25, 26, and 27 November in Sfax, Sousse and Kairouan respectively.
“It is not enough to have laws, such as law 58 of 2017, unless the government commits itself to specifying a predetermined budget as well as establishing national observatories that tackle the cases of violence against women for these laws to be effective,” Zoghlami said, yet she added that so far “we have not seen any political will that promises change, mainly concerning the application of the existent laws.”
On August 11, 2017, parliament passed law 58, which penalizes all forms of violence against girls and women. The law stipulates protection for victims and prosecution for the perpetrators of such acts.
Zoghlami also sees low levels of representation of women in formal politics as an obstacle to gender equality, noting that the percentage of women in parliament has decreased from 34 percent to just under 24 percent following the recent elections. For this reason, the ATFD is calling for the next government to include equal representation of women and men in ministerial posts. Government formation has been under negotiation between different political groups for the last several weeks.
Apart from changing the formal political structure, demonstrators on Saturday also saw their role as trying to change cultural norms.
“The patriarchal mentality in Tunisia sees men’s violence towards women as a mere disciplinary duty. For that reason, the aim of today’s demonstration is to change such social norms and encourage women to act,” Zoghlami told Meshkal.
Speaking to Meshkal, Kalthoum Kennou, a Tunisian judge and former presidential candidate, said she hoped the demonstration would send “a strong message not only to the public opinion, but most importantly to other women in order to encourage them to not surrender to violence.”
Kennou also underlined that the aim of this march is to raise awareness regarding the wage gap and other forms of gender-based discrimination in the work place.
“We want women to be aware of their rights and refuse such discriminatory policies as it is indeed one aspect of violence,” she said.
Among other demands, Kennou noted that the demonstration is also calling on the newly-elected parliament to ratify all international treaties that deal with the eradication of different forms of violence against women.