Still Fighting Violence Against Women: In Conversation with Monia Ben Jemia

Monia Ben Jemia at a march against violence against women in downtown Tunis on December 10, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Monia Ben Jemia is a jurist, writer, and professor of law at the Law Faculty of Tunis (Faculté des Sciences Juridiques, Politiques, et Sociales de Tunis).

Ben Jemia came from a conservative family. Her mother was illiterate, which encouraged her to excel in her studies. During her university studies in the early 1970s, she joined the leftist student movement, where she made friends who also believed in gender equality and women’s empowerment. They gathered into a “cercle de réflexion,” a discussion group founded by female journalist and writer Jelila Hafsia in 1974. Their discussions were hosted at the Club Tahar Haddad—a State-run cultural center named after the early nationalist leader and unionist who advocated expanded women’s rights in the 1930s.

While Haddad’s early feminist ideas provoked harsh sanctions from the academy and religious authorities, the 1956 Code of Personal Status can be seen as a posthumous rehabilitation of Haddad. The Code, issued by President Habib Bourguiba, abolished the Islamic Sharia courts and outlawed forced marriage, polygamy, and repudiation (i.e. a husband divorcing his wife unilaterally).

The national feminist movement continued to develop in the 1980s through the founding of civil society institutions: the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)’s Study Commission on the Status of Women Workers in 1982; the publication of the Review “Nisa’” [Women] in 1983; the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH)’s women’s commission in 1984; the Association of Tunisian Women for Development Research (AFTURD) in 1988, and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) in 1989.

Ben Jemia joined the ATFD at its creation. She had to slow down her activism for several years due to the preparation of her doctoral thesis, her career at the university, and raising her child. Yet, she returned to the ATFD almost on a full time basis in 2004. There, in the association’s “listening center”—a center where women victims of violence can receive legal and practical advice—Ben Jemia spent ten years collecting hundreds of testimonies of abused women. In 2016, Ben Jemia’s colleagues elected her president of the association for a two-year term.

In January 2021 Ben Jemia published a novel, part fiction and part autobiography, entitled “Les siestes du grand-père : récitd’inceste” [Grandfather’s Naps: A Tale of Incest]. “With the Tunisian revolution, tongues ​​have loosened. Writing for me was first and foremost therapeutic, even though I didn’t write on a regular basis”, Ben Jemia told the newspaper La Presse earlier this year. “Recently, with the global movement “Me Too” and its Tunisian version “EnaZeda“, I was so moved that I had to take action. I realized while reading on social networks that most of the testimonies were incestuous,” she explained.

Meshkal met Ben Jemia at a march in Tunis on December 10 organized by her colleagues from the ATFD and eight other member associations of the “national feminist dynamic”. The march that started in front of the Ministry of Women at Habib Bouguiba Avenue and ended at the Human Rights Square at Mohamed V Avenue was silent. The main theme was ending femicides, but the raised placards denounced all forms of violence against women. They condemned “the State’s guilty silence,”“gendered justice,” and “the patriarchy that keeps women trapped under male dominance, in infernal circles of lethal violence and precariousness”.

While walking with Ben Jemia during the March, we had the following conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity:

Hafawa Rebhi: You’re marching today to protest against femicide. Why, four years after the adoption of organic law n° 2017-58 on the elimination of all forms of violence against women, are femicides still happening? Why can’t we see a tangible effect of this law?

Monia Ben Jemia: There is no political will to enforce this law. Effectively implementing it requires a budget for there to be counseling centers and shelters for women victims of violence. We also need to train all those involved in the process. However, stakeholders are not sufficiently trained or the training is not adequate.

I will take the example of intimate partner violence. It is necessary to know that this violence is repeated and lasts over a long time. Generally, when a woman files a complaint, it is because she feels in danger of death. She does not file a complaint after the first blow. Filing a complaint is her last resort, because she is afraid for herself, she is afraid for her children. And I think that today, apart from feminist associations and in particular the ATFD, which has been working on violence since the 1990s, we have not yet understood the seriousness of repeated violence.

Indeed, when a woman files a complaint, you have to take her seriously, and you have to understand that she is in danger and protect her. Unfortunately, this is not understood by the specialized police units, at least not by all of them. This is not understood by the judges who grant mitigating circumstances to offenders in matters of domestic violence.

HR: But most of police officers and judges deplore a lack of resources.

MBJ: Look, to apply the law, to listen to a woman, you don’t need the means. It’s true that there aren’t enough resources; I told you from the start, you need budgets. But there are things that really don’t require the resources.

HR: Do they need a little empathy, for example?

MBJ: Absolutely. We have to understand that domestic violence includes all kinds of violence: moral violence, physical violence that begins with a slap and ends up becoming real torture. Every day at home, the woman is tortured. So when she files a complaint, she is in danger and we must protect her. And this is still not enough.

The entire first chapter of the law deals with prevention. But there is no prevention. Apart from the sixteen days of activism where all associations and the State raise awareness about violence, there are no real efforts. It must be every day. School curricula must be changed, as provided by the law. Children must be taught gender equality and non-violence. All of this has not been done.

And then there is the political crisis, the social crisis, the economic crisis. We know that when there are crises, women are the first to suffer. I think there is an increase in violence against women. And the problem is that we don’t have numbers about femicides. In 2020 the Minister of Women had said that there were fifty femicides; but since then, we do not know. Some associations that are giving figures and the national observatory (L’observatoire national pour la lutte contre la violence à l’égard des femmes that was created in 2020) has also given general figures, but these figures do not reflect reality.

HR: Do you think the real numbers are worse?

MBJ: Based on the hotline calls, the observatory said that 70 percent of women victims of violence were subjected to intimate partner violence. This rate also corresponds to the ATFD estimates. It’s huge: 7 out of 10 women are abused by their partners. Ten years ago, one out of two women was a victim of intimate partner violence.

But those are estimates. We need population surveys, as we did in 2010. We don’t have any figures for sexual violence either. The figures given by the observatory are low and the observatory has said that sexual violence is not reported. It would be a very high, black number for sexual violence. The FTDES [Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights] recently released figures. They said 30 percent of women are victims of sexual violence, which is still huge. Nothing has been put in place. The law is important, so it’s a lack of political will.

HR: But don’t you see there are more and more women denouncing violence, either online with the #EnaZeda movement, or in the listening centers of civil society group advocating women rights?

MBJ: Yes, precisely. We do not know since we do not have population surveys that are also called victim surveys. We do not know whether the violence has increased or if it is that women are denouncing more…Having numbers is the first thing. If we see that the rate of domestic violence, for example, is particularly high, we need a strategy to target this kind of violence. If we see that there is a lot of sexual violence, we have to know exactly which ones: rape, sexual harassment, etc. Here too, the figures will make it possible to establish a specific strategy to tackle the problem.

HR: So you believe that numbers are the basis of any strategy?

MBJ: Yes, absolutely. In fact the genesis of law n° 2017-58 dates back to the 2010 survey. Everyone was shocked then how one out two women was a victim of violence, and in particular domestic violence. It was then that we began to think about the law and…to enshrine in the constitution of 2014 that the State takes the necessary measures to eliminate violence against women. Then, we had the law in 2017. So, again, getting figures is the first step, but in the meantime, there is everything else that does not follow, neither the awareness, nor the information, nor the listening centers, nor the shelters.

HR: Are there listening enough shelters for women victims of domestic violence?

MBJ: There is only [NGO] Beity’s refuge [shelter for women] now in Tunis. I think the shelter of another association, AFTURD, has closed because it ran out of money; the Council of Europe is no longer giving funding.

HR: What are you protesting today?

MBJ: This situation is unacceptable, given the amount of violence [against women in society]. Police officers tell you when an abused woman comes after midnight: ‘Where will we put her, if there is no shelter?.’ Everything should have been done in coordination. [The Ministry of] Justice should work with the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Women and the ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health. Unfortunately, this coordination does not exist.

HR: You are an activist, an academic and a writer. You are a keen observer of Tunisian society. How do you assess the media coverage of issues relating to violence against women?

MBJ: I think it is being talked about more, and that’s a good thing. But media are not talking about it well yet. Many people who talk about it do not know what violence is. They do not understand the mechanisms of violence and its gravity.

HR: In your writings and your work, you often talk about the mechanisms of violence and the importance of breaking them down. How do those mechanisms operate?

MBJ: It’s not about putting the husband in jail and that’s it. Often a woman only files a complaint after having suffered all forms of physical and moral violence for several years. The husband puts her under his control, humiliates and exploits her. He has a hold on her and she is afraid of him.

HR: Where are the children in this circle of violence and fear?

MBJ: All of this violence ripples through children. The offender threatens his wife with her children. This is what prevents her from asking for police help at the first physical or moral violence. And very often children will reproduce the violence they have experienced at home—especially boys, girls much less.