Women and transitional justice in Tunisia

Doris Gray
Monday, October 8, 2018

Doris Gray, director of the Hillary Clinton Center for Women’s Empowerment at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, professor, and author, gave a talk on Women and Transitional Justice in Tunisia hosted by the Center of Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) Colloquium on September 27.

Gray noted that the four mechanisms of transitional justice are criminal justice, truth seeking—which is her focus—reparations, and institutional reform. Her research focused on the position of female victims in Tunisia after the Arab Spring Revolutions which began in 2010. She conducted interviews with hundreds of women who had been either direct or indirect victims of potential human rights violations. She describes direct victims as “actively opposing the system, who profoundly disagree with the regime,” or political prisoners and conscientious objectors.

Indirect victims, Gray said, “are women who are related to a regime opponent, such as a husband, father, or son.” In a system called “pointage” (French for “checking in”), these women were required to report to the police, “sometimes as often as five times a day.” Gray states that this “made a normal life impossible,” because these women were unable to hold jobs due to the regular check-ins. If their husbands were imprisoned, there was a burden on extended family.

Gray also described situations in which women were told to divorce their husbands, and marry policemen for an easier life. A solution like this however caused “complications of litigation,” as the women could not then go on to testify against these policemen who may have acted violently toward them.

In other instances, families would have to provide food, medicine, laundry and other supplies for their family in prisons, so they would cook food each week and drive four hours to visit the prison, only to find out that the family member had been moved to a different prison.

Another group of indirect victims are children, according to Gray, who are taught in school that the political activists in their family are criminals, and at home they are told that these same relatives were heroes, which has a significant impact on the psyche of these children.

“How do you process that? How is that a human rights violation? What kind of crime is this?” Gray reflects.

After the revolution, Tunisia opened a Truth and Dignity Commission which dealt with crimes under the previous regime, with a special provision for dignity crimes against women. The Truth and Dignity Commission encouraged women to come in to speak about any abuse they had suffered. While women could choose to publicly testify, there was a bigger problem with privacy. Gray said that Tunisia is pretty small and neighbors noticed anything out of order in the community. For example, if an unfamiliar van arrived at a house, neighbors would guess that a woman had a story to tell the government, and this discouraged women from testifying. Female prisoners were often victims of sexual violence, and sexual violence was seen as shame not only on the individual woman, but on the entire family. Gray said that these acts destroyed the smallest unit of family, and went on to destroy society. She questioned who demands reconciliation, as the state wants it in order to move on, but sometimes individuals are not ready to tell their stories and relive their trauma. In these cases there is no institutional, religious, or social support. Even worse, the same people are in power, so trust of judges and police force is simply not there.

Gray said that when she spoke to these women most “just wanted to be heard.” Even though her Arabic isn’t very good, she would sit and listen, and in many instances she would have to take a break because the testimonies were so hard to hear. “It was hard listening, imagine undergoing the experience,” she said.

She concluded by saying that transitional justice is complicated, and that it will take a decade or two to find a system that works. She advises that we must keep records of these events, go in good faith, and have faith in the process. Gray responded with three words when asked for any final words, “Take people seriously.”

Written by Amanda Thomas, Saybrook ‘21.