Al Arabiya News is marking International Women’s Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality. Here, we take a look at an Italian play performed in Tunisia that raises the issue of violence against women.
“I married my colleague… We used to get paid the same amount… One day, I started to get paid more; and I was afraid to tell him... I felt guilty... As if getting more than him undermined his manhood…at the end…he killed me…with an ashtray.”
Those were some of the lines of a dramatic theatrical piece, “Blessé à mort” (French for “Wounded to Death”), performed on Sunday evening in the Tunisian capital to mark International Women’s Day.
The play, written and directed by Italian journalist Serena Dandini, was performed not by actresses this time - but by female Tunisian decision-makers and civil society women leaders such as MP Bochra Belhaj Hmida and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize candidate Lina Ben Mhenni.
The theatrical project, which comprised of a collection of monologues, aimed to raise awareness about violence and discrimination against women.
Each monologue - believed to be based on real life investigations – tells the story of a woman who lost her life at the hand of a husband, partner, lover or an “ex.” Speaking in the Tunisian dialect, and French, the “actresses” took on the role of the protagonists
The play coincided with the recent release of a report that put the number of Tunisian female victims of financial, sexual, psychological and physical violence at 48% - with physical abuse accounting to 32% of the overall violence committed against women.
Supporting the report, Basma Khalfaoui, a lawyer, human rights activist and the widow of the assassinated Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, told Al Arabiya News that Tunisian females have more challenges today than before.
“Like we saw during the play, the biggest of which is the verbal, physical and moral violence that the Tunisian woman endures on a daily basis in her environment, her family, and her relations.”
Another type of violence is “financial abuse,” said Khalfaoui, who was one of the performers of the show, adding that this issue has been spreading recently due to the frailty of the social situation in the country.
According to the report, financial abuse accounted for 7.1% of the overall violence and includes arbitrary expulsion for women in the workplace, and the prevention of women to work by some spouses.
“Let’s not forget political violence that targets women more because she is considered the weaker sex. This is all coming from the religious extremism were witnessing today,” Khalfaoui added.
Religious extremism is an “intruder” to the Tunisian society and sees women “as complimentary to men,” said Khalfaoui.
In 2012, a political row between the Islamist Ennahda Party and secular parties over a proposed constitutional description of women and their role in family life sparked large protests.
Activists accused Ennahda’s description of falling short of recognizing women and men as equals.
“The Tunisian woman participates in development and in building the family and the country,” said Khadija Cherif, Deputy Secretary General for Women’s Rights at the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) Tunisia bureau.
“There are many challenges, apart from violence, issues that have to do with the role of a woman in the family and in the society,” Cherif said.
“But today in the 21st century, some people want to take us backwards. They believe a woman should not be equal to the man. They want us to lose our gains,” Cherif added.
“We are talking about a social pattern that is backward and obscurantist, in which a woman becomes all covered in black; or becomes a candy bar that needs to be wrapped until the day her husband uncovers her,” Khalfaoui said.
Comparing the situation for women before and after the revolution, Cherif said: “In all honesty, I can say we are better off today in one thing: nothing was spoken of before. Today, everything is exposed. Freedom is an achievement that helps us to improve our fight for women’s rights.”
Organized by the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD), the FIDH and several other international NGOs, the event attracted hundreds of attendees.
But “Blessé à mort” was not the only women-related event that was organized for the occasion. A big march took place on Habib Bourguiba Avenue earlier Sunday and has attracted not only women, but also men and children.
Rights activist Monia Ferchichi told Al Arabiya News during the protest that women are not being given top leadership positions.
“And you find her in some high position then it could have been done because of a particular pressure or for decoration purposes, said Ferchichi.
“The Arab man in general does not accept that his wife is in a leadership position. This is why we want that mentality of the man to vanish.”
“A woman at the end of the day is the mother, the sister, the daughter…she makes up half of the society. She conceives the other half. So actually, she is not just the half, she is the society as a whole,” said Ferchichi.
“There shouldn’t be a job for men and a job for women. Men and women should be equal inside the family, the work place and the society,” she added.
But Tunisian women have it better than other Arab countries, admitted Ferchichi. Women hold a third of the parliament’s seats, in addition to leading seven ministries in the recently-elected government.
Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba, seen as the father of the country, is often praised for his secular, pro-Western policies, and especially for emancipating Tunisian women.
His 1956 Code of Personal Status, which recognized the right to abortion and prohibited polygamy, is arguably the Arab world’s most progressive piece of women’s rights legislation.
“We have gains and we have history, but we are lacking other things, that we want to get,” Cherif said.
“But let’s not forget, women are determined to reach where they want to reach; unlike the picture that is shown abroad.”
This article is part of Al Arabiya News' Special Coverage on International Women's Day.SHOW MORE