Has life got worse for Tunisia’s women?

Media captionHas violence against women increased since Tunisia’s revolution?

Tunisia’s revolution is seen by some as the only success story of the Arab Spring. But the BBC’s Sally Nabil reports from the capital, Tunis, that five years on, life could be getting worse for one group – women.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main shopping street in central Tunis, is quite an eclectic scene.

Some women are wearing mini-skirts and tight jeans, while others are fully covered with headscarves and long dresses.

This diversity is rarely seen in other parts of the Arab world.

Even though Tunisia has the most progressive laws on women’s rights in the region and always set an example for other Arab countries, patriarchal values still persist here.

The most recent government study, from 2010, says that nearly half of Tunisian women are subjected to various kinds of gender-based violence, being either physically, sexually or verbally abused.

Five years after the Tunisian revolution, human rights group Amnesty International says there are few signs to show that things have improved for women.

The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women told us that nearly 70% of Tunisian women are victims of abuse.

Domestic violence is reportedly the most common form of abuse.

But many women in this country are reluctant to talk about their suffering because they feel ashamed.

“Few are those who are courageous enough to seek medical help,” said Hela Belhajyahia, a psychotherapist.

“Women are embarrassed to speak up.

“They are usually afraid of their families, their neighbours, their workmates.”

One woman agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her identity was not revealed.

She is a conservative woman from a lower middle-class family whose husband routinely beat her during the last two years of their marriage.

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When this woman refused to let her husband’s mistress move in, he hit her with a stick, punched her in the eye and broke her finger

Now divorced, she says she never wants to get married again.

“I still remember the day when he came home with his mistress and told me she is going to live with us in the same house,” she said.

“When I said no, he threatened to take my two kids away from me.

“He then hit me with a stick, punched me in the eye, and broke my finger.”

She said she never reported her husband’s abuse to the police because she did not want to cause any trouble for her children.

Her family tried to convince her to stay with him because she had no other form of support but she refused and left him.

In 2014, Tunisia passed a new constitution which guaranteed full gender equality. But government officials now admit that laws are not enough.

“We are trying to raise social awareness about the dangers of this issue simply because it affects the whole family,” explained Reda al-Gataa, head of the National Council for Family Affairs and Urban Development.

“But we are fighting against deeply rooted cultural values, that do not fully recognize the concept of equality,” he said.

“The real problem doesn’t always lie in the male mentality,” said Rebh Cherif, a PR manager in the National Council for Family Affairs and Urban Development.

“Unfortunately, many [women] are brought up to believe that they are worthless without a husband or a partner. This is why they accept to stay with a man who mistreats them.”

Breaking the cycle

Violence against women in Tunisia is not restricted to the poor.

It cuts across different social classes and educational levels.

But some women have managed to break this continuous cycle of abuse and decided to turn their personal tragedies to help others in similar situations.

In a small cafe in Tunis, two girls in their late twenties shared their stories as victims of physical violence.

Both were beaten up first by their fathers and then by their boyfriends.

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After they were beaten up by their boyfriends Amal Khleef and Amal Amrawy started an online forum to encourage women to walk away from violence

To get over their ordeal, they started an online forum called “Chaml” – which means coming together.

They said that sharing their painful experiences has encouraged other abused women to speak.

“Getting women to talk and express themselves was a big challenge, let alone taking action.

“Society turns a blind eye to domestic violence and expects a woman to live with it.

“Female abuse has become some sort of a lifestyle here,” said Amal Khleef, a co-founder of Chaml.

Walking away

Her colleague Amal Amrawy said she feels grateful to Chaml.

“The girls in this group taught me to stop playing the victim or finding excuses for a person who mistreats me,” she said.

Ms Amrawy said she advises victims of violence to walk away immediately.

“Don’t say your abuser will change into a better person one day.

“This will never happen. The more you wait, the worse it will get.”

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The view on Avenue Habib Bourguiba of women wearing a variety of styles is a rare sight in the Arab world

Nearly 60 years ago, the Personal Status Code granted Tunisian women far more rights than any other Arab women.

For example, it banned polygamy, and set a minimum legal marriage age.

Tunisia has been relatively successful in its transition to democracy, at least when compared to other countries of the so-called Arab Spring.

But it might take years before it succeeds in changing the mentality of a male-dominated society.

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