One marriage in six, or 17 percent, ends in divorce in Tunisia these days. The figure has increased exponentially in recent years, making the “land of jasmine” the fourth country in the world for the number of legal separations. Another recent phenomenon is that it is mostly the women who put an end to the union.
To deal with this “crisis”, Hichem Charif, president of the Tunisian observatory of couples and the family, proposed in an interview to establish a certificate of aptitude for marriage, a practice that would, according to him, reduce the number of divorces. In the last census in 2014, the INS (national statistical institute) registered 27,000 divorced men and 77,500 divorced women. Most of the divorces took place during the first 4 years of marriage.
Emancipation of women on the paper and in the workplace, but mentalities do not change
“Schizophrenia”. It is this word that opens the interview with Emna Zahrouni, advocate and activist for women's rights, as well as the soul of the listening service Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) that provides legal assistance to women victims of violence.
Schizophrenia that Zahrouni talks about describes the difference between the provisions of the Personal Status Code promulgated 60 years ago, which abolished polygamy, allowed women to work outside the home and have almost equal rights with men (a real revolution in postcolonial Tunisian society) and the legacy of the patriarchal culture that decades of women's emancipation have not wiped out.
To understand the ambiguity that governs male-female relationships in Tunisian society amidst legal provisions and reality, one needs to take a few steps back in history: “In 1956, when Bourgiba established the Personal Status Code, the society was not ready. The political power has forced it to evolve, and men also have come to accept the novelty with time. But there has not been a cultural or civil policy, it was a forced evolution in which the legal progress has not been accompanied by a cultural renaissance. It was worse under Ben Ali: he used the status of women in order to strengthen his power and legitimacy on the international stage, but since 1993 there has not been any legal progress regarding women.”
In fact it was a case of manipulation of women’s condition by the old presidential couple. Through the creation of numerous associations, the former first lady Leila Ben Ali has established herself as a reference figure for the rights of women, always ready to intervene in the media. But this visibility was hiding a much harder reality for the women: according to a survey by the Centre for Studies, Research and Documentation on Women (CREDIF) published in March 2016, 53 percent of women questioned said they had suffered some form of violence (physical, psychological or sexual) between 2011 and 2015. A bill on violence against women was voted by the Cabinet on July 13: it lays down provisions for the state to take care of the women who have been subject to violence. Now the proposal has to pass the scrutiny of the parliament.
Harassment on the street, machismo barely disguised
“Women have evolved, it is the men that have remained still, particularly with the economic crisis and the arrival of mass unemployment. The men accused the women of stealing their jobs”, continues Zahrouni. Yet, even though two thirds of the students today is made up of girls, the number of young women to remain unemployed after graduating is at least twice as high as men. “The fact is that when women entered the public sphere, that had hitherto been the exclusive preserve of males, the men perceived this as an invasion.”
According to the advocate, street harassment is a form of reaction to the presence of women in public space: "Even the Guide du Routard now recommends foreign women to cover themselves on the street, something that really causes anger”, she says. The law proposed by the government envisages “up to one year in prison” to combat harassment, she adds.
“There is a stellar distance between the image of women conveyed by the media and violence exhibited by the society against them, especially in the street. Normally, in the patriarchal context, a man should protect a woman. But when a woman is attacked on the street other men are do not intervene. They're macho, but without courage. They do not dare to confront other men”, explains Zahrouni.
The government bill is affected by the patriarchal legacy and contains measures that discriminate against women, such as the provision of an exclusively male tutor in the case of child marriage. And the father still remains the head of the family.
But why does the number of divorces increase? Emna Zahrouni has no doubts: “Because women do not suffer quietly any more. When the men get married they want a wife modeled on their mothers. Women work, but the responsibility of all the housework and child care falls upon them. The society is conservative, just as the feminism in the United States in the ‘40s and ‘50s had realized. If the women want to be able to work outside the home, they have to prove that they are capable of doing all the housework anyway”, she concludes.
“Law does not change the mentality”
With a green dress, light lipstick, blonde short hair combed back, Meriem is a young woman of 34 years of age, separated from her husband a year ago. In a trendy neighborhood cafe she tells her story with an agitated voice, as if afraid of not being able to get to the end.
“I was just out of a story that lasted seven years, a story that didn’t go well and left me deeply disappointed. I was 30 and I had just received my masters degree. At that point my father introduced me to a man: my fahter liked the image he gave of of himself, and appreciated the political opinions he shared on Facebook. We met. I liked him, even if I was not in love with him. But there was family pressure, this idea that your father 'knows what's good for you'. He pushed me to marry him. He was unemployed at that time, and it was my family to pay all the wedding expenses.”
Meriem at that time was obese. She had no self-confidence and thought that she would never meet her soul mate. In the end she accepted her father's decision without opposition.
“We started living with my parents. At the time I was very attached to my life: I was going out, I was salsa dancing. But he was very ordinary. An ordinary Tunisian: he woke up and went to the cafe, where he remained five hours. He came back, ate, had a nap and went back to the cafe. I realized the situation at the end of a month, but did not do anything: I was going to work, I was taking care of the house. Not looking for a job for himself he accepted the money I was giving him for his small expenses. After the first year I wanted to get a divorce. We separated, then we got back together. I got pregnant. I was married mostly because everyone said that the years were passing, that I was getting old. I immagined that my husband would change after becoming a father. In fact he returned to work, and when he came back home he was finding the dinner ready. But I have not found in him the father I was looking for for my son.”
“I was the husband and wife of the couple”
"After a year, after I finished nursing, I went back to work. And he left his job. I was the mother that took charge of everything, the baby and the husband's pocket money. He spent his days at the cafe. I took care of everything and my father did the shopping because we were still living with my parents. My husband was lying in front of TV all the time. When I returned from work, he went out and did not come back until late. I started sleeping in another room. I could not stand that life any more. I resisted for my son. I did not want him to grow up without his father. I tried to do my best, but I was like a bird with broken wings, unable to fly away.”
After three years of marriage, Meriem has filed for divorce.
“In three years we have not built anything as a couple. My family and I have tried to help him in every way in these years, we have also paid his debts. When I asked for a divorce, he accepted simply because alimony for the child was low, about 200 dinars per month. Until then I had been the husband and wife of the couple. The divorce was a liberation.”
Family pressure, despite “progressive” education
“My father always said that I had to work for myself and for my future. But then he too has succumbed to the pressure of the society. He gave me in marriage to the first man that has come forward. A man met on Facebook. In three weeks, the marriage was concluded. Today he has repented: he says he should have known him better before proposing me to marry him. "
Meriem claims that his father has behaved like that because he feared that, as she was obese no one would have wanted to marry her. “All my failures, large or small, were always tied to my weight: since my youth I felt like nobody liked me, I was always dressed like a 40 year old woman, like an old woman. I did not enjoy my youth, I felt ugly, and I consoled myself with food. It was a vicious circle. My father was worried about me”, she justifies.
Divorced women, “light” women
The divorce judgment was delivered one year ago. “At first I was feeling very bad. I was mostly afraid of being alone forever, because divorced women have a very bad reputation. Even the women of your own family scold you, instead of encouraging you. They see in you what they would like to be. They are afraid of your regained freedom and they become jealous, because they think you're ready to go to bed with anyone, including their husbands.”
Since then, for example, one of her friends no longer invited her, fearing that she might “steal her husband”. But it has been a good opportunity to make a cleaning up of her relations.
Now Meriem met a man, but he still struggles to accept her as she is, with her past and in her being a mother. Despite many achievements, especially on the professional level, a form of social control still exists against women who “do not behave as they should”. Divorced women continue to be considered bad. “They make you feel that, as a divorced woman, you deserve less than a single woman and that's it. You're not like the other women. People think that what you need is a man: you can be the strongest person in the world, but it’s not enough. I feel this pressure even with him. Often we go out alone, as if he were not able to take on the role of man in the couple. But at the same time he imposes me limits.”
To Meriem’s eyes it is as if her new partner “is in conflict with himself”.
“He introduces me to his friends as if we were together, but I can see very well that they do not believe it. There's something inside me that tells me he’s not the man for me: he gives too much importance to what his family and his friends think. He is a typical Tunisian male. When I go out, he tells me how I should dress. He’s macho, I have to be perfect, sexy for him, but not too much. He should always feel himself in a dominant position. I'm staying with him because I do not want to be alone. But I am not well: sometimes I want to tell him these things, but then I do not dare.”
“They want perfect women that reassure them. Then they get married and take it all!”
The legal advances have allowed a whole generation of women to enter the workplace. Today, about two out of three high school graduates are women. The condition of “emancipated women of the Arab world” sounds like an injunction to do one’s utmost to succeed both professionally and personally at the same time. “Today many women are independent, they work, they are more determined, they take charge of everything. Women do not need a man actually. I'd say we get married just to have children. For the rest we do not need a man, we can do very well on our own.”
But this “two-speed” emancipation is a medal that also has its flip side.
“We try so hard to show that we are independent that we end up accepting anything. We must be perfect, deal with everything, but men still find an excuse for not being faithful, they always find an excuse to betray their wives.”
While recounting all the tests she had to overcome, a teardrop falls on Meriem’s cheek: “I have come a long way. Before I always kept my head down, I remained tied to people who did not deserve me. It's so hard to be a woman in the Arab world: the more you are independent, the more men are afraid of you, they try to dominate you relying on your weak points. This makes me think of the moment when something clicked inside me: when you fix your goals, you no longer have time to be depressed. When I talk to other women, they all want to do a lot of things, but then they are blocked. I know unhappy women who are afraid to divorce because they do not feel capable. But as long as I live, I will do everything to be happy.”
Goal: lose weight and run the half marathon
Since Meriem is back on track, she entered into a group of runners. She lost 34 kg in a year and participated in two half marathons. In the group there is a woman who practices the sport for many years and has founded a blog, “Runneuse tunisienne”, to encourage the Tunisians, especially women, to run.
“It is said that divorced women turn to running. That it is their refuge. Getting a divorce requires an enormous strength: running for me is a source of encouragement. They always look for a way to diminish the credibility of women, to squash them in a cliché: When I run, other women encourage me, while men tease me. They do not understand women who run. So we end up to be forced to run in unlikely places.”
Sometime ago Meriem began to coach an obese girl. “When I started to coach her, I wanted to try to help her change her life, as I had done with mine. Today when she enters a boutique, she can choose the dress she likes. She is comfortable with herself. I feel a great satisfaction when I see her happy. She was with a man who paid, so as not to let her go. He was a macho who wanted to command her with a stick. Her father had a great fear that she would remain a spinster and was ready to marry her to the first comer. When her boyfriend came to ask for her hand in marriage, she was the one to pay for his suit and his mother’s dress! Many men behave like this now”, saysMeriem.
“When I was obese, I had no self-confidence. I got married, but always feeling myself inferior. Today I coach a girl who weighs 111 kg. Her mother thanked me. She has just broken up with her boyfriend, telling him she deserves better.”
Even though the Tunisian laws are the most advanced in the Arab world regarding the status of women, the patriarchal culture is deeply rooted in society and it manifests itself both among men and women: “There are some macho men, but there are also women like that, just as there are feminist women and men. There is everything in Tunisia. But surely men are more so, the whole society can be considered machista” comments Yahya, a young graphic designer from Tunis.
After the political revolution of 2011, will the next stage be a cultural revolution?