This is not the Tunisia I know and love. That was my first impression as I recently visited the North African nation I have grown fond of over two decades of extensive visits and following meetings with many of the strong, smart Tunisian women I always admired and respected. Signs of extremism are everywhere from the main streets to the alleys of the capital Tunis which swelled after the revolution by some two million newcomers.
The news stories indicate a deterioration of the Tunisian woman’s status, her role and her political as well as social involvement. Violence against women abound: From the rape of a three-year-old in her own backyard to the rape of a pregnant woman in front of her husband, stories that break the heart and depress anyone who cares about the future of this nation that always valued women and gave them equal rights with their male counterparts even under a dictatorship that lasted decades. The public outcry to these crimes are louder than thunder in the face of a deafening silence from the current government that does not condemn or offer any solutions or timetable to redress the desperate situation.
What makes things worse is that the minister of women and children’s affairs is a woman who continues to justify the Islamist government’s stance instead of standing up to women’s basic rights of protection and equality. I happened to be in Tunisia during a small but vocal demonstration demanding her resignation in the aftermath of the rising crimes against women committed by former convicts who were released from jail as part of the political maneuvers between the Islamists and the reformers. During the hours of the peaceful demonstration there were no signs of the minister or her aides. Instead, there was an obviously staged counter demonstration in her support with clear Islamist slogans and personal attacks on the original demonstrators through the banners and the insults shouted. Despite all their efforts, organization and determination, they could not drown out the shouts demanding the minister’s resignation.
Intimidation by the Islamist police, an apparatus operating independently from the local police, is visible throughout the city and a cause for concern for all Tunisians I spoke with. Fundamentalism seems to be spreading at an alarming pace through the daily rhetoric as well as symbolic signs from the garb worn by many newcomers mingling with the local population and standing out like an eyesore not because of their extreme religious beliefs but because of their pompous attitude and outright provocation of locals and visitors alike.
“No, this is definitely not the Tunisia we aspired for,” told me a young female activist, echoing the multitude of Tunisians from all walks of life I got the chance to interact with.
The ousted president had imposed his dictatorial rule over Tunisia for decades but he had given women many rights that Arab women could only dream of. His government had used that successfully in its propaganda to give the impression to the outside world that Tunisia was a modern and open-minded society. Today, as Tunisia’s revolutionaries struggle to keep the uprising alive, there is a genuine effort by the Islamist government to stifle the voices of dissent and take away women’s rights, reduce their positive role and erase their exposure. All this, while keeping their false claim that everything is perfectly fine in their country.
The good news is that the Islamists are failing in all aspects of their governance. Thus, forcing Tunisia’s civil society and peaceful activists to insist on saving no effort to move their country towards a separation of religion and state. They know very well that if women lose this battle, Tunisia will lose the war against extremism and the fundamentalist government will only bestow on them a modern version of the darkest of dark ages!