“It Was a Way to Destroy Our Lives:” Tunisian Women Speak Out on Religious Discrimination


In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia made a commitment to address its legacy of abuses establishing the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) in 2013. Today, nearly three years and more than 50,000 submissions later, the TDC concludes the testimony-gathering phase of its work, an important milestone in the country’s efforts to provide acknowledgement and redress to victims of human rights violations.

Charged with investigating the serious abuses that occurred in Tunisia between 1955 and 2013, the TDC aims to provide an inclusive platform for all those affected by the practices of the repressive regime to share their experiences. It was not a straightforward process, especially when it came to reaching out to certain sectors of society. As recently as five months ago, women accounted for a mere 5% of testimonies submitted. That number now stands at 20%, a figure that reflects the hard work of activists and the bravery of women in a society where they are often stigmatized for speaking out about past violations.

One collation of women embodied the efforts to include female voices in the transition across Tunisian society. The "Transitional Justice is Also for Women” Network, born in 2014, was launched as a collaboration between ICTJ and several Tunisian women groups. Most of the Network's members were victims of the dictatorship themselves. For over two years, the Network used all sorts of strategies to encourage more women to submit their stories to the TDC, working to reach women in different regions of the country. Efforts included field trips, seminars and meetings, as well as less formal social gatherings –such as community and family gatherings– to reach women where they lived.

The "Transitional Justice is Also for Women” Network submitted a collective file to the TDC in May with testimonies from 140 women from across the country. The historic submission details the systemic discrimination committed against veiled women under the laws enacted during Habib Bourguiba’s rule in the 1980’s, which prohibited their access to work and education.

After its independence in 1956 Tunisia was looked at by its neighbors and the world as a country that took solid steps in "liberating women," because they were granted access to education and jobs. However, this policy discriminated against veiled women beginning in the 1980s. Women's headscarves –known as hijabs– were portrayed as retroactive and sectarian symbols by the Tunisian secular state. In 1981, the government issued an administrative ban on hijab in schools and State offices – Circular 108. The policy stiffened under Ben Ali, who came to the presidency by a coup d'état in 1987. Women who wore headscarves were not only expelled from colleges and schools, but also harassed by the police on streets, summoned frequently to the police stations, and excluded from the private sector. After the 2011 revolution, the discriminating order remained in place. In their collective submission, the women of the Network call for its annulment.

Many of these women did not initially recognize their suffering as such: it did not register as an abuse unless physical torture or political incarceration was involved. Yet the seemingly harmless prohibition to cover their heads resulted in the deprivation of their dreams of higher education, jobs, and social respect.

The submission marks the end of the first stage of a long journey, and it is imperative to listen to the women who led the Network to such a historic moment: their stories offer critical insight into the long-lasting effects of the abuses women suffered in the last several decades.

In the weeks to come ICTJ will share more of their stories and the work of the Network through essays and video, examining the personal struggles and strategic work that underpinned women’s fight for recognition and redress in Tunisia.

Khadija (53)

"It was a dream of a poor family, which worked its hardest to provide me with the financial support to study. I was supposed to study and then work and support them to get out of poverty. But God didn't will it, nor did the regime at that time. I refused to give up my hijab to get a job."

My complaint was about the notorious Circular 108 in the 1980’s under the Bourguiba era. In October of '86, we were a group of female students in the Higher School of Agriculture in Kef (a north-western governorate) in our last year of agricultural engineering program. It was Monday, October 2nd. And there was a strong crackdown on hijab at that time. The security forces came to our school and we were interrogated at the director's office. Then, we were moved to the police station in Kef, where we were interrogated again, and forced to sign a commitment not to wear these clothes in the future. We were kept there for more than 10 hours. I could not endure this psychologically. I fell sick and I spent the rest of the day in the regional hospital in Kef. The next day I returned back to my town. I was sick for 20 days until [the school] sent us a telegram that if I didn't get back in 24 hours, we would be expelled.

I returned after one doctor, God bless him, provided me with a certificate confirming that I have hearing problems and that I could not take the veil off my head. So, I returned to studying and I obtained a degree in agricultural engineering in June '88.

Then I began to look for a job, but I could not obtain any position. I was unemployed for 25 years because I was wearing the hijab, and at the time it was associated with certain political ideology. It was a way to destroy our lives: a person studies, succeeds and gets a degree, and then finds herself without a job for years.

It was a dream of a poor family, which worked its hardest to provide me with the financial support to study. I was supposed to study and then work and support them to get out of poverty. But God didn't will it, nor did the regime at that time. I refused to give up my hijab to get a job. I thought even if I give it up, I would not get one. The regime would continue to believe that I belong to a certain political party [regardless of my actual political beliefs].

I went to the police summons without telling my family. I didn't want them to put more pressure on me to take my hijab off. I was already under a huge pressure, because they needed me to work. They were looking to be proud of me as an agronomist. I was relentless, stubborn about my opinion, and I didn't try to take [the hijab] off. I believed it was my right. My sisters took it off when they entered college. I was a warning before them: they didn't want to repeat my experience. One of my sisters told me I was not smart enough to go through. Maybe she is right. Maybe I wasn't smart. I'm not remorseful. I was telling myself it was God testing me.

When I wore the hijab in '79, I didn't face rejection. It started in '81. The hijab might have been a way to challenge the state in the beginning. I won't deny it. When a person feels marginalized and has no right in the society, she finds an outlet to manifest herself, her identity, her existence. And then when you get more mature, you see it from a religious lens.

I submitted my file to the TDC in May 2015. But until now I was not called up for a hearing. I asked that my pension plan considers the past years. I'm not a big supporter of financial compensations. I just want to live in dignity.

Ines (33)

"Even today, when I pass by the college, I feel suffocated. I was deprived of my right. Why? Only because I covered my hair?"

I was 19 when I decided to wear the hijab. I was advanced in high school and graduated with good grades. When they prevented me from entering college, my mother came to me and said, "You can take it off to continue your studies." But she didn't force me to take it off. When I decided to keep it, she accepted my choice. I didn't expect what happened to me. I didn't see all of that happening to me only because of covering my head, to be barred from continuing my education. I did not know about Circular 108. I never understood the problem with covering my hair—until now.

I went to Institut Supérieur de Gestion (ISG) in October 2002 in Sousse. At that time, there were only two other girls covering their heads in the college. In the beginning, there were no problems, but then it started with the celebration of November 7th. The college director decided to begin a crackdown on veiled students. A week after I wore the hijab, many students wore it. And they started to notice that our numbers increased, coinciding with November 7th.

The director decided to prevent us from entering and forced us to take off the hijab even before we arrived to the college. She said, "I want you to take it off while you are at the street. I don't want to see it." The harassment began. I was living in the Ghazala neighborhood, and it was far away from college. It took me at least an hour and a half, and I was leaving house at 6 am. But after that, I left at 5 am to arrive very early, before the guards. We were going early and locking ourselves in the bathrooms and didn’t make a sound.

But then they noticed what we were doing, and the director requested a smith to build a high fence with only one small door. She stationed a woman there whose job was only to take off our hijabs. We had to leave our hijab with her to enter, because some girls would take their hijab off at the gate and put it on later. This made me miss a lot of classes, and thus, I was prevented from taking three exams. Even with missing all these classes, my scores were good.

I did not continue my studies after the first year. I tried to wear a hat over my hijab. I tried different types of hijab just to cover my hair. And the director told me, "No, I want to see your hair." Since I was 12, I was dreaming about ISGS and wanted to become a computer scientist. Some days, I just went and stood in front of the gate, but they didn't let me enter. One day, she saw me, and she pulled me and I fell down on the floor. She was yelling at me: "What backwardness! What a backwardness!" Then she dragged me to her office and asked for my student ID. She was yelling. Still, I went to the college every day, and stood seeing how other students entered but not me. Then, I could not take it anymore. I got depressed and fell sick all the summer. Next year, I asked to take a year off for health reasons. The college doctor agreed, and I filled the paper, but she did not approve it.

Even today, when I pass by the college, I feel suffocated. I was deprived of my right. Why? Only because I covered my hair? I have no political connections. I didn't know about political Islam. I told them so. It's a serious violation, to take away your right to education. 14 years later, and the story still makes me cry. My friends who went to college with me are now professors. In Tunisia, it's very important to go to college, even for girls. Once I was telling my mother in law that my sister is working on her PH.D. and she told me "and you have a high school and a zero!"

Hager (56)

"The officials exceeded their authority. Circular 108 was not a law, and they took away our constitutional rights. Those who did that should stand in front of the transitional justice [bodies] and understand that there are rights that cannot be taken away."

I studied in Al-Zaytoonah University. I was wearing hijab since I was in high school. I wore it in '76 but after 1981 and the notorious Circular 108, officials and some Tunisians expelled us from official institutions and prevented us from continuing our studies, forcing us to take it off.

No one talked to me about it in high school and college; I even got into grad school with the hijab. In Bourguiba's era, circulars were not as strictly enforced as they did under Ben Ali. In Bourguiba's era they went mostly after those who had a political orientation, but under Ben Ali they went after everyone, every woman who wore a hijab.

In that period, I went to a religious scholar and he advised me to take it off to keep my job as a teacher, and told me this was better than staying home. In the end of Bourguiba's era, the director said you can put a hat and continue to teach, so I did that. But later, under Ben Ali's rule, in '91, the director told me that he didn’t allow the hijab in school at all, and told me I was not allowed to cover my head. So, I wore a hat in the winter, and in the summer I went with naked hair. It was a hard period because I only took it off when I was going to teach; once I was out, I put it back on.

I also suffered harassments in the streets. Once, in '91, I was driving and a police officer stopped me, and asked me, "Why are you dressing like this? You know it’s forbidden." And I told him, "I'll take it off." But once I moved away with the car, I put it on again. It was very bad to feel that confined about personal matters.

In 1995, I went to Haj [the pilgrimage to Mecca]. In Tunisia, when a woman goes to Haj, she goes as an elder. So, they don't bother her if she covers her head. But when I came back from Haj, the director said no to me, that I wasn’t allowed to wear the hijab. I did it gradually. First I put a loose one on, the front of my hair was exposed, and the director let me. One day, an official from the ministry came and asked him, "Why do you have teachers who put on sectarian dresses?" And he said, "No, it's not a sectarian dress. These women are old. They went to Haj, so they put on heads headscarves." But at the same time, it meant he became manipulative. We were a big group wearing hijab. If he wanted one of us to take a certain position, he reminds her, saying "Listen, you know these clothes are not allowed, and I keep my mouth shut, so you have to do so and so."

At the Network, I learned about submitting files to the TDC. In the beginning, my husband and I didn’t consider it. Ibtehal Abedlatif, she was studying with me, used to say that every victim of the dictatorship has to submit her or his file to the TDC. I asked her, “Why? We are not seeking compensation for what happened to us, we want God's compensation in the afterlife.” She is the one who convinced me to complete my file. So, first, I submitted my husband's file because he didn't want to do it. He said, "I'm not expecting anything from the state." Then, I submitted my file, as part of a collective file that the association submitted to the commission, as part of our activities in the “Transitional Justice is also for Women” Network.

I was mainly convinced because holding the guilty accountable makes those who want to repeat the violation think that they would not go unpunished. My daughters wear hijabs. In the beginning I was against that. Deep inside, I was afraid they would get into political problems. I didn't want them to experience what I had experienced. But after that, I was convinced. After all, they are free and they were doing a good thing, why should I prevent them? I just wanted them to avoid what happened to me –to be stopped every time on the street and asked to sign that they would not wear something, or to go to a place and have service refused to them.

The officials exceeded their authority. Circular 108 was not a law, and they took away our constitutional rights. Those who did that should stand in front of the transitional justice [bodies] and understand that there are rights that cannot be taken away.

The advantage of transitional justice is that in cases like Circular 108, we don't have the evidence to pursue ordinary justice, we don’t have witnesses. Transitional justice has different mechanisms. I kept encouraging different women to file, because when you have similar testimonies from different people in the same period, they support each other. It tells you that violations were systemic. The most effective way to provide accountability is to not let those people return to their positions.

Najat (47)

"I will be satisfied if the president apologized for all women, to stand and say that the Tunisian state oppressed women. The problem in Tunisia is that until now we are not acknowledged as victims."

At university, I joined the Tunisian General Student Union. I was studying in Sousse (on Tunisia's east coast). The state did not differentiate between union and political activities. We were accused of belonging to a political party, even though we had a license. I was 22 years old and in my second year. [The police] came to take us from university, and I went that day, Monday, to the house after I finished my classes. I found them there waiting for me. I knocked on the door, and they opened the door themselves. They took me to the police station. Two officers were nice, but a third officer hit me badly. They couldn't find my ID and they released me.

The next morning, I went back to them. [I didn't want to leave my friends behind]. I thought I should go to my destiny whatever it was. So, they arrested me and claimed that I had been hiding pamphlets. In the evening, they took us to court. I told the judge, "They didn't find my ID, how could they find pamphlets?" He said, "You can appeal." It was a mock trial. We were sentenced to one year. We went to the women's prison in Sousse. The lawyer succeeded in reducing the sentence to six months. It was a unique experience. We, the students, went down from our ivory tower and encountered the reality. We were law students, but there was a gap between theory and reality.

After that we went out to the real prison: society. We got out of prison on June 5, 1992. Once we were out, they told us we have to go to Sousse's police station. There we were told that we will be subjected to an administrative observation for three years, even though the Tunisian law says it's a supplementary penalty and has to be in the judicial ruling. We had to check in twice a day, but it really was at the discretion of the officer. Some would ask you to come once a day and some would ask for six times a day. We spent six years from '92 to '98 going to the police station. And I was studying. I spent all of my allowance on transportation. The station was 16 km away from the university. I was taking a private cab. I graduated in '98.

The prison was not as rough as it was during the six years of the administrative observation. If you have to come at 9 am and you arrived slightly late, you might have to spend that night in custody. Many nights, they would come to my home at night to check if I was there or not. 9 pm. 1 am. 3 am. It was funny that they often found me sleeping. I was living with my family. Sometimes, I thought of myself as a perpetrator to my family. In the early morning, when they knocked the door, my mother would go outside to open barefoot and she became sick. Many times, my father was humiliated. He was proud of me. I was the only one among my siblings who went to college. I feel I disappointed my father. And my sister remained without marriage. I was a stigma. Some people were afraid to come to our house because we were under surveillance.

When I wanted to visit my family after I got married I had to ask a permission from the police station. Sometimes they accepted and sometimes they refused. I was not allowed to travel to one of my sisters’ wedding.

I was working on cases under another lawyer's name. On the paper I put his name but I worked on the case. I got a meager income. Sometimes, he would get TND 15,000 (USD $7,000) but I would only take TND 360 (USD $140). He was a member of the ruling party. I was living under his shadow. I didn't tell him that I was a political prisoner. No police would dare to attack me while working for him. We both used each other.

I will be satisfied if the president apologized for all women, to stand and say that the Tunisian state oppressed women. The problem in Tunisia is that until now we are not acknowledged as victims.

PHOTO: Members of the "Transitional Justice is Also for Women" Network with Sihem Bensedrine, head of Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission. The Network's submission made history as the first collective file submitted by a group of women to the TDC.