Telling Women's Stories of Repression in Tunisia


This story of change is the final in a five-part series exploring the role of transitional justice in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 16 on peace, justice, and inclusion and related goals on gender and inequality. For more information on our work to advance SDG 16 and related goals, see the recommendations of the Working Group on Transitional Justice and SDG 16+.  Read the other stories in the series: 

During the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, Najet Gabsi, an educator pursuing a diploma in law, was forced to complete her exams in secrecy. The regime was surveilling her while she pursued her studies, due to her extracurricular political activities. Eventually, Najet was imprisoned for six months.

Sometime later, her husband was also imprisoned. And for years after their release, the police routinely raided her home. “Police would use extremely sophisticated ways to repress us that had an impact on even the most intimate aspects of our lives,” said Najet. “They know how to hurt with little things.”

In 2011, Najet joined a civil society organization that partnered with an Egyptian writer to collect and publish stories of women who were imprisoned during the former regime. As a result of that work, ICTJ and the University of Birmingham approached her in 2017 to be a part of the women’s collective at the center of Voices of Memory, an interactive art exhibition and the first collective testimonial of Tunisian women who suffered at the hands of the Ben Ali regime. Over the course of the project’s development, members of the collective learned about different ways to share their stories, either as victims of injustice or as direct witnesses to it.

​Women are the first rank for sacrifice and the last rank for recognition. It is important to unveil the repression against women, because it is the only way to overcome the stigmas of the past.— Najet Gabsi

As a form of memorialization, Voices of Memory has promoted dialogue in Tunisia about the universality of women's unspoken experiences of repression. The women chose as the central motif for the exhibition the “Koffa,” the traditional Tunisian basket prepared with love to bring unwritten messages and food to political prisoners. The Koffa was often arbitrarily denied to prisoners, and for these women it has come to represent a protest against forced separation.

The exhibition, which toured four Tunisian cities, featured participatory artwork by local and international artists that sought to engage a wide cross-section of visitors; the largest group represented were women under 35 years old. As an extension of the project, podcasts were aired on six different local radio stations, reaching a total of about 670,000 listeners throughout Tunisia.

For Najet, Voices of Memory brought her back to her days of university activism, while helping her to articulate the harms she endured during the dictatorship. It also gave her the unique opportunity to collaborate with women victims from across social, political, and sectarian divides to develop a common framework for social justice. Finally, her participation in the project also revealed an inner aptitude for leadership. 

Other participants said that the project’s recognition of women’s experiences of Ben Ali-era oppression — rarely acknowledged even by Tunisian women themselves — had reinforced their belief in the power of their stories to bring about change. And for women victims across Tunisia, still waiting for a national reparations process to be designed and implemented, Voices of Memory has served as an urgent call to action and a form of symbolic reparation.

PHOTO: Najet Gabsi speaks at "Writing the Unvoiced," a workshop hosted by ICTJ and the University of Birmingham in January 2017. (ICTJ)