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Before spreading throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the uprisings of the so-called “Arab Spring” started in December 2010 in Tunisia. Subaltern groups were key actors in this new form of popular mobilization that called for human and social rights, living wages and social justice. Workers in Tunisia’s major trade union, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) were central to protests that had occurred long before 2011. At the same time, women of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) posed significant opposition to the regime throughout the nineties and the new millennium in their struggle for gender rights against state feminism, Islamism and rising conservatism.
The democratic transition in Tunisia that began in 2010 culminated on January 14, 2014 with the adoption of a new constitution. Tunisian women have secured relevant achievements through this process. With the approval of several laws increasing women’s political and legal rights, such as Law 58, passed in 2017, which criminalizes violence against women. Despite this, Tunisian women, LGBTQ+ people and youth activists still experience widespread police violence and repression.
In January 2021 — exactly a decade after the mass demonstrations in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which set in motion events leading to the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime — a new wave of protest in Tunisia broke out.
The following interview with Henda Chennaoui explores these new mobilizations. Henda is a leading Tunisian feminist and women rights activist focusing on social struggles, queer activism, civil resistance and economic inequalities.
Tunisians are back on the streets once again. What are the demands of these social movements today?
Everything started with nightly demonstrations at the beginning of January this year. It was the week of the 10th anniversary of the 2010-2011 Revolution and the government had imposed a curfew. Every year in December and January, there are demonstrations to demand social justice, especially in the poor and working class neighborhoods of Tunis.
This year, youths took to the streets side by side with disadvantaged people living in the outskirts. This happened not only in urban poor areas but outside the capital as well.
The demonstrations took place at night and were met with strong repression by the police, especially in disadvantaged areas. Protesting youths were arrested en masse and often subjected to torture in the detention centers. The mainstream media remained completely silent, while the Ministry of Interior accused the demonstrators of being “vandals.”
Thus, this police repression drove many other young Tunisians, civil society activists, informal associations and political movements to come out and offer their support. Spontaneous marches and demonstrations gathered in downtown Tunis to demand freedom for the political prisoners and to raise the visibility of demonstrators in the poorest neighborhoods. On January 14, the “wounded of the Revolution,” those injured during the 2010-2011 Revolution, organized a sit-in in downtown Tunis. They were there in order to demand that after more than ten years, the Tunisian authorities recognize their status. Their demonstration continued until mid-February.
In 2014, the Ministry of Interior put up barricades to prevent people from marching in Avenue Habib Bourghiba, the main avenue where the revolution started in January 14, 2011. Protesters today are determined to break down those barricades.
As usual, these protests were only semi-organized. Attendees included LGBTQ+ activists, feminists, students, unemployed youth and graduates, unionists, young football Ultras, opponents of cannabis criminalization, and others.
The movement does not have a clear political identity; it demands economic reforms, fiscal justice, anti-austerity measures and an end to corruption. There was also a farmers’ demonstration organizing against austerity and the privatization of agriculture.
Are these protests a continuation of the 2010-2011 demonstrations?
Yes, we can say there’s continuity. Like previous movements, the current protesters demand judicial and economic reforms, and more civic freedoms. They also want to protect the achievements of the Revolution, such as freedom of expression and the right to grassroots political organizing.
I have been witness to every single demonstration since January and noticed a continuity in their attitude towards propaganda from both the government and the media. What is new this time, although it is not surprising to me, is the intersectionality of the movement. Slogans about women’s and LGBT+ rights can be heard alongside demands for social justice. This shows the maturity of militancy in Tunisia: a generation united at the grassroots level as well as at the political and militant level, based in working and lower-class areas, is forming a united front voicing the same demands.
How have Tunisian authorities — and the police in particular — responded to the protests?
The police always use the same methods of repression like arbitrary arrests and the terrorizing of entire communities and neighborhoods. We are witnessing the torture of children in detention centers and the violent interrogation of young protesters. At least 1,000 youths have been arrested between mid-January and mid-February. Political trials are used as a tool to terrify their families and communities.
None of Tunisia’s political leaders talks about this violence. No one is condemning these practices or issuing warnings that the perpetrators will be punished according to the laws that criminalize violence during demonstrations. The police have been harassing LGBTQ+, feminist and youth activists who are often leaders in their communities, especially in poor areas. They target them in order to silence potential movement leaders.
This is a dangerous development and a threat to the freedoms that have been won by the Revolution, such as the right to organize and demonstrate. This will only deepen the frustrations of many Tunisians. We live in a severe economic crisis, not only due to the pandemic, but because of years of discrimination and bad management.
What are the new demands that Tunisian feminists advance in the ongoing protests?
Feminists have been at the front line of the recent protests, using political slogans that call for social justice for all Tunisians, denounce corruption and support recognizing the martyrs of the Revolution. Today, organizations such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) alongside subaltern feminist movements are especially focused on economic justice, such as equality between men and women in regard to inheritance legislation.
How have Tunisian health authorities reacted to the pandemic? And how have the pandemic lockdowns affected women in particular?
Over the past year, the Tunisian authorities have failed to develop a clear strategy against COVID-19. There has been no strategy to support the most marginalized throughout the crisis, either medically or economically. Neither do we have any clue about the state’s strategy for a vaccination campaign.
Tunisians are left to fend for themselves; they cannot count on the state for support. Hospitals are underequipped as the state has failed to negotiate with the private sector to support the public sector during this health crisis.
Curfews and states of emergency are used to prevent social movements in the country from organizing against increasing prices and rising unemployment as a result of the pandemic.
The consequences of the pandemic for Tunisian women have been catastrophic, especially at the economic level. Countless women have lost their jobs, their ability to produce goods and their ownership of agricultural lands or estates. Economic vulnerability has always been there for Tunisian women, but it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The number of women who lost their jobs has at least tripled in the last year. But it is impossible to know the real number because of a constant lack of accurate official data on unemployment rates.
But the economic crisis is not only major concern for women. Women’s rights are under great strain at the moment and, in fact, have been so for a long time. Generally speaking, vulnerable women everywhere have been more exposed during this crisis. Women in Tunisia face all kind of discriminations, and violence and they multiplied during last year. They face both physical and economic violence, with the number of women who fall victim to domestic abuse increasing by seven-fold.
During the first lockdown and later on, there were many initiatives of “community solidarity” that were directly managed by women. This happens at the neighborhood level, especially in poor areas of Tunis and its surroundings. There we witnessed solidarity actions, not only among women, but also involving families, children, men, everybody, organized by women or where they are very active, giving solutions to the health crisis through solidarity.
What rights have LGBTQ+ activists achieved after the 2011 Revolution?
The new generation of young LGBTQ+ activists is promoting an intersectional vision. While they are engaged in LGBTQ+ militancy, they are simultaneously involved in many different social and political struggles. It is very different compared to the past.
These new experiences are partly the result of the unstructured nature of the movement. There is no political party behind the movement; rather it has grown out of a tradition built little by little since 2007. In years past, we were not used to seeing LGBTQ+ militants taking part in political demonstrations. But step-by-step the movement has gained experience and now we’ve reached a point where it is the LGBTQ+ movement that legitimizes left-wing political militants such as the Popular Front. It gives a new dimension to the protests in all Arab countries.
This intersectionality is visible in the streets as well as in the way political demands are formulated. The leaders of feminist and LGBTQ+ movements were especially visible during the demonstrations in January and February and, as a result, they have been targeted by police. The case of Rania Amdouni is a particularly telling. Amdouni is a well-known political and LGBTQ+ militant who has been the target of repression and intimidation.
Why is the case of Rania Amdouni so relevant?
Rania is known by the police because she is a queer activist. She takes part in all demonstrations and she was especially visible during the latest protests. Hostility towards her began a year ago. After the death of fellow activist Lina Ben Mhenni, Rania carried her coffin with other women, something forbidden by Islamic law. This raised the ire of conservatives, who started sending her death threats after the funeral.
Rania was also part of a group of young people summoned to court after a demonstration organized in front of the parliament last November. This demonstration was against a draft law, which was first proposed in 2015, that would increase the impunity of security forces. Some MPs, political parties and civil society activists viewed this draft law as anti-constitutional, but it was strongly supported by the police.
The harassment of Rania continued for months. Police encouraged citizens to physically attack Rania and her friends in the streets just because they are homosexual. Rania reported her attackers to the authorities, but so far, she hasn’t received any response. Since last January, we have known quite well that Rania was about to be arrested by the police. She has been repeatedly harassed by the police and detained without any reason — they only ask for her documents, mock her physical appearance and sexuality and threaten her. This situation made her very tired, both psychologically and physically. She was exhausted by this seemingly endless harassment.
On February 27, while reporting these threats and violations at the police station, she was formally accused of “undermining public morality.” During her trial, she had strong support from her comrades, feminists, queers and militants and broader civil society. We were waiting for her acquittal because she did not commit any crime. They tried er under an ambiguous and arbitrary law stemming from the old Ben Ali regime that permitted different interpretations by the judges. To our surprise, she was sentenced to six months in prison.
Rania has been the victim of all kinds of discrimination because she is “different,” because she is an orphan, because of her sexual orientation and because of her poverty. Instead of prison, she deserves a reward for being a good citizen and for actively engaging in civil society.
And her case is not unique: many feminists and LGBTQ+ activists have had their pictures accompanied by death threats shared on social media. They have been randomly arrested, tortured and even had their families have been threatened by police while out in their neighborhoods.
Such severe repression is evidence of the fact that the Ministry of Interior is worried by the intersectionality of these social movements, worried by so much diversity among the demonstrating youths. That is why authorities have responded so aggressively. They are aware that the situation is critical and that, in bringing together so many different groups, this movement has truly historic potential.
Henda Chennaoui is a feminist, independent journalist and a scholar specialized in human rights and social movements. Since 2013 she has been working with Nawaat, an independent collective blog. She is pursuing a research master in Sociology at Ibn Charaf University, Tunis.
Giuseppe Acconcia is an award-winning journalist and lecturer in Geopolitics of the Middle East at the University of Padua. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of London. His research interests focus on social movements, state and transformation in the Middle East, Iranian and Kurdish studies.