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http://www.magharebia.com/cocoon/awi/xhtml1/en_GB/features/awi/features/2010/11/19/feature-01

 

MUSLIM WOMEN UNITE AGAINST SEXUAL VIOLENCE & HARASSMENT

 

A major grassroots campaign recently called international attention to the underreported issues of sexual harassment and assault against women in Muslim states.

By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Tunis 19/11/10

[Jamel Arfaoui] A Tunis forum was among the "One Day, One Struggle" global campaign events on November 9th.

Scores of women's organisations from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia joined forces for a sensational campaign led by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR).

As part of the "One Day, One Struggle" simultaneous event on Wednesday (November 9th), public demonstrations, film screenings, theatre performances and workshops were held in Bangladesh, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia.

The global initiative aimed at calling attention of Muslim societies to sexual abuse, genital mutilation, honour killings, stoning or lashing of women and the "right to bodily and sexual integrity of all people", the CSBR said.

The day was a declaration of action against "all the reactionary forces that look to control, dispose of and possess women's bodies", Sanaa Benachour, the head of Tunisia's Association for Democratic Women, said at a Tunis forum held to mark the event.

"We want to take some steps to overcome social hypocrisy, cultural oppression and political coercion and enable us to open a serious debate on sexual and physical rights," Benachour added.

Bodily rights include protection from sexual harassment. The issue is of particular concern in Tunisia, the only Maghreb participant in the international campaign.

Harassment and sexual abuse remain the most underreported and inadequately adjudicated of all crimes in Tunisia, lawyer Faouzi ben Mrad told forum attendees.

"The Penal Code needs to be reviewed. It suffers from several drawbacks, especially as the Tunisian legislation does not use the "sexual violence" term but rather talks of rape crimes, public prostitution or obscenity," ben Mrad said.

While the penalty for rape is a life sentence in Tunisia, the country still lags behind Algeria and Morocco when it comes to harassment, ben Mrad argued.

"The victim can't file a complaint to the court directly; she has to file a complaint to the prosecutor of the republic, who decides whether or not it is suitable for referral to a judge. Even when it is, the victim could still be legally prosecuted if the defendant is acquitted," he said.

Tunisian women complain about having to endure frequent violations in the workplace and on the street.

"I suffer from harassment every day, but cannot file a complaint because I can't provide the necessary evidence, which could make me a defendant," said Sarah, a teacher.

Meanwhile, National Committee of Working Women coordinator Najoua Makhlouf provided testimonies from female workers subjected to abuse, saying that "they are from humble origins and need the factory jobs, and they sometimes find themselves forced to give in to their superiors for fear of losing their livelihoods".

Last year, with the assistance of women's rights committees, a female employee of a private hospital dared to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the hospital proprietor. The court granted her justice and a compensation of 80,000 dinars. The owner ended up shutting down his hospital, but the victim decided not to file a civil lawsuit against him.

Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, a lawyer and former president of the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, stressed the need for laws ensuring psychological and social care for women and children victimised by sexual violence.

Hmida talked about a girl who was first seduced by her boyfriend and then sexually assaulted by a group of young men. The court ruled that the rape victim was engaged in prostitution and handed her a prison term.

"We shouldn't stop at punishing the guilty, but aim for a procedure for taking care of victims," Hmida said.