A World Redrawn: Re-think gender roles, says Tunisian feminist Bochra Belhaj Hmida


Tunis (AFP)

During Tunisia's coronavirus lockdown, feminist activist and former lawmaker Bochra Belhaj Hmida has been worrying about family violence, rethinking gender roles -- and crocheting.

Tunisia's lockdown, which has seen men and women confined to the domestic space together, offers a chance to rethink gender roles in a traditionally patriarchal society, Hmida told AFP in an interview.

"It's a subject that we don't talk about, and we can't have real change if we don't explore these questions in depth," she said.

Now is the time for people to reflect and speak out about family relations and domestic violence, she said, stressing that "we cannot continue like this".

Tunisia is seen as a forerunner for women's rights in the Arab world and Hmida -- who helped found the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women in 1989 -- a pioneer.

The North African country, birthplace of the Arab Spring protests that ousted several autocratic rulers, adopted a new constitution in 2014 which guarantees equality between men and women.

Hmida, a lawyer who was elected to parliament in 2014, chaired the commission charged with integrating into law the values of freedom and equality that characterised the 2011 uprising.

She has since stepped back from politics but maintains her concern for Tunisian society, where around half of women say they have been subject to at least one form of violence in their lives.

During the lockdown, Hmida has had the chance to re-engage with traditional home life, but on her own terms.

"In the morning, I start with the gardening. And I've discovered I still know how to crochet," she said.

"It's not very feminist of me but I've realised it's a pleasure and not an obligation. Today men are sewing and cooking, we can't have complexes about these things. If it's done for pleasure, it's a luxury."

- Opportunity for change -

The lockdown has made Tunisia's youth more open to challenging gender norms, Hmida said, with young people the most receptive to taking up housework normally assigned to the other gender.

"The question is whether this will continue and become normal or whether it is just temporary," she said.

Unfortunately the confinement has also produced a fivefold increase in emergency calls for gender-based violence compared to the same period last year.

"Men already had an issue with women accessing the public space, but now they are forced to remain in a space typically reserved for women, many men are struggling to accept it," Hmida said.

The positive aspect is that more women have started speaking out, either online or via local organisations, she said.

"They are more aware regarding violence", said the retired lawyer, who once faced controversy defending a woman raped by policemen in a highly politicised trial.

But there has yet to be a fundamental reckoning with Tunisia's traditional gender roles and male-dominant power dynamics in families, she said.

- 'Citizens must take charge' -

Making any kind of fundamental change to Tunisia's social structure would require clear political will, Hmida said.

But she does not see any such efforts by the state, whether on the social, financial or cultural level.

"I am shocked that in Tunisia or elsewhere, violence against women would be an issue to be relegated to the minister of women," she said.

"All sectors need to be involved to the highest level of government."

Journalists must question ministers on whether they have done anything proactive to combat gender-based violence, Hmida said.

Views on the role of men and women in the family are an area where progressives like Hmida diverge widely from Islamists. But many others are not yet ready for change, she said.

"We lack the collective will to redefine the family and review our priorities," she said.

Foremost among these must be healthcare, she said, which has been stretched thin by years of mismanagement and privatisation.

Environmental issues are also absent from public discourse in Tunisia, she said, while inequality is also neglected.

"Citizens must take charge" and lead the debate, she said.