Trust Women 2013: Tunisian women ‘are facing a sort of exam’

Atf Gherissi is Assistant Professor in Health Science Education at the Université de Tunis El Manar and a speaker at this week's Trust Women conference in London. She has been a certified midwife for more than 30 years.

Ebrd.com spoke to Ms Gherissi about the situation of women in Tunisia a few days before her visit to London.

What is the current situation of women in Tunisia?

Women’s situation in Tunisia used to be different. It was better and more secure – we thought it was more secure - than in other Arab states. Now, with the Arab Spring, we are facing a sort of exam, a test to see if the freedoms we used to have and are proud of are secure.

So we have a big movement of women, mainly through civil society, who are fighting here and raising their voices

What freedoms do you mean?

1956 saw the enactment of Tunisia’s Personal Regulation (Code of Personnel Status). It forbade polygamy and the repudiation of wives by their husbands and set compulsory schooling for children of both genders from age 6. Family planning and contraception were permitted and provided for free. Abortion was legalised in 1965 for women having 4 children. In 1973, this condition was removed but always within the first 3 months of amenorrhea. These were freedoms because they freed and protected women from abuse and emancipated them.

Are these freedoms now under threat?

They are being tested. It is obvious that the fundamentalists do not agree with them. They have said it publicly. It is certainly and obviously up to women - but not exclusively - to fight for them. And this is what is currently happening in Tunisia.

What can people in Western countries do to help women in Tunisia?

First of all, they must understand the context in which we are living, they need to explore and listen to what is going on. The Western countries, the richest ones, are donors to governments so they can put pressure on governments to block negative changes in our countries.

And what can the EBRD do?

The EBRD, as a bank, can understand and support civil society and maybe also impose conditions on its loans. And it can go to sensitive areas and those sensitive areas are the rural ones, where now we see that children are being taken out of school. What your bank can do is support those women in rural areas because they are tempted by fundamentalist associations who give them money and offer them social support. Fundamentalists have succeeded in Tunisia because they have gone to the grassroots in poor areas.

At the Trust Women conference you are speaking on a panel discussing ‘the unintended consequences of family planning and health policy’. What are those ‘unintended consequences’?

I started out as a midwife and I am now an Assistant Professor and teach research methodology to paramedic students and teachers, including midwives. It now appears that women are becoming more reluctant to use family planning. They want to have more children because of the speeches they hear from religious advocates coming from overseas and conducting proselytism to the Tunisian people. A recent thesis conducted by a midwifery student highlighted that midwives devote a lot of time to women asking for abortions. They used to provide the service and now, since even before the Revolution, they have begun to push women to say ‘no’ to abortion. This is the influence of preachers on foreign TV stations.

We need to educate our students, making them aware of what is happening and making them aware of professional ethical principles and practices. We need to make a distinction between our beliefs as Muslims, Christians or Jews and our professional duties as midwives. I used to say that if a service is really against your beliefs, you have the right not to perform the service yourself. But you also have the duty to refer the patient to another professional.

What one thing could you do would do most to boost women’s situation in Tunisia?

What I am doing now: working with my students to cultivate the self-confidence they don’t have, the self-esteem they don’t have and also to question rather than passively accept what they are told.