Systeme Degage? Women and Transitional Justice in the Wake of the Arab Spring

Article excerpt

I am currently working on a research project about people of Muslim heritage challenging fundamentalism. (1) As part of that research, I traveled to Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia in the last year to interview human rights activists. One of my goals is to bring voices from the region into our debates here, especially the voices of women's human rights defenders, who are too often left out. I will draw from my ongoing research today to explore some issues related to women and transitional justice in what we call the Arab Spring, particularly focusing on North Africa.

My basic argument is that in the wake of the revolutions of 2011, we have to broaden and re-imagine transitional justice in order to ensure that it advances women's human rights in the region. At the risk of stating the obvious, the notion of transitional justice presumes transition, and it presumes justice. Neither of these conditions should be assumed, and certainly not when it comes to the status of women. Moreover, a rigorous analysis of transitional justice requires that it apply across time--looking back at the past, looking at the period during a transition, and, as the system moves forward, looking toward a time which will offer greater human rights protection, including protection of women's rights.

There are multiple ways to bring a gender perspective to bear on transitional justice, to address what Fionnuala Ni Aolain has called "gendered under-enforcement in the transitional justice context." (2) The first and most straightforward is to make sure that women whose rights were violated by former regimes have full access to justice, including with regard to gender-based violence. (3) This genders the traditional vision of transitional justice. Such a project is critical in North Africa. Women were raped in large numbers in Libya during the revolution, (4) and tortured in the jails of Ben Ali (5) and Mubarak. (6)

Many North African women are leaders in the calls for accountability with regard to abuses committed by regimes ousted in the "Arab Spring." I think of Tunisian human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui who faced ongoing harassment under Ben Ali. She told me, "We cannot build a new society while torturers are enjoying their freedom."

A second way of bringing gender to bear on the transitional justice discussion is to think more broadly about what the transition is doing for social justice and full equality, including for women. (6) This approach remakes what we mean by transitional justice from a gender-sensitive perspective. Both ways of gendering transitional justice are important, but this second one is considerably more ambitious, perhaps in keeping with the first phase of the Arab Spring itself when North African protestors demanded systemic change in Arabic and French: Ashaab yourid isqat al nitham--the people want to bring down the system, or Systeme degage ("System out!").

In fact, the two versions of gendered transitional justice are complimentary. At a conference organized in Cairo by the International Center for Transitional Justice last fall, former member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Yasmin Sooka said that "[i]f transition does not address violence against women, the violence against them increases and reinforces their marginalization." (8) I was especially struck by the temporal aspect of her comments. She said, "When you hear 'liberation first, equality after!' you can rest assured that equality will never come." (9)

As we try to merge liberation and equality--to think more broadly of what gendered transitional justice should mean in the current North African context--we have to deal with many paradoxes. Let me set out a few. The first concerns the limits of transitions, and the risks of regression. Samir Dilou of the now-ruling Tunisian fundamentalist party Ennahda personifies these. Mr. Dilou is the human rights minister in the transitional government ushered in by the Tunisian revolution. …