PERPIGNAN, France (TrustLaw) – Tunisian human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui recalls how, at the age of 17, she narrowly missed being shoved under a subway train. This is just one example of the threats and pressures her family faced for their opposition to the country’s then president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted last year in a popular uprising.
During Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, Yahyaoui’s father, one of the North African country’s most distinguished judges, lost his job after sending an open letter to the president decrying corruption and the state of the justice system. Her cousin was arrested for publishing satirical articles about the former leader, and died from the torture he underwent.
Yahyaoui’s experiences left her with no alternative but to fight for democracy and freedom of expression in her country, she explains passionately.
Now 28 and back in Tunis after a spell in France, she is president of Al Bawsala, a non-profit organisation founded in October 2011 by young Tunisian activists, which aims to support the democratisation process and raise public awareness about politics.
Having shifted the focus of her efforts from the blogosphere back to the real world, Yahyaoui and her colleagues are pushing for transparency in the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution, and lobbying for changes to parts they believe undermine rights and democratic freedoms.
Article 28, one of the most controversial sections of the draft text, defines women's role as "complementary to the one of the men in the family". A U.N. expert panel has said it places women on an unequal footing with men, and risks rolling back the gains in women’s rights made in Tunisia over the last five decades.
Yahyaoui spoke to TrustLaw in early September after participating in a debate on the Arab Spring and women’s rights, organised by Elle magazine at the Visa pour l'Image international photojournalism festival in the southern French city of Perpignan.
She explained the reaction among Tunisian women to Article 28, and what they are doing to ensure the constitution enshrines equal rights for both sexes.