Hossiba Hadj Saharaoui – Middle East responsable for Amnesty International (Oct 2nd 2012)

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui

Hossiba Hadj Saharaoui was born in Algeria; she lived the consequences of the Algerian Civil War in the ‘90s. She witnessed the brutal actions of armed forces and groups: harassment and violation of women and the barberries committed against the human beings. According to her words, the Amnesty International (AI) was the only humanitarian NGO on field that was giving relief and help to the people and to the families of the victims.

During the conference at the Press Syndicate in Cairo last October 2nd, she never gets tired to claim that AI will never give up in monitoring the Egyptian situation of human rights violations and in fighting for the prosecution of the guilty officers responsible for the tortures and abuses committed by the police in the aftermath of Mubarak resignation. As she says: “… Egypt was able to vote for the first time; the amount of hope that the uprisings have brought is remarkable, the only problem is that people has been disappointed. Yes, we want to be hopeful … we continue to engage with the authority but we also continue to say when violations are happening”

“As AI is monitoring the Constitutional works in Tunisia, how are they proceeding? How do you consider the introduction of the rule that will establish the “right balance” of women’s role, between their jobs and their home duties (in respect of the Sharia)?”

“I think, as International Organization, the framework that we use in our work is Tunisian international obligations and Tunisian human rights (HRs) obligations, because the authorities claim that these are Western values, but we (the AI personnel working in Cairo) all come from the region, and this is not a Western organization, and the matter is not about values, but the international obligations, that Tunisia has excepted. The Human Rights Treaty tells a number of things, also that when drafting a new Constitution, the constituencies will try to uphold these HRs obligations. We see very much a role of showing the documents of public domain that are reminding the drafters the international framework that is binding them …”

“What is in the current the situation of Tunisia?”

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui

“Very early, immediately after the elections for the Constituent Assembly (CA) in Tunisia, AI started campaigning for HRs to be included in the Constitution. First at all, we started very basic things. There were some receptive members of the CA who facilitated our task, but the questions is: “Once you agree on HRs should be included, what does it mean concretely?”. We have meetings with all members of the CA, with the commission of Rights and Freedom that is setting out all Tunisian obligations, and setting out the extent of the problem, because the people who are drafting the Constitution have a unique opportunity: drafting a Constitution is not just reflecting the political games of a given time. This is about protecting Tunisians and Egyptians for future abuse. A Constitution protects the majority and the minority of the population, because you never know who is going to be which one. You need to go beyond these political arrangements that might be overshadowing Parliament on the daily bases. The drafting of the Constitution is really who’s going to mark the history of the country for decades”

“How do you see the further works to implement women rights into the Constitution?”

“It is a problem, either in Tunisia than in Egypt, because what we see, in Tunisia at least, is a certain understanding of international obligations of the country, certain understanding of the importance of guarantying gender equality. But you see that, in one hand you might have a provision to guaranty gender equality, and then few provisions later, you have another provision that describe the role of the woman within the family. Therefore, usage of ambiguous language is likely to be interpreted in different way …”

“How could this norm, or interpreting of the norm toward a Sharia meaning, be risky? And thereby, how will this norm affect the women’s rights?”

“I mean, what is important for the Constitution is to guaranty equality, once is guaranteed everybody is free to choose how he/she wants to live in the private sphere. The Constitution is not here to dictate what is an acceptable organization of the family or what is it not, this is a private matter. The Constitution is to guaranty that all Tunisians are equal citizens and are not discriminated by the law”

“Do you think that the Tunisian experience is very important for the influence that might have for the others Arab countries such Egypt or Libya?”

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui alla conferenza tenuta a Il Cairo iil 2 ottobre 2012 presso il Sindacato dei Giornalisti
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui at the conference held at the Press Syndacate in Cairo (Octuber 2nd 2012)

“Indeed, everybody is looking to Tunisia to think if Tunisia does not work what is going to happen elsewhere? This is really setting the standard as well, because that’s an example for the region; when Tunisia ratified the role status for the International Criminal Court, that was really significant because the meaning was beyond Tunisia. It was significant for the all region. As well as when Egypt adjudged Mubarak, the significant and the reason of the trial were beyond Egypt. So, everybody is looking at each other in the region. The contention point, mainly is on the articulation of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and unfortunately, there is a movie (Innocence of Muslim) and the reaction of the Muslim public to that movie have reminded all of us the fact that we do not have the same understanding of freedom of expression and freedom of religion. In Tunisia, one of the contention point is the protection of sacred values, what does it mean? Is it a limitation of freedom of expression? In some of the debates ran in Tunisia, we are seeing already in Egypt, we also see some of the leaders, the Egyptian leaders in particularly, are calling for the formation of a religion international protection, this is also worrying entreat”

“What is the reaction of Tunisian and Egyptian women to the discussions on the new Constitution with special regard of their role into society and into the family? And what is your personal opinion?”

“We need to accept that is not monolithic theme, Tunisian and Egyptian women might have very different views on what family means, the relationship they would have in the family etc … But women groups have been quite vocal in saying the bottom line, and there will be nothing below it in the Constitution: is gender equality, and we fully agree with that of course, this is not negotiable. Men and women should be equal, in law and in practice. The most important thing is to ensure this equality in law. However we do see that even in Tunisia we don’t have full equality, because the Medias have been praising Tunisian women and the enhancement of women rights, but yet, when it comes to inheritance or child custody women are not equal to men. But women have kept much mobilized. They have been in front of National Constitutional Assembly regularly to express solidarity to the unfortunately and sad case of young Tunisian woman who was raped by two police officers (and then she ended up to be in front of the judge, having to respond of charges of dissent behaviour). So, authority should not be under impression that if they intend to scarify women rights that is going to be easy. But I also think that in their approach, both in Tunisia and in Egypt, they do not want a single woman right as an issue, the fight for human rights comes as a package, women rights are part of that, you cannot choose between the rights. However, we continue to see a sort of ambiguity when it comes to gender equality; the authorities and the parties need to clarify what is their position. Human rights are not there to be sold out in order to secure any sort of political deal”

“What are the female associations in Tunisia, how do they move into society? How do they sponsor the women rights into the country?”

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui

“I give you an example. During Ben Ali you could hardly buy the Tunisia press, because there was not any independent journal to read at that time. Now you see it is very rich, there are a lot of debates, and that’s really important because the free press is a guaranty against the abuse of human rights. What we see as well is the attempt to cut freedom of expression, like the incident with the movie Persepolis (France, 2007) that was shown on TV, and people complaining that such film hurts the religion feelings. In my view, nothing is forcing you to watch this film, if you don’t want to watch it, you can switch off your TV. I think we are sometimes looking at this articulation of freedom of expression and freedom of religion on the wrong angle: whose rights have been violated? If you say you are going to be offended by something whether you have a right to be offended, that’s really different thing. Freedom of religion is about everybody’s right to have the religion believes and to be able to express them. It is not about the right not to be offended by somebody else’s views. In that sense we can’t use freedom of religion to trap freedom of expression, the only case is when you insult authorities, that’s very high threshold. You can’t just say “I am offended then this movie or book should be banned””

“Is a matter of developing a different and more open culture into the country?”

“When Amnesty is campaigning of the case of two young Tunisians who have been arrested for saying they are atheists, because this is not an acceptable situation. You might live in a Muslim country, but people should be able to have their views, and you can’t impose by the fact that you live in a Muslim majority country and then people should comply with that kind of thinking, with that kind of religion. No one should be in jail for expressing his/her views”

“Do you think the Tunisians might succeed in imposing human rights in the country?”

“It is going to be a challenge. I think the next challenge is going to be the battle for freedom of expression”


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