In the 1990s, Ahlem Behladj learned to brave being hassled each day by the police officers that hung around outside the women’s shelter in downtown Tunis. This was during the 23-year-long dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the dilapidated building was a rare protected space for battered women—and the place where a 19-year-old Behladj and her fellow activists gathered to fight for a law on violence against women.
It was a fight that would take decades. But on July 26, 2017, Behladj was moved to tears as she watched from the public gallery in parliament as lawmakers passed legislation aimed at eliminating violence against women. The law is far-reaching: Among its many stipulations it forbids physical, economic and psychological abuse against women and outlaws harassment in public. It also scrapped a loophole that allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.
In a country where 53 percent of women have experienced violence of some kind—significantly higher than the estimated global rate of 35 percent—the law was a huge win for activists. “On paper, I think it’s the best law in the region and probably one of the best in the world,” says Amna Guellali, senior Tunisia and Algeria researcher at Human Rights Watch.