SFAX, Tunisia — Nada Elwikil was still in high school when she was taken to Interrogation Room 27 for the first time.
Security services ordered her to take off her clothes and headscarf. When she refused, they stripped her naked. Then, in between interrogation sessions, they pushed her head in a toilet filled with excrement.
“Everything in the room became an instrument of torture,” she recalled in an interview, demonstrating the shoving motion with her right arm. “The table, the chair, the belt. Even the bathroom became part of the routine.”
More than five years after Tunisia’s authoritarian leadership was overthrown in the Arab Spring revolution, a still-
tormented country is revisiting its brutal past in hopes of healing.
Since last month, Tunisians have been riveted by heart-wrenching testimony as witness after witness appears before a Truth and Dignity Commission. The rare public airing of abuses committed during nearly six decades of authoritarian rule is being broadcast nationally on television and radio, and shared on social media.
Thousands of victims like Elwikil have submitted cases that have yet to be heard.
“I was young and had dreams. I wanted to excel at school and have a career,” Elwikil said in an interview, wincing and covering her eyes. “They crushed me.”
When the testimony resumes Friday, it promises to be particularly poignant. Six years ago, almost to the day, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire after he was harassed by local officials, an incident that became a catalyst for the populist revolt and the wider Arab Spring.
But in the turbulent aftermath of the wave of uprisings, many international observers say the hearings are vital not only for Tunisia but also for the region.
“The hearings send a message that after years of dictatorship and abuse, it is still possible to speak in peace about torture and avoid acts of vengeance,” said Salwa El Gantri, the head of the Tunisia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. “Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen had revolutions, but they were unable to avoid violence or winner’s justice.”
Little was known domestically or internationally about Tunisia’s autocratic regime — first under President Habib Bourguiba and then his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — which was keen to market the country as a tourist destination. Even after Ben Ali fled into exile during the revolution, and through the years of political change and democratic elections since then, the extent of the state-sponsored abuse remained invisible to the public eye.
When the Truth and Dignity Commission was launched two years ago with a broad mandate to look into past atrocities, politicians and the news media grumbled about its cost and few results. Still, the commission received 65,000 complaints of abuse and has investigated about 10,000 of them, some dating to 1955. The body has not been permitted to accept more cases since a deadline that passed in June.
In November, the silence was finally broken.
The hearings, held in an octagonal room of a spa formerly owned by the ousted president’s wife, at times seemed almost unbearable for the audience. Tears streamed down the faces of senior politicians, as well as members of the public, as they heard the unfiltered personal accounts of torture and loss.
“The hearings were like an earthquake,” said Ibtihal Abdellatif, the commissioner in charge of female victims. “It created a human connection among Tunisian citizens.”
It was particularly challenging to get women to come forward. Only 23 percent of the complaints submitted to the commission were from women.
Many women, Abdellatif recalled, came to submit complaints on behalf of their husbands, even though “women often suffered as much if not more than men.”
She added that “after years of being mocked and shunned by their families and society, especially in more conservative parts of Tunisia,” women were afraid of being “judged by those around them” if they confronted the “perpetrators and institutions that abused them.”
Still, the testimony of the women who did come forward revealed how the state stigmatized and ostracized women by threatening them with rape, preventing them from getting married or forcing husbands to divorce their wives. Their statements also undermined the carefully crafted image of Tunisia as a regional beacon of women’s rights.
At a community center in this town, Elwikil and three other women silently cried as they spoke about their experiences as prisoners during the Ben Ali regime. One by one, they described being forced to eat rotten food and undergo virginity tests, and told how their water supply was stopped during prayer times to prevent them from performing the ritual cleansing before Islamic prayer.
The women said they think that the Tunisian state pursued and punished them for dressing conservatively and wearing headscarves while they were students in the early 1990s.
Islam is Tunisia’s official religion, but in 1981 women were banned from wearing headscarves in public buildings. Such conservative dress was portrayed at the time as a symbol of backwardness and sectarianism by the secular state. The law is still in place but has been widely ignored since the 2011 revolution.
In the decades that followed the ban, Tunisian women who wore headscarves were “harassed by police on the streets, summoned frequently to police stations, and excluded from the private sector,” according to research by the International Center for Transitional Justice.
For years, some women said, local authorities put the most mundane aspects of daily life out of reach — whether it was obtaining a driver’s license or having their house connected to running water and a communal sewage system.
Now in their 40s, the women have submitted their cases to the commission.
Najet Gabsi, a former prisoner, was a law student who once aspired to become a judge. Today, she still feels the pain of not being able to fulfill her parents’ expectations.
“My father used to say that I was the hope of his life. But in the end I became a source of shame,” she said. “I was a victim, but I also felt like I became the torturer of my family.”
Eyes filled with tears, she recounted how her imprisonment prevented her sister from getting married and her brother from finding work.
“Throughout my life, I saw the look of blame in my father’s eyes till he died,” Gabsi said.
But more than empathy, the women say they need to see their politicians pursue real changes that will prevent a recurrence.
“I tell my daughter that I want her to excel and fly, even if I was prevented from flying myself,” Elwikil said. “Even though they crushed me, my children will do better.”