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Tunisia's sex workers want their brothels back

The crackdown on legal brothels in Tunisia puts its sex workers at risk of further harm.
A Tunisian prostitute works in a brothel in the district of Abdallah Guech in Tunis on Feb. 19, 2011.

SFAX, Tunisia — Sirine stared over the table, the look in her eyes as convincing as her words. "I have no plans for the future but suicide," she said. "Without the brothel, there's nothing else."

Until last year, Sirine, like others, was employed as a sex worker in partnership with Tunisia's state. That is, while Sirine and her employer were responsible for their day-to-day dealings, the state and the police controlled prices, provided protection for the house and ensured a minimum of health care was provided. Now she finds herself out on the street and forced to run the gauntlet of predatory police and criminals as she practices the only trade she's ever known.

Private prostitution in itself has long been illegal in Tunisia. Anyone convicted of carrying out the practice is liable for a jail sentence of anywhere between six months and two years. However, until recently, sex work practiced in houses controlled by Tunisia's police remained legal. 

There are similarly blurry arrangements in neighboring Algeria where sex work is legal but solicitation and brothel keeping are not. The regulation of sex workers dates back to the days of Ottoman and then French colonial rule. For the French, the main concern was apparently to shield lustful citizens from sexually transmitted diseases.

In Morocco, prostitution is proscribed but widely practiced with children forced into the trade, making it a top destination for so-called “sex tourism.”

In modern Turkey, where an Islamist government has been in power for the past two decades, some 61 state-sanctioned brothels operate in the heart of its largest city, Istanbul, and elsewhere across Anatolia. In Izmir, the country’s third largest city, the brothels are a three-minute walk from the local mosque.

However, in Tunisia, since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, those houses have all but diminished, with the last two — those in the capital and that in the industrial city of Sfax where Sirine worked — shuttered along with the rest of the economy during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as shops, hotels and factories reopened, the brothels remained closed.

Coronavirus and an opportunistic seizure of trafficking legislation, it seems, finally accomplished a task that had proven beyond the reach of successive governments and a police force that openly discussed its efforts to discourage the state's involvement in the trade.  

In 2011, it's estimated that around 300 sex workers were operating under the state's auspices. However, with the post-revolutionary surge in Islamists in both society and government, attacks on Tunisia's networks of brothels became widespread, with women who had come to rely upon the state for income left without protection and nowhere to work. 

President Kais Saied, a moralistic autocrat who is openly homophobic, has yet to pronounce himself on the matter. Views among the country’s Islamists, who were booted from power when Saied sacked the government and then dissolved parliament in a succession of power grabs, vary.

Ahmed Gaaloul, a senior figure in Ennahda, said he is opposed to prostitution but favors a phased approach. “Prostitutes are vulnerable members of society and prostitution is a type of slavery,” Gaaloul said.

“Our main duty is to save those who are subjected to this injustice by supporting them financially and socially so they don’t need to get involved in this business. In the meantime, though, the state must regulate this activity so that it can help free those trapped in it,” he told Al-Monitor.

El Karama, or the Dignity Coalition, a hardcore Islamist grouping that broke away from Ennahda for not being Islamist enough, wants prostitution to be banned immediately and for those who practice it to be penalized.

Many sex workers have no choice but to eke out a living in Tunisia's parks and hotel bars. Some sleep rough, as often as not in the same parks where they work. Arrests are growing, with five former state-licensed sex workers jailed only six months ago.

"My friend recently met a man who said he was going to take her home," one of the women, Hanen, 35, told a translator. "She went, expecting one, but met five. They all raped and then beat her," she shrugged, resigned. "It happens all the time."

Their woes are compounded by the broader economic meltdown that has left millions of ordinary Tunisians jobless and struggling to feed their families. A $1.9 billion dollar loan deal struck with the International Monetary Fund that was announced Oct. 15 is set to provide some relief. But Tunisia’s sex workers are unlikely to feel it.

Hanen, along with two other sex workers, Jihene, 42, and Sirene, 47, gathered in Sfax earlier this year to give their testimony, the well-ordered corridors of the modern building at odds with their descriptions of the chaos that had defined their lives since the government closed the houses.

The state brothel gave them protection, Hanen said. Now they have nothing. They can't even sleep safely.

"I preferred getting my share of the 10.5 Tunisian dinars ($3.21) per client over the 30 dinars ($9.16) I might get working for myself," she told a translator.

A state-regulated sex worker could earn anywhere up to 200 dinars ($61) a day from regular work, including bonuses for unspecified "additional services." This money would then be divided broadly between the worker and the house. While the house would provide medical checkups and police protection, the individual women would pay for the rent, cleaning and utilities.

Few of the women in Sfax were keen to talk about their experiences before they entered the government scheme. "I started working for the state at age 20," the minimum age for such employment, Jihen explained, "though I'd begun before," she said, without specifying when.  

Despite requests to meet with the Bureau des Mœurs (Vice Department), Tunisia's police have yet to respond. Reporters from news site Inkyfada had more luck when they tried in 2018. There, they encountered a massive bureaucracy at the center of government dedicated to both regulating and reducing the state's involvement in the sex trade. For every sex worker, there was a file covering every aspect of their trade from their first application to work in a state-regulated brothel to the regular health checks all the women were obliged to undergo as part of their work.

Looking through the material, it is hard to dispel the impression that, above all else, it offered the women security and order. "Most of the women are from interior towns," Bouthayna Aouissaoui, who runs an association supporting the women, said, referring to the marginalized towns that litter Tunisia's hinterland. "They are often beaten or raped, sometimes by family members. Now they send money back; it's the only way they know to get affection. They know their value in society is measured by money. Even with their families, they try to buy their love and affection through the money they get from selling their bodies," she tells a translator.

Nevertheless, conditions within the brothels were demanding. Sex workers ate and slept in the house. Every Friday, a holy day, the houses were closed. All the same, the workers still had to apply to the Bureau des Moeurs for a 24-hour pass to socialize or spend time with the children raised elsewhere, distant from the brothel and the stigma of their mother's profession.  

Despite this, both the women and Bouthayna have campaigned to have the brothels, ostensibly closed under the auspices of anti-trafficking laws, reopened. Their case is simple: The women need the security.

Last year, at the government's request, the women gathered in Tunis to read and sign an undertaking promising to halt their sex work. In return, they received what they thought would be the first of a series of payments of 200 Tunisian dinars.

Most of Tunisia's sex workers are illiterate. No further payment was made.

With state care withdrawn, many of Tunisia's sex workers now rely on associations such as Bouthayna's to safeguard their health and welfare. The outcome has been predictable. "Rapes and attacks against women have increased since the brothels' closure," Bouthayna said. 

Moreover, denied access to healthcare and medical facilities, many of Tunisia's former state sponsored sex workers have since fallen victim to the same viruses that plague all sex workers across the country. 

The meeting drew to an end. Few appeared in any rush. All wanted to know if there would be a meeting with the police's Vice Department as part of the story. All hoped to make their case. Phone calls were made. Letters were delivered. No call was returned. 

The Ministry of Interior had not responded to Al-Monitor’s request for comment as of the time of publication of this article.

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