© Adriana Vidano

Stories from a Tunisian women’s prison

Tunisia’s 2011 protests upended a decades-long authoritarian rule. People took to the streets as their sense of citizenship morphed from an urban myth into something attainable. They went from getting by however they could, not ruffling any feathers, to exercising an agency no one prepared them for. It’s almost 8 years later now, and people are barely holding on to the optimism that once empowered them and brought them together. In hindsight, narratives of revolutions and social protest seem all the more be totalizing, building on the assumption that the fall of the government is the people’s chance for a clean late. Popular pictures show fists in the air and flying flags—an awakening. The reality is that Tunisians got rid of the regime figureheads while the real oppressor remains in charge: institutions. The stories I will share today are a case in point. Change is slow and painful, and redemption is fantastical.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the women’s section in Harboub, a notorious Tunisian prison and I was able to talk to some of the women there. I left with more questions than answers.


 It was Ramadan, and I had been home for a few months, living with my parents after graduation. I was commuting to my teaching job in a middle school located in a town about one hour from home. The harsh southern summer climate was dry, hot, and depressing which made Ramadan unbearable.

My mother, a member of a local organization for working women, was part of a group who had the idea of holding an iftar for women at the nearby prison. They wanted to live in the spirit of Ramadan, showing compassion by sharing food with the forgotten women of the regional Harboub prison. I had grown up with this prison’s name often used in daily conversation to scare children (‘If you don’t eat your breakfast, they’ll come and take you to Harboub). Or it was used to explain a person’s sudden disappearance, an Alcatraz of sorts (‘They took him to Harboub…’ someone would say solemnly). When I learned about the idea, I was thrilled to help make someone’s day. Perhaps selfishly, I also thought to myself that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to finally get to see the inside of this place.

The next day, we got into a prison minibus which came to pick us up from the organization’s office to the prison. What surprised me at first was how short the bus ride was. The building was standing right at the edge of the city. The outside was basic, fading yellow walls surrounded by a freshly-watered rose garden. We were warmly welcomed inside. I was the youngest of a group of about eight middle aged women whose cheerfulness contrasted sharply with the dreary background. The prison chief was also happy, insisting this was a first. Since the guests were all working women, he was hoping that they would use their networks to help him get the female prisoners jobs, trainings, temporary housing, and so on once they get out. He wanted to help them get their lives back on track, protecting them from exploitation and reducing recidivism rates. By the time they are out, in most cases they had already been disowned by their families for bringing shame on them. So most women leave this place to find themselves with no contacts or resources whatsoever.

Throughout the conversation, I found it curious how he always used the Standard Arabic term نزيلة , which translates to ‘hotel guest’ to refer to the women prisoners. Sadly, this was anything but a hotel.

‘I’m getting married in prison

In that place, there were victims and there were survivors. Some were in tears from the moment we walked in to the moment we left. Some cried while telling their stories yet were first to the dance floor when we blasted music and danced after dinner. Others were unfazed, seemingly in denial. It didn’t matter much how you reacted to your situation, it seems. You were here, and even if you got out, there is not much to look forward to.

Most of the ‘guests’ were allowed to participate in the iftar dinner. They were in for ‘adultery’, ‘prostitution’, theft, perjury, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, etc. All were young or middle aged. Except for one lady who was so old that she had to be put in a wheelchair. She had recently been admitted for involuntary manslaughter. When I first saw the lady I assumed she had been there for decades because of a life sentence. Rumor has it that she killed her adult disabled daughter because she could no longer handle caring for her on her own. Killing your disabled daughter is wrong, caring for her at this age while you’re practically disabled yourself is also wrong.

Fatma was my age. She had a little baby boy in her arms all evening occasionally handing him to other women who welcomed the distraction. She complained about not getting enough diapers and baby formula. She was a single mother surviving her time in prison while awaiting trial, separated from her other two children currently living with her old ailing parents. She says that the most heartbreaking thing through all of this is the meanness of the staff. It’s not just their daily treatment, but that she had tried to keep her imprisonment a secret from her parents but that a staff member knew her family and told on her. Neighbors and family are not forgiving. This is why she had told everyone she was away looking for a job. Once she leaves, she would have to change locations, go somewhere where people won’t point fingers.

Baheeja, for she was cheerful and couldn’t stop making me laugh in between tearful conversations with other women. This was not her first time in prison. She was there for marijuana possession and ‘prostitution’. She insisted that what I was seeing, a drab worn-out jebba, was not her style. She discreetly dragged on her cheap cigarette and told me wild stories about chasing love and adventure across the country. But also spoke of betrayal, of a family who kicked her out at age 16, and of true love and heartbreak. For now, she just really missed her makeup and boots. I imagined how empowered she must have felt, her personality hardly masked now under that godawful jebba.

After that first night, we went back to visit them again. I listened to more stories. I awkwardly tried to ask questions while trying not to fetishize them, so I took whatever they were willing to share.

Some were mentally unstable and confused. This was the case of a young woman I spoke to. She was perhaps 18 or 20 years old . She would beg anyone who would listen to her for a chance to see her baby. Baheeja told me that the girl used to live with her boyfriend and when she got pregnant, he disappeared. To survive, she lived with a family as a domestic worker. They were kind enough to take her in with her baby. But then some day she stole some jewelry from her employer and ran off. Later the same night, she realized that she had forgotten her daughter behind and panicked. So she went to the police to give the jewelry back and ask them to get her her daughter. Baheeja could barely keep a straight face by this point, clearly entertained by the situation. It appears that in this place, you do whatever you could to survive the dull days. Sometimes it means finding diversion in gossiping about other people. Who doesn’t gossip anyway?

The second night we were there, we married a couple. She was heavily pregnant, with the father in the men’s section on the other side of the building. She said that they used to live together, going unnoticed in one of Tunisia’s big cities. However, a guy watched them and guessed that they were unmarried. When her partner was out, he broke into the house and attempted to rape her but her partner came home just in time before it happened. He violently attacked the rapist, badly injuring him. The couple panicked and tied him up while they could figure out what to do next. The man, however, managed to call for help before losing consciousness (and later going into a coma). By the time they were taken to prison, she realized she was pregnant. To avoid having her baby going through the unforgiving state child care system, marrying the father would at least guarantee that baby’s right to its father’s last name. Unfortunately, single mothers continue to face legal and social obstacles that make it impossible for them to live a normal life. But tonight, she could breathe. The prison chief allowed some of her family to attend and they gave her a proper makeover. But the sadness was hard to mask. One of the women gently tried to cheer her up. ‘What is there to be happy about? I’m getting married in prison,’ she replied.

No one is your friend here’

In Tunisia, prison is an ordeal for any person regardless of their gender. But it is more so for women. During my conversations, I learned that the women regularly do the laundry for the whole prison by hand (including the men). One of them showed me her hands and I could see the effect of chemicals visible on her skin. They complained of the extra salty food. They were not wearing uniforms. Instead, they were wearing whatever other prisoners left behind. Some lucky ones weren’t disowned by their families and so were able to get a change of clothes. In terms of power dynamics, the staff cultivates a sense of competition between them, if they like you, you might get your sentence reduced. ‘No one is your friend here’, said Baheeja. Even in such hardship, they cannot sustain any form of solidarity. One of them quipped that the prison does this on purpose, perhaps all of this makes them suffer more, more mental strain and physical pain. Their punishment becomes all the more ‘correcting’.

They are here because of an affair with a married man was revealed either by watchful eyes or a visible pregnancy. They are ‘punished’ because they were under the same roof with a man who was not related to them by blood or by marriage. They are ‘disciplined’ through the sentence and then the punishment continues outside of prison: unforgiving and harsh social stigma, families and friends who disown them, absolutely no resources once they leave, and an obligation to change location to somewhere where no one would recognize them, reducing whatever chances they had of getting a job.

After prison, their limited options become very, very limited. Not simply because they are mostly uneducated and have no diplomas or vocational training certificates but because they are female. When they leave prison, they cannot become silent invisible menial workers, a sort of existence they would envy the men prisoners. They have to bear the burden of their gender. If they are lucky and no one finds out they are ex-inmates, they might get by. Otherwise, they have to rely on the kindness of others. Many find that sex work, already a huge taboo, is the only source of income. As such, any prison sentence is a life sentence.

The names of the women were changed to protect their privacy

© Adriana Vidano