Tunisia is one of the few Muslim countries where prostitution has been allowed for decades in state-regulated brothels. However, many of these brothels have been forced to close since the upheavals during the Arab spring. The few remaining houses are controversial; the majority of prostitutes now have to work illegally on the streets. A BBC report tells the story of the country’s last legal sex workers.
BBC reporter Shereen El Feki has traveled the country with her crew and spoken to many women working as prostitutes in Tunisia. Their situation has been getting more and more difficult for years. The main problem is that the state-regulated brothels are becoming fewer and fewer, and nearly all are shut down, says El Feki.
Only a dozen sex workers left in Sfax
She meets Amira, an unmarried woman in her mid-20s who earns her living as a sex worker. She is one of about 12 remaining legal prostitutes who work in Sfax. 10 years ago there were 10 times as many. Besides Sfax, only the capital Tunis still has brothels. All other prostitutes have to work illegally and on their own and are therefore often victims of robbery, rape, abuse and murder. If illegal sex workers get caught, they face up to two years in prison.
In the remaining brothels, the Maisons Closes, the old system continues. A doctor is available, an attendant and hygienic regulations are strictly observed. Since the 40’s of the 20th century the system has functioned well. Since the upheavals of 2010, however, legal sex work has eroded and public opinion has become increasingly hostile.
Fear of getting thrown out of the brothels
Women still working in brothels live in constant fear that the house will be closed or that they will be thrown out. Amira suspects that authorities want the women out of the houses as quickly as possible in order to be able to close them. Drinking alcohol on the room, a fight with a john, small things suffice. »Step by step they are firing women, they fire them for the simplest mistake they do. I am expecting that one day the same thing could happen to me.«
No more protection: Illegality goes hand in hand with violence against sex workers
The team also accompanies and talks to women who have been working illegally for a long time. Nadia is already in her early 40s. Her brothel was closed in 2011 due to violent protests by Salafist extremists. She was injured and couldn’t find a new house where she could have continued working. She has been working illegally for many years, often on the streets.
She says: »It is not the same as when we were in the protected brothel, with a doctor [for weekly medical exams], a female condom and a madam [who kept an eye on proceedings]. Now when I get a client I am scared because I don’t have anyone who can protect me or stand by my side.« She also told the BBC journalists that she once was the victim of a violent customer who raped and beat her and stole her money.
Little hope for change as Tunisia is in the grip of Salafist forces
For Nadia, there is little prospect of improvement. While there are activists for civil rights in Tunisia and there are influential circles at the country’s universities that also want to decriminalize homosexuality and have a progressive mindset. But sex work finds few advocates and defenders among women’s rights activists. Quite the opposite: many support the closures because they regard sex work as slavery or human trafficking.
On top of that, the demand for sex work is shrinking. Salafist interpretations of Islam are gaining the upper hand and fewer and fewer customers dare to go to prostitutes. In order to escape social ostracism, prostitutes and clients seek and find themselves in hidden places that are often unsafe for sex workers.
Sinking prices, high unemployment rates
Prices are in free fall as well. On average, sex workers receive only 6-8 euros per customer. The decriminalization of street prostitution could help. Some progressive voices lobby for it, but in politics, this idea finds few supporters. And this despite the fact that even representatives of the Islamist party Ennahda are aware that there is hardly any way out for women. Finding another job is almost hopeless, as unemployment is high even among well-educated women in Tunisia, twice as high as among men in the country.
In addition to the fundamentally difficult situation on the job market, there is also the stigma of sex work. Afef, a former guardswoman in a now-closed brothel, also thinks so: »Even if [a former sex worker] goes to work in a restaurant to clean dishes, one or two days later, they will say that this woman was working in a brothel and the boss would say: ‘Sorry I cannot hire you.’«
The full report can be found here.