Tunisia – Legal Sex Workers

Huda Khan

Brothels have existed in Tunisia for decades, although they’re still legal, women’s rights activists and religious conservatives have closed down almost all of them. Amira, a 25-year-old single mother, is one of the few legal sex workers left in the Arab Region. “I wake up at seven in the morning. I wash my face, I do my make-up. I go into the hall, I drink my coffee, and I wait to start our job,” she says. 

Tunisia has two types of prostitution. The first is government registered “maisons closes” or brothels, where the sex workers are authorized to ply their trade. The second is illegal sex work, where people involved can face up to two years in prison. 

Before 2010, there was about 300 legal sex workers in about a dozen brothels in Tunisia. Now, there are only two cities, Tunis and Sfax, that have only a handful of legal brothels. When Amira first started working there were 120 legal sex workers, now she’s one of the dozen left. According to BBS news, “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,” she said. Fighting with a client, or drinking in their rooms are examples of reasons they are using to fire people. Amira is worried about getting fired and having so source of income. She says that doing this work helps pay her rent, and make a living for her children.

Nadia who is in her 40s, had been working in legal brothels when she ended up in Gafsa where violent protests led to the closure of Nadia’s workplace. Legal brothels started shutting down across the country, leading to her being left with no job. In one of the attacks to the brothels Nadia was injured, and once she recovered she had to turn to illegal sex work. The street-based sex work was dangerous, and risky. “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,” says Nadia. She continues to tell a story about a client who “slept with me, stole my money, beat me, and choked me. Now my body is full with bruises; as you can see, my nose is broken,” the street-based sex work has no safety assurance.  

Meherzia Labidi, is helping with the alternatives for these women. She said the way to help them is “By giving them a job. for example, and by making the society accept them in another way. It is not only about laws and political decisions, it is about changing mentalities.”