Aya Chebbi: Redefining Feminist Narratives in Tunisia
| By May Abu Jaber
Aya Chebbi is an award winning Pan-African feminist activist and blogger. In recognition of her achievements, Aya was named one of Africa's most Outstanding Young Women leaders in 2013 and the Young Achiever for 2015 by the Forbes. Aya is the co-founder of Coexistence with Alternative Language and Action Movement (CALAM). She spoke with AWID about women’s rights in Tunisia after the ‘the revolutions of dignity’.
AWID: What are the biggest challenges that women’s rights activists, and other social justice advocates face today in Tunisia?
The public space is shrinking for women’s rights activists and others to thrive. Activists in general are at risk in areas in which fundamentalists impose their rule. Some activists continue to receive threats that impede their mobility, and some have been verbally and even physically assaulted.
Today we live with both state terrorism - I refer here to police and other state violence and repression - and the fundamentalists’ terrorism.
For example, just two months ago, a member of CALAM, Hamza Abidi, was arrested and accused of assaulting a police officer, when in fact he is a non-violent activist. Hamza was beaten up by police when our project proposal for prisons reform, “MawKouf” (“Arrested”), was found in his backpack. The reality is we still live in a police state, the strongest in the region for decades, where the police can beat, abuse and attack human rights defenders and activists. This situation has worsened with the misapplication of the new law on counterterrorism, which is used to legitimize restrictions on space for civil society, and to pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent.
At the same time, activists are not protected by the state when they face different forms of non-state terrorism, which may lead them to an unknown fate. Last July, the blogger and activist Houssem Saidi was assassinated. He is my relative from my mother’s extended family. He informed the Interior Ministry of his fears in early June and asked for protection but was not taken seriously and was not listened to. So he fled Tunisia to neighboring Algeria to protect himself and his family. A few weeks later he was found dead under a bridge in Algiers.
AWID: At the 2015 World Social Forum you stated: “I think if anyone needs to listen today, it is our older generation to the younger generation.” What role did youth play in Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution? How have they continued to shape Tunisian civil society following the revolution?
Tunisia’s revolution is a youth-led movement that toppled Ben Ali. Young people were the mobilizers and the protesters at the forefront of this struggle, who faced police brutality and sacrificed their lives in many cities across Tunisia. Yet today, many young Tunisians still experience political and social marginalization, and an intergenerational disconnect. We have an 88-year-old President and other elders in power and occupying key leadership positions. This generational divide creates a lack of trust between young people and older generations, and a feeling of youth voices serving other’s ends.
After the ousting of Ben Ali, the younger generation struggled to articulate a new common purpose and define a new political role for ourselves. The way in which our movement emerged was through decentralized grassroots participation. One might assume that “the youth movement” represents one homogenous group, but we represent many different interests and goals. While some of us have chosen to participate in traditional politics, others have found other ways to meaningfully construct the country’s future.
Refraining from politics was a conscious political decision for many young Tunisians. We refused to be manipulated by corrupt and self-serving politicians, chose to distance ourselves from partisan politics, and refused to transform our movements into formal political parties. But we continued to exert our veto power on the streets and organized ourselves as watchdogs, lobbying groups, NGOs, media collectives etc. We found new forms of political and civic participation and yes, we eventually influenced the democratic transition! We ruled Tunisia and influenced its constitution and decision-making not from the chairs of political parties but with civil society mobilization and people power.
AWID: Tunisia’s transition to a democracy, often referred to as the only real success of uprisings that occurred across the MENA region in 2010 and 2011, remains at a critical intersection of conflict and peace-building. Could this uncertainty be grounds for the establishment of an Islamic state in Tunisia?
I don’t think there is the ground for an Islamic state to be established in Tunisia. When Ennahdha won the elections of 2011, some scholars began to make comparisons between Tunisia and Iran’s revolution of 1979. Yet, as you can see, after three years of the Islamic party’s rule, the secularists1 won the elections early this year! That did not happen by pure chance - it was because of the hard work and struggle of Tunisia’s civil society to veto backward laws, statements and practices, every day.
In the aftermath of both the Bardo and Sousse attacks, people did not stay at home scared of the unknown. Instead they immediately mobilized to the sites of the attack saying ‘No’ to terrorism. I believe Tunisia will continue to fight fiercely against fundamentalism because of her brave people, and in particular, youth and women. At the same time, however, our government needs to wake up and provide strategic solutions for the country’s security, economic, educational and social issues.
AWID: Your activism focuses on the notion of “our own struggles in our own contexts” particularly when it comes to ‘Western’ narratives about feminism and feminist movements. How has the ‘Western hegemonic feminist movement’ affected feminist movements in Africa and the Middle East?
Patriarchal power is a system that we are all fighting worldwide. It has different forms in different contexts and so we need to deal with it differently and that’s what Western feminism is missing!
Western feminism continues telling its own story as a dominant narrative and focuses only on the experiences of women in western cultures regardless of how different women’s identities are in other contexts. Even within the US, western feminism is exclusive, because white middle class women are the first to benefit from social change and increased privilege.
We need to integrate race, class, and imperialism into the debate on gender subordination in the global south. I’m really frustrated with universalizing tendencies in Western feminism and a lack of attention to specific gender issues in our contexts, to different cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. In Africa and the Middle East, we do not necessarily share the same identity and cultural goals as Western feminism outlines.
In Tunisia for example, the FEMEN movement was a failure. FEMEN claims to represent ‘Arab Women against Islam’ and encourages women around the world to protest topless against Islamism. Yet, they are in fact perpetuating the stereotype that Muslim women and women from the Global South are submissive, helpless and in need of western feminists to protect our rights.
Islamists in Tunisia try to explain women's issues in terms of “identity politics”. And western feminism, for example in the form of FEMEN, is also turning the emancipation of Tunisian women into a question of identity, of religious and cultural war. Tunisian activists are trying to steer the discussion away from identity and to focus on women's rights as a social and political issue.
AWID: How did your speech at the UN Women event to mark the 20th anniversary of the historic Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing affect your efforts in the youth-led civil society sector, more generally in Africa, and particularly in Tunisia?
My primary fight is to change the narrative about Tunisia, Africa, and the Middle East. Speaking in such platforms is needed to shift the discourse. The UN as an institution tremendously affects our part of the world as it dedicates billions of dollars to operations and projects in Africa and the Middle East. If the UN doesn’t respond to our actual needs because of its flaws in understanding our context, then it is a waste of time, efforts and resources, not to mention a negative counter-impact on our societies.
The first impact and necessary follow-up is to maintain a youth speaker spot at these key events. Further, it’s not only about the speech – it’s about the lobbying throughout the event to advance our agenda in the global south. After my talk, I have been invited to several consultations and long term strategy discussions about the issues I raised and that will hopefully affect young people and civil society in the region. But we shall keep reminding them.
AWID: What are the next steps for the youth movement in Tunisia? What can activists elsewhere do to help push for peace and social justice in Tunisia?
First, activists around the world can support us through nurturing a real solidarity system. I believe it’s not an option anymore to stay apart in today’s globalized world. The struggle over the next ten years for much of Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world requires transnational solidarity.
Second, contribute to changing the narrative! What you read on the mainstream media most of the time distorts the bigger picture and dismisses the real stories. Take the time to read blogs and tweets of people’s stories and challenge the narrative about our part of the world in your own society.