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The women behind Tunisia's revolution Open in fullscreen

Basma Barakat

The women behind Tunisia's revolution

Lina Ben Mhenni was reportedly a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 January, 2015

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Following the departure of Ben Ali from Tunisia, women have fought, not only to advance women's rights, but to build new freedoms for all citizens.

Behind the revolutions of the Arab Spring were women such as the Yemeni activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman, and Zainab al-Khawaja, the Bahraini human rights activist. Their names have become synonymous with the struggle for human rights, freedom and justice

In Tunisia, women of all classes were part of the struggle to depose former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. They also become integral to the post-revolutionary state-building process. While it would be impossible to list all the women who shaped events in the country, al-Araby al-Jadeed met seven women played prominent roles during and after the revolution.

Lina Ben Mhenni

A blogger, human rights activist and university lecturer, Lina Ben Mhenni was a well know critic of former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Her blog, A Tunisian Girl, and social media accounts that discussed political issues in Tunisia were censored several times by the authorities.

After the revolution, Mhenni says her fame has helped her to freely convey the voice of the youth, the oppressed and the marginalised to a wider audience.

Although the revolution has given her the freedoms she constantly fought for, Ben Mhenni's new-found fame has been a double-edged sword. Her activism means she has faced a number of death threats, and she is now protected by a security team.

"I have a lot of my privacy and am not able to move as freely as I used to because of fears of my safety," she said.

Mbarka Aouinia Brahmi

Mbarka Aouinia Brahmi is a civil society activist and member of parliament who was a prominent activist during the Ben Ali era. She took part in demonstrations of solidarity for Palestine, and was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war.

Brahmi's family have a history of activism. Her father was a leader in the resistance against French colonial rule, and she is the widow of Mohammed Brahmi, the leader of the People's Movement who was assassinated outside his home on 25 July 2013.

After the revolution, Brahmi helped establish the People's Movement, and came to represent the Sidi Bouzid constituency, the town that began the Tunisian revolution.

"Yes, the revolution changed my life, but the assassination of my husband changed my life more," she said. "The revolution gave Tunisian women a wider margin of freedom and made them more able to participate in political life."

But the revolution also had some negative consequences for women's rights in Tunisia.

"There was the appearance of groups that carry beliefs that were foreign to Tunisian society," she said. "Destructive beliefs that were behind the assassination of the martyr Mohammed Brahmi."

Siham Badi

Siham Badi is a physician who lived in France from 1992, after she was given a prison sentence for her opposition to Ben Ali's rule. When the revolution started, she returned to Tunisia, and became a member of the National Constituent Assembly, representing the Congress for the Republic party.

In December 2011, she was appointed minister for women's affairs, serving under the governments of Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh.

The former minister is seen as a controversial figure in Tunisian public life. When she was attacked for appointing the daughter of another minister to a job in the women's affairs ministry, she responded: "If they don't like it they can drink from the sea."

Her transformation from activist to minister has not been faultless but Badi has undoubtedly left her mark on post-revolution Tunisia.

Read about the state of women's rights in Tunisia here

Yamina Zoghlami

Yamina Zoghlami is a member of parliament and heads a parliamentary committee dedicated to those killed and injured during the revolution.

The mother of three was an activist of the Ennahdha Movement from 1985 until the group was outlawed in the 1990s. She comes from a poor neighbourhood in the Tunisian capital and was expelled from high school for wearing the Islamic headscarf, but Zoghlami persevered with her studies, gaining a degree in literature and master’s in history.

     Ben Mhenni's fame has been a double-edged sword - she has faced a number of death threats.

"The revolution changed my life," she told al-Araby. "I was not a free woman previously, and now I feel free.

"My most basic rights were denied, such as the freedom to wear what I want and the freedom to associate with a political party. I am really grateful for the revolution and the blood of the martyrs and all those who struggled - because now I am free."

Samia Abbou

Samia Abbou is a lawyer and was a leading figure in the Congress for the Republic party, before leaving to form the Democratic Current.

"My life has changed after the revolution. It is true that I was locked in a bitter struggle with the former regime, however my life was limited to my work and my home," she told al-Araby.

Abbou is known for her opposition to Beji Caid Essebsi, the current Tunisian president, who she describes as not being representative of the revolution. "In fact, the revolution was against Essebsi, his party and the businessmen who support them," she said.

Meherzia Labidi

Meherzia Labidi is an Ennahdha MP and the first woman to hold the position of deputy speaker of parliament in Tunisia.

She has become known for running parliamentary sessions with a firm hand. Before the revolution, Labidi lived in France and worked as a translator.

"I'm indebted to the revolution, the youth and the martyrs who scarified their lives for me to be able to return to Tunisia, after living in exile for many years," Labidi said.

Since her return and involvement in political life, Labidi has taken time to speak to the people. Her conclusion is that they have found "a degree of freedom to voice their concerns, as the former regime had denied them the right to express themselves".

"You cannot imagine the injustices they try to convey to me," she says.

Bochra Belhaj Hmida

Bochra Belhaj Hmida went from being a student activist in 1976, to a lawyer defending protesters in the Bread Revolt of 1984, and then a political activist under Ben Ali. She now serves as a member of parliament from the Nidaa Tounes party.

"Before the revolution, we were under security surveillance and now we're protected by the security forces. This irony was achieved by the revolution in addition to political freedoms," she told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"I never thought for a moment that I would become an MP and take part in formulating laws and advocate for people. I lived my whole life wishing for real political participation. I have voted against the former regime since I was 20 years old, and today, thanks to the revolution, I live the political life that I dreamed of – this is a historic time," she said. 

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.   

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