Growing up during the regime of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Sarah Mejri could do little about the poverty and police brutality that she sometimes witnessed. But at the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in the North African country, she rushed to join the demonstrations along Avenue Bourgiba, the main strip in the capital of Tunis. “The feeling was so strong in me,” Mejri says. “Whenever I heard there was a rally somewhere, I would take a taxi and join them.”
The 25-year-old computer networking graduate was the only woman among a group of other youth who would convene at a cafe to plot revolutionary actions in her neighborhood of Hay Elkhadra. One January night, she had the role of lookout — stationed on rooftops, constantly updating demonstrators by phone of police movements as they plowed through the streets. “What we lived during the revolution makes me say that these people are conscious,” Mejri says. “We are not like they have portrayed in the media — ignorant and marginalized people.”
Post-revolution, the country has only seen sporadic civil unrest, unlike Egypt, which has been marred by civil violence, underhanded politics and pushback from the country’s traditional forces. Yet there are varying perceptions on Tunisia’s transition so far. Some women see greater freedoms; others worry about the rise in Islamist power. For now, there is room for Mejri and other young Arab women to find ways to translate protest into new channels of participation and engagement on the political, social and economic fronts.
Some seek to integrate human rights language into the new laws. Others are setting up community service groups. Tunisian women have also turned to social entrepreneurship as a means of rectifying some of the country’s social and economic problems. In Mejri’s case, she has been involved in campaigns to clean central Tunis; made a film about their revolutionary experience; run for an assembly seat; established a ‘freedom without borders’ organization; and raised awareness on cultural and political issues among the illiterate and less-educated populations. She’s also now engaged to Yamin, a fellow revolutionary from her vicinity who watched her in action, saying he admired her passion and found her courageous.
Fighter to Builder
In a way, some youngsters had no choice but to become political in the last quarter-century in Tunisia. “I was born in 1987 and I’m the generation of Ben Ali,” says Maha Jouimi, noting the year the former president came to power. Jouimi came from a religious family, and witnessed police target her mother and relatives who wore headscarves and then bar worshippers from attending mosques. “It was like a jail,” she says. As a young girl, she went to the hospital to visit her cousin who had been sexually harassed by authorities for her religious garb. It made Joiumi angry.
Even at school, Jouimi says she was given a hard time because of her family’s orientation. She voraciously consumed writings by leftist thinkers and the Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi. She then became involved with the youth communist organization. She was beaten at an anti-regime protest at her university and police tapped her phone, monitored her e-mail and barred her from obtaining a passport. As part of her student union, she worked to get the word out through social media, videos, articles and other outlets about Ben Ali’s transgressions, of which she says some weren’t even aware. “When we take the initiative to speak, you encourage them to talk, to criticize,” she says. In addition, she was involved in other activities, including the widespread 2008 protests over unemployment and other issues in the western region of Gafsa.
Upon hearing about Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vendor who lit himself on fire in protest, Jouimi says she and others from opposition groups across the spectrum — from communists to Islamists — put out statements against the regime and motivated people on Facebook to go out. Why was this moment able to mobilize the masses? “Because we didn’t have the choice and it was like an accumulation since 2008,” she says.
For her part, Jouimi spent much of her time on Facebook having discussions with youth and defending Bouazizi’s action online, since she says the regime was attempting to portray him negatively. She posted his photo and organized activities with friends in different parts of the country. Online videos also allowed the people to view events as they unfolded. “I was happy because I see Tunisians are more courageous and conscious about what happened — it’s thanks to Facebook,” she says. On the streets Jouimi says she stood by women and men from all social classes. “You feel that finally we are in union,” she says of that time.
When Ben Ali fell, she was of course, on Facebook, and then couldn’t believe her eyes as she flipped through news channels covering his ouster. Ben Ali’s departure was bittersweet. Shortly after, one of her friends, a fellow student activist, was shot and killed by a sniper while at home. And Jouimi says she knew countless others who died. In the aftermath, she participated in subsequent protests demanding a new constitution and punishment for members of the old regime. It was also a show of solidarity with those who’d been injured. Since then, Tunisia has held elections and the discussion over drafting the new constitution is under way. Being able to vote, was “like a dream,” Jouimi says. Her mother and other women, she says, are also no longer “terrified” of leaving their homes. Other rights women have possessed here, from even prior to old regime’s time, should persist, she says.
Along with the revolution, there has been an evolution in Jouimi’s own philosophies and efforts. She’s shed her communist affiliations (though she admits to reading Che Guevara when she’s feeling weak) and now considers herself an independent. Jouimi, who’s studying French literature, says she feels like a hero. While the time for protest might be over, she stresses that Tunisians should “continue to be conscious” and remain vigilant with the new government.
In her work through different organizations, Jouimi says she’s advocating for human rights and pushing the government to adopt international conventions into the constitution. She’s also developing anti-pollution initiatives, because she says environmental work is crucial. “Now I don’t think about fighting; now I think about building, I think of how to create,” she says. “I’m not fighting, I don’t want to use this word…now I try to collaborate with others to build a new Tunisia. It’s not the time to fight. It’s okay; we won the war. Now is the time to build.”
Finding New Purpose
The path to change can begin, for some, at the bottom. After failing an exam to enter an elite university, Wiem Melki was shattered. She had to turn to another less-competitive institution. In the hope of boosting her spirits, Melki’s friends introduced her to a volunteering group with which she visited cancer patients and organized events for deaf individuals. It was “eye-opening,” she says, exposing her to new people and triggering thoughts on how to improve others’ lives. On a whim, she heard about a study abroad program for North African students through the U.S. Embassy and applied. She then spent six weeks in Ohio, learning the ins and outs of social entrepreneurship, including sustainability and scalability. She was struck that the entrepreneurs whom she met didn’t necessarily come from a business background and that they started an enterprise from scratch. She thought that maybe too could do something. “I like the idea of changing people’s lives,” she says, “even small change, I love it, that’s my passion.”
When she returned to Tunisia in the fall of 2010 and looked at her university, there were no clubs or extracurricular activities. It made for an uninspiring campus life, where students merely revised for exams, with nothing else to invigorate them. Student groups were flatly forbidden, out of fear that a youth gathering would lead to political discussions and rebellion. Still, Melki and two friends went for it. Her objective was to establish an English club, since there weren’t many opportunities for students studying the language to practice speaking. “I was begging the administration,” she says.
She was told to draft a proposal, and each time she would return to administrators they would call for other paperwork, in the hope that she would just give up. Even some professors were afraid her help her. “They said, ‘No way, it was out of the question.'” She didn’t let that stop her from helping others. Outside the university, she helped create a local branch of the Lions Club, an international service club organization. She and the other founding members named their chapter, the Lions Club Pioneers. They carried out community service and charity work, from organizing events at homes for the elderly, purchasing supplies for low-income students and helping with other social cause cases.
Then the upheavals broke out. “I wouldn’t say I was a revolutionary,” Melki says. She supported anti-regime protests at her school, but at the time of the revolution, she was trying to make sense of what was happening, and her parents were overprotective. After Ben Ali fled, she participated in the protests calling for a new government and investigations into the deaths of revolutionary protestors. “After the revolution, in every Tunisian, something has changed. It’s like a new era for us. You have rights and you have the right to call for them. And it’s really shameful if you do not ask for them after such a great [thing] happened.” Her Lions Club Pioneers group leads several activities to help out, including running a blood donation drive for those who had been wounded during the revolution.
Back at her university, professors engaged students, asking them to share how they felt and what they wanted to change in Tunisia. Melki had the same wish to open the student club. Even after the revolution, she says the university administration, unaccustomed to student-run entities, remained disinclined. But with some help from a professor, they continued to push for the group, until one day she finally got her paper stamped with approval. “I cannot describe our feelings, because it was really hard for us,” Melki, 23, says. “We were really like jumping out of happiness.”
From there, the first student club came into existence. The very same day, Melki says they began organizing the group, calling it ‘New Students Spirits.’ The meetings began filling up and students who were at first shy with their conversational skills started to speak up. It became much more than merely a club to practice English, however, as the group also performed volunteer work. It was a breath of fresh air for students’ campus life. “They say, ‘Now we have new spirit, we’re having fun, we love our university.'” Their success spawned a string of other clubs on media, psychology, sports and history. In the process, Melki says she learned about being a leader, brainstorming and how to be a problem-solver, especially on the spot.
From that time, Melki has completed her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and is now working full-time as journalist with Tunisia Live, an English-language news site, while pursuing her master’s. Melki says she hasn’t yet come up with a big idea for a social enterprise, but she is sharing what she’s learned from her experience, doing workshops on social entrepreneurship, judging presentations from budding entrepreneurs and training high school students on leadership skills. “I would love to have my enterprise, but I think what makes me feel like doing something, achieving something is helping a social entrepreneur to discover himself or herself, or helping a young person to discover that he can be a leader. I like this kind of procurement of knowledge, more than even achieving it for me,” she says.
In Tunisia, there’s significant interest in NGOs now, unlike the past when involvement in non-profit or charity work might require ties to Ben Ali’s family. Melki says there’s a boom of organizations and one website is serving as a hub for the groups to guide people. Melki sees the next couple of years as being inevitably difficult, with different factions debating as they give birth to a new order. She says it’s healthy and tries to stay optimistic.
For now, she says the focus should be on working with youth, making them more aware about their country and more engaged, be it socially or politically or otherwise. “Sometimes I just envy them… at their age, we didn’t have the same opportunities, so they really should take advantage of that,” she says. In addition, she and a friend are developing a project on empowering young women that might entail workshops. “I think many young women, they lack confidence,” she says. “They don’t believe in themselves, and they think they will never manage to [do] things. One of my burdens also is to make this message, that women can do things. Especially for me, I would never maybe have thought I would do this. But when I did it, I felt like it’s possible and I mean all women should take the initiative and do things. And sometimes we do it better than men.”