The Arab Spring's Tunisian Heroine - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Arab Spring's Tunisian Heroine

The Arab Spring's Tunisian Heroine

By Laura Secorun Palet

Ahlem Belhadj (C), president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, attends a conference on sexual assault against women on October 9, 2012 in Tunis.


Because she has given Tunisian women a voice while paving the road to democracy.

By Laura Secorun Palet

Tunisia’s new constitution is the first one in the Arab world to guarantee equality between men and women — a milestone that might have been impossible without the efforts of people like Ahlem Belhadj, the country’s most prominent feminist. 

The 49-year-old psychiatrist and radical left activist has been in the political trenches for three decades fighting for sexual parity and social equality, most recently as director of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD).

Her dedication to empowering women in the newly reshaped Arab world earned Belhaj the 18th spot on Foreign Policy’s 2012 ranking of the top 100 “Global Thinkers” and a Simone de Beauvoir Prize for upholding women’s rights, which she accepted on behalf of the ATFD. 

While there are moderate Muslims, there is no such thing as moderate Islamism.

— Ahlem Belhadj

In her time as an activist, Tunisia’s political scene has changed dramatically — and Belhadj has been there every step of the way, from her first political rallies in college to the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, when she led thousands of women in protest against President Ben Ali.

Ali stepped down after 24 years in government, and Belhadj watched with satisfaction as hundreds of women wrote their names on ballots in Tunisia’s first-ever democratic elections. Her hopes for political progress were dashed in that same vote, however, when the Islamist Party Ennahdha was voted into power.

Ben with his arms up in the air smiling in a suit

Ex-president President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali

Source Corbis

“They won because they had been prosecuted under Ben Ali and because they promised to put an end to corruption,” she says. 

When the Islamists reopened the debate on issues like polygamy — banned in Tunisia since 1956 — and the use of niqab (head covering), Belhadj’s fears mounted. “While there are moderate Muslims, there is no such thing as moderate Islamism,” she says. 

Ennahdha stepped down in January 2014 to make way for new elections, but Beldahj still feels a push-back of conservatism. “Even if there has been no major change in the law yet, things are changing in the social sphere that truly concern me,” she says.

She is also alarmed by recent moves against the ATFD and its members, with meetings disrupted by officials “protecting moral values.” “They want us to go back in time,” she says.

Growing up in the town of Korba with her four siblings, Belhadj had a comfortable and peaceful childhood, was an excellent student and competed on the national team in track and field. 

But medals and academic distinctions were not enough for the revolutionary-to-be. She wanted to serve others as her father, a respected teacher and mayor for 20 years, had done.  

Tons of protestors with Tunisian flag

The Arab Spring’s Tunisian Heroine

Source Corbis

Belhadj chose to study medicine, and it was at the Faculty of Medicine in Tunis in 1982 that she found an environment bursting with political activism. She quickly got involved, marching for the first time on March 8, 1983, in celebration of International Women’s Day. 

They want us to go back in time.

— Ahlem Belhadj

That day in Tunis she met the two loves of her life: the feminist cause and her future husband, Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami, a member of a Marxist revolutionary group. Together their activism attracted a lot of unwanted attention. By the time they married in 1993, Tunisian authorities had issued an arrest warrant for her husband. Forbidden to practice law in Tunisia, Zoghlami was forced to work in France for months at a time, leaving Belhadj behind to look after their two young children and carry on her civil work.

Instead of being scared off by the climate of oppression, she worked harder and ascended the ranks. In 2004, she became president of the ATFD and, soon after, her husband was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison. “It was difficult, but we know what we do is risky,” she says. 

Risky enough that Beldahj has been the target of threats and criticism from conservatives who perceive her as radical and anti-Muslim. While some attack her personally, calling Belhadj “a liar” who “clearly suffers from a castration complex,” others denounce her ideology. “[Feminist protesters] are the enemies of democracy,” said Souad Abderrahim, an Ennahdha representative in the Constitutional Assembly.

“I learn to live with it because I refuse to live in fear,” responds Belhadj. “The fight against the exploitation of women is an engine for global social change,” she explains, noting that socialist and feminist causes are interdependent. 

Beldahj has been the target of threats and criticism from conservatives who perceive her as radical and anti-Muslim. 

Ahlem during a protest

Besma Khalfaoui widow Chokri Belaid alongside including Alhlem Belhadj, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women

Source Nadia Akari/Nawaat

Change has come to Tunisia, but it’s the year ahead that holds the most promise, thanks to Tunisia’s new constitution and the 2014 elections, which will further the country’s peaceful democratic transition. 

“We have certainly won this battle,” Belhadj says, referring to the new charter that guarantees the equality between genders and makes no reference to sharia being the base of the law.

But the fight for women’s rights in Tunisia is far from over for Belhadj. “I am afraid certain points are left purposefully ambiguous so that they can be easily interpreted in a very conservative manner,” she warns. 

So her focus will now turn to ensuring that the abstract principles of the constitution are put to practice and working towards a new goal: economic equality.

“The feminization of poverty is a terrible reality that nobody is looking at,” she says, explaining how the country’s vast informal economy facilitates women working the hardest but getting paid the least.

The obvious question, given Belhadj’s trajectory and conviction, is whether she will run for political office. The energetic activist claims she doesn’t have plans to do so — but hasn’t ruled it out either. “If I had found a party that really met my convictions, I would have already,” she says.

Whether on the streets with placards, in hospitals with young patients or in a ministerial role, Ahlem Bedahj is sure to play a crucial role in the life of Tunisian’s newborn democracy.

After all, says Belhadj, “This is a permanent revolution.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories