Unless Tunisian society becomes more inclusive, many marginalized youth will continue down one of two paths: crossing the Mediterranean to Italy or joining the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), said civil society advocate Ikram Ben Said, founder and president of Tunisia’s Aswat Nissa (Voices of Women).
Ms. Ben Said, who is also a Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota, said many members of the Tunisian public felt excluded from the country’s political process, lacking the economic opportunities or social space to participate.
“They cannot identify in the project of the society, they cannot see themselves in the speech of the political parties, they cannot see themselves in people who are actually active in civil society,” she said.
Speaking with International Peace Institute Policy Analyst Margaret Williams, Ms. Ben Said said civil society groups such as hers needed to recognize the importance of fostering inclusiveness and social justice, economic opportunities, and human rights to help maintain peace.
She highlighted two ways in which Tunisian civil society groups had helped to bridge the gap between the political process and citizens in the past few years.
“The first is the effort made by local organizations in helping organize the group of Les Mères des Disparus (Mothers of the Disappeared), dealing with disappeared children who died in the Mediterranean Sea while they were trying to go to Italy,” Ms. Ben Said said.
“And another example is what we did in Aswat Nissa during the two elections, in 2011 and 2014, working with women in the suburbs of Tunis and in rural areas to raise their awareness about elections and to encourage them to vote and to make their voice heard.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Drawing on your Tunisian experience, what role does civil society have in bridging the gap between governments and citizens, as well as between citizens themselves?
After the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, there was a lot of effort and commitment from Tunisian civil society groups. They worked with citizens—especially in raising awareness, helping groups of citizens to organize themselves, and to advocate for their rights, showing them how to get in touch with decision-makers.
One example of that is the effort made by local organizations in helping organize Les Mères des Disparus (Mothers of the Disappeared), dealing with disappeared children who died in the Mediterranean Sea while they were trying to go to Italy. And so they helped them—having meetings with government officials, members of parliament, and to advocate for their right to know the reality of their children and their destination.
Another example is what we did in Aswat Nissa during the two elections, in 2011 and 2014, working with women in the suburbs of Tunis and in rural areas to raise their awareness about elections and to encourage them to vote and to make their voice heard.
Regarding the efforts of civil society groups in Tunisia toward political institutions, especially toward the parliament—there were thousands and thousands of law proposals and amendments during the three-year process. It was a lot of effort of advocacy and lobbying during those three years, and the civil society groups took the first draft of the constitution and held town hall meetings and conferences, and they collected citizens’ feedback and I can say that they were able to create a lot of change.
Could you tell us about strides made and challenges ahead for civil society in Tunisia, particularly related to opportunities for influencing government policy on local, regional, and national levels?
I think it will be good for everyone if civil society groups get out from their bubbles and be more inclusive. Because I think that there are a lot of civil society groups, but they are a little bit elitist. And what I mean by that is, how can we open our arms and our hearts, and welcome citizens and marginalized groups? How can we work with them, and work with people as real partners, and not just beneficiaries? And how can we engage them in the design of the project, from the beginning?
This is the first challenge. The second is, how can we build strategic alliances? And how can we work together not just to be against something, but also to be together for something? Because usually, when we are afraid of new policy or law, it’s automatic that we will work together because we are against this party or against this group. But let’s be strategic and think long-term, and work together…in a pragmatic way. With limited resources and global challenges, one NGO cannot do the whole job. So we should think, how can we collaborate?
And I think the third challenge is how civil society groups in Tunisia could be more professional, using all the modern ways of working without being dependent on donors and without forgetting why they are in civil society.
What has been the role and representation of women in civil society in Tunisia until now, and do you see this changing?
Since the revolution, Tunisian women have been alongside men in the street. They were, and they are, still on the frontlines. They are in leadership positions in civil society, and they get things done! However, citizens cannot really see that, because the media has not informed them. And I think women are so busy doing the job that they don’t have time to highlight themselves and highlight their work. So they are doing a great job, but I think that Tunisian women now should start thinking about how can they tell their stories and inspire other women and men. I think they are doing a great job, but they have to show up.
What are some of the limitations and opportunities for civil society in strengthening citizen engagement in political processes, particularly for women and youth?
The great opportunity now for the political participation for women and youth is the coming municipal elections—the first municipal elections after the revolution. And citizens are really waiting for this election because they understand that it affects their daily lives.
The challenge facing civil society is political participation. Firstly there are non-democratic and non-gender-sensitive internal policies among the political parties. When political parties start meetings at 6PM, 7PM, and they have no places that women can put their kids, it’s a gender-sensitive issue. And when you observe the leadership of the political parties, there are very, very few women. But women, actually, are doing the job on the ground, especially during the election. So, we should talk to political parties and push them to be more democratic and more gender-sensitive, and actually convince them that the party will win if it involves more women.
And we need youth because they are the great majority of our population. We should not only talk about youth, we should involve youth. Youth should be at the table to raise their voices. Youth also must show up…youth are very engaged in civil society, but they are separated from political parties. Political parties have the responsibility to offer a safe space to learn, to be engaged, to be committed, and they will win if they engage youth and women.
We at Aswat Nissa work with women politicians and we see that they want to run for office, but they have many internal challenges, and they have also private challenges. Recently, Tunisian gender profile studies have shown that Tunisian women work eight times more than men in private house in cleaning, in cooking, etc. So while men are attending meetings and advocating and making decisions, women are at home taking care of children. So the private space is not playing a big role to empower women, and we in civil society, we don’t have the responsibility to interfere, but we can lobby for new laws, we can raise awareness and, actually, we have to open the conversation to talk about the private sphere because we consider that it’s private, it’s personal, but actually the personal is political.
How might civil society voices more effectively contribute to policies that promote inclusive peace going forward?
I think when we talk about peace we should talk about the inclusive process. I will again advocate that civil society groups should really embrace the diversity because now we are very different, with a different ideology and backgrounds, and mission and vision. So we should first embrace this diversity and we should not be worried because we are different. It’s a part of democracy. So once we embrace our diversity, we will not start fighting each other because we are different. We will focus on what we have as a common ground and being aware of what we have as differences.
We cannot talk about peace without talking about social justice, without talking about equal opportunities for everyone, without talking about human rights. Tunisian people were on the street in 2011 because of these issues. Because there is a huge number of the Tunisian population excluded from the process, they don’t have the tools to participate, they don’t have the space to participate, and they don’t have the economic opportunity to participate. So, they feel that they are excluded, they cannot identify in the project of the society, they cannot see themselves in the speech of the political parties, they cannot see themselves in people who are actually active in civil society. They feel that they are marginalized, and once they feel that they are marginalized, the youth, they have, I think, two ways; going to Italy or joining ISIS (the so-called Islamic State). And I think it’s our responsibility to understand that social justice, economic opportunity, and human rights are the priorities to ensure peace.