A 26-year-old Tunisian activist tells MEE about her journey and goals in the region and around the world
Sitting under a breezy tent on the second day of the 2015 World Social Forum, which took place in Tunis from 24 to 28 March, Aya Chebbi shifted in her seat with an animated intensity. The 26-year-old Tunisian activist and blogger was listening to four middle-aged panelists discuss the necessity for NGOs and social movements to listen to marginalised voices to build their goals around people’s real needs.
When the panelists finished they opened up a chair for members of the audience to add their perspectives. After listening to several contributions, Chebbi made her way to the front and added to their points. She also pointed out a glaring contradiction. While speaking about the need to listen to marginalised voices, the panel had failed to include any youth. “I think if anyone needs to listen today it is our older generation to the younger generation,” Chebbi said.
Chebbi’s message about the need for young people to make their voices heard and take leadership positions in social movements is drawn from her experience during Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution. Youth, including Chebbi, formed the backbone of the uprising that led to the overthrow of long-time dictator Zine El Abdine Ben Ali and have played a large role in shaping Tunisian civil society in the ensuing years.
Since the revolution, Chebbi has made her life about activism. Her efforts are informed by her multi-layered sense of identity as a Tunisian, Arab and African woman living in a globalised world. She unites these different spheres in her work through a common focus on youth, women’s rights and confronting the post-colonial power divide.
Chebbi’s work has taken her around the world as part of multiple activist networks spanning the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the African continent and the international community. Along the way, she has won awards for her blogging and garnered a reputation as an inspiring young activist among her peers. She recently delivered a speech during the United Nations International Women’s Day commemoration on the role of women in the Tunisian revolution and the continuing struggle for equality in the MENA region and Africa.
The Tunisian revolution provided the spark that propelled Chebbi into her current activities, but her social engagement began before the uprising. Her experiences in the four years since have given her a unique perspective on the various facets of her identity that allows her to organise and advocate for change across multiple worlds. Where her activism is leading is still a mystery. But, Chebbi’s negotiation of the path along the way is informed by a clear vision: regardless of what she ends up doing, she will be an advocate for women and youth and continue to challenge simplistic and misinformed images of the MENA region and African continent.
Early engagement and revolution
Growing up, Chebbi lived all over Tunisia due to her father’s work. Living in so many places, particularly the underdeveloped south and interior of Tunisia, gave her a sense of the social marginalisation and poverty in the country.
This background led to Chebbi’s first foray into social engagement as a volunteer with children who had cancer and as a mentor for youth in summer school programmes.
When the revolution started in December 2010, Chebbi was in her final year of university studying international relations. Ben Ali suspended classes because of the uprising. “That was stupid,” Chebbi said. “It gave us more time to organise.”
Chebbi’s background experience helped her to negotiate the chaotic and exhilarating days leading to the fall of Ben Ali. She spent her time at protests and documenting and disseminating what was happening in writing and photography.
After the fall of Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, life never quite returned to normal. In early spring, fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and rebels in Libya precipitated a refugee crisis that saw more than 300,000 people flee across the border into Tunisia.
Instead of preparing for her graduation exams, Chebbi headed south to the border. On her first trip, she volunteered with an organisation working with children in the refugee camps. She later returned and stayed for more than a month, leading peace education classes and helping children to comprehend what was happening around them.
In the camps, Chebbi met African migrant workers who had fled from Libya. When she wasn’t working, she would sit and talk with them about their lives and where they were from. The experience helped to develop her sense of African identity. “I knew I was African, but in Tunisia it was never promoted like pan-Arabism,” Chebbi said. “That was the moment that I thought that I have to do something for Africa.”
In early summer 2011, Chebbi sat for her graduation exams and managed to pass after only preparing for two weeks. Then, she immediately left for the US on a two-month fellowship programme for youth from the MENA region to experience working in the US Congress and with a Washington, DC-based think tank. “We were at the edge of building something new,” she said, and she was interested to explore how governance worked in other countries.
Following the fellowship, Chebbi returned to Tunisia and found a job with a Danish development organisation mapping Tunisian civil society. She also applied for and received a Fulbright fellowship to teach Arabic in the United States for 10 months starting in August 2012.
“It was a hard decision,” Chebbi said of going back to the US. Her first experience in the country had been frustrating. Still, she decided to go. “Whatever the States does, it effects our region; it effects my country,” she said. “My main reason wasn’t teaching the language, but teaching about our culture.”
In the US, Chebbi found that she wasn’t just expected to represent Tunisia. Her students and others would approach with questions about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and political developments in Egypt. “I felt like I’m representing the MENA region,” she said. As a result, she felt as though she had to learn more about the whole region so she could speak about it to others. In turn, the experience brought her closer to that aspect of her identity and to the shared struggles and aspirations of other youth activists in the region.
Following the Fulbright, Chebbi returned to Tunisia in May 2013 and continued her engagement in Tunisian civil society. She also expanded her activism through MENA networks and the African continent. “I’ve never felt a gap where I have to think what I have to do tomorrow,” she told Middle East Eye.
Chebbi’s activism in the MENA region has taken two angles. The first is about “telling the world different perspectives on what it means to be Arab and Muslim”, she said, in order to counter stereotypes.
The second angle involves networking with activists across the region to support each other’s efforts. “We had the same vision for dignity and freedom,” Chebbi said of the uprisings that spread across the region in 2011. “We are struggling for the same thing.”
Chebbi also founded the African Youth Movement, which aims to counter stereotypes about the African continent and challenge the North Africa–sub-Saharan Africa divide. The movement connects young people across the continent to help them develop solutions to their own problems and push for peace and social justice.
In Tunisia, Chebbi is involved in gender advocacy, works as a consultant for NGOs, is a blogger and photographer and leads nonviolent communication trainings. On a global level, she is involved in climate change activism, various solidarity networks and the World Citizens Movement, which is a “movement of movements” aiming to bridge the camp between global and local action.
Chebbi’s work across all of these fields is united by a common focus on creating space for youth to seek solutions to their own problems and assume leadership positions, advocating for gender equality and confronting policies from Western governments that still seek to divide the world for the purpose of resources exploitation and perpetuating old colonial power dynamics.
Towards the future
Chebbi’s approach to her activism has garnered her the respect of fellow activists. “[She] is a very confident young leader who is going to not only shape the future of Tunisia, but the future of Africa,” Jay Naidoo, a cabinet member in Nelson Mandela’s post-Apartheid government and mentor of Chebbi’s, told MEE.
“She has projects and she has agendas and she takes them into the second level, the level of execution,” said Salim Salamah, 25, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk camp in Syria.
“She has been very inspiring to me as well,” added Annagrace Messa, a 27-year-old activist from Greece. “We are the same age, but you can tell when somebody has a spark.”
Chebbi is unsentimental about the path her life has taken, attributing it to historical circumstance. “I wasn’t born in a normal context,” she said. “It wasn’t like I could just study, have a job and go home.”
The power of events beyond her control in shaping her life has left Chebbi with a sense of vagueness about what the future holds. “I’m not worried,” she adds. “I don’t know what I will be … The vision is there. The path to reach that vision is still flexible."