“We need to reach a level of tolerance where the right to equal citizenship has nothing to do with our religious, political or intellectual choices.”
Yusra Ghannouchi was twelve when she left Tunisia. Like many other political dissidents, her family were not given passports so her mother and five siblings crossed the border at night illegally into Algeria. But even here they could not escape pressure from the former regime and after two years they joined her father Rashid Ghannouchi – leader of the now ruling Al-Nahda party – in the UK, where he had already applied for political asylum.
Looking back, Yusra does not remember much; everything inside the house was bugged, everything from the outside was being watched. Nobody talked about their imminent departure. When they left Algeria in 1992, she took a change of clothes as though they were going out and cut off contact with relatives, for fear they would be harassed. They have no family photos from their childhood.
The Ghannouchi family lived in exile in London for twenty years before the revolution in 2011 saw the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and they were allowed to return home. Under Ben Ali’s rule her father had been an outspoken critic and was tortured and imprisoned. Though his downfall meant they were allowed to return, Yusra has decided to stay in London. We meet in Renoir, a French café in Kentish town, and chat against the backdrop of a colourful mural in the French painter’s style.
Wearing a purple kaftan, she explains that settling into the UK was hard. London doesn’t have many Tunisians, unlike Paris where there are thousands, and it took some time to adapt to a new school and a different language. But eventually she saw the positive sides of London, many of which were shocking at first: “Like freedom of expression, how people can criticise the Prime Minister. I couldn’t believe it” she says and laughs.
She points out that London is multi-cultural, so you meet people from everywhere, and that wouldn’t have happened in Tunisia. “That always teaches you new things about other cultures and it also makes you more tolerant. That’s definitely something that it will take some time for Tunisians to learn. We’re not used to difference because in the past no one had the right to choose. People are not used to this choice and they find it strange that you can be different and you can all be Tunisian.”
When Ben Ali was swept away, the Ghannouchi family had their passports reinstated, saw relatives they hadn’t seen for two decades and received a warm reception at Tunis airport. Yet things haven’t all been straightforward. The Al-Nahda party, which came to power following the October 2011 elections, has come under a lot of criticism both in the Western and the Tunisian press; something Yusra believes boils largely down to inaccurate coverage and simplification.
“Hit and run reporting does not really provide enlightenment” she says in reference to journalists who go to Tunisia for just two or three days, write their pieces from afar, speak to a few people and leave. “What are needed are people who know more about Tunisia’s history and Tunisia’s reality.” There are still very few academics and journalists focussing on and based in Tunisia. Many writings of its thinkers have not yet been translated.
But it’s not just the western press. “We are still very far from the standards of accuracy, balance and objectivity we’re used to here [London.]” And of course there is a language barrier; English is still not widely spoken in Tunisia, just Arabic and French. Then there’s the media, who are always more interested in Egypt she says, looking disappointed. “Tunisia was probably in the British news three times before the revolution, and one of those was for the world cup” she jokes. “I think that was the first time the British discovered a country called Tunisia.”
Yet despite its size, Tunisia was where the Arab Spring began, something the country is very proud of. Yusra believes everyone will agree that the main achievement of the revolution is freedom, though this is still a work in progress. “There is a pride and recognition that people are free now to make their own choices. There’s no fear any more. In the past no one could talk or form any associations, nothing political. Everything was under tight control.”
New to the region is the formation of the government, a coalition between an Islamist and secularist party. Significantly, this rejects stereotypes about the conflict between secularism and Islamism, “the prism through which everything in the region is seen” says Yusra. “It doesn’t mean those differences will disappear” she adds as an afterthought. “There are still seculars and there are still Islamists. But it doesn’t mean we’re inevitable enemies and that we can’t work together.”
Lately Tunisia has come under heavy fire for its constitution. Many argue it is clause friendly and does not support minority rights, or full equality between men and women. Yusra disagrees. “You have respectable journalists and human rights organisations saying incorrectly that the constitution does not guarantee equality of men and women and saying also incorrectly that the proposal describes women as complimentary to men.”
Based on this, the constitution was discussed and the offending proposal withdrawn, “though it’s still talked about with the same errors in reporting” she says. As for minorities, Yusra is adamant that the constitution guarantees equality of all citizens without any discrimination on any basis. “Still you have people who have said from the beginning that Islamists are associated with discrimination against women and against minorities. They already have this assumption and they don’t even wait to see what the constitution looks like.”
On the subject of women’s rights, I ask Yusra about Amina Tyler, a member of the feminist group Femen who faces two years in prison for being in possession of pepper spray. In March she generated a wave of controversy over topless photos of herself she uploaded online with the words “my body is my own” written across her. At first Yusra ignored it, believing it was just designed to attract media attention, without achieving anything constructive.
But the story grew, and soon it was in every newspaper around the world. “There were all these campaigns from people who don’t care about accuracy, or about Amina, Tunisia or feminism. Clearly her actions don’t have any positive impact on women’s rights in Tunisia. Their ideals are the way feminists are described by misogynists and anti-feminists. They think the best way is through provoking people.”
She draws my attention to a recent interview with the founder who declared the group’s aim was to eradicate Arab thinking in their society, placing prejudice against women as an Arab problem. Yet this phenomenon exists across the world, whether it’s in the form of violence, lack of representation, or views of women as inferior. “I agree with what motivates her, that there is discrimination against women, there is injustice. But I think the actions and discourse of Femen don’t help that cause in any way and I hope she realises that.”
“I still hope there won’t be a prison sentence for her” she continues “but that’s nothing to do with Al-Nahda or the government. The government should not say either way. Everyone keeps talking about independence of the judiciary and that should be left for the courts to decide.”
That women’s rights, or the lack of them, be presented as an Arab problem is nothing new. Tunisia has been heavily criticised for only having a handful of women on their constituent assembly list, though 30% are female and 50% of the lists are headed by women. “There are more than in the UK parliament and in the French parliament and the US senate. No one talks about that” she says.
Another common misinterpretation is that the assemblies are dominated by Islamists, when in fact only 40% are headed by Al-Nahda. Of those headed by Al-Nahda, they are the only ones to be headed by women. “No other parties, who talk day and night about women’s empowerment and their fears about women, have put forward a woman as a head of committee, except Al-Nahda. I’m sure you never heard this in the press.”
“Here at most briefings with western politicians I go to you don’t see women; many times I’m the only woman. They don’t notice that about themselves. It’s only the other that is questioned. It’s an issue everywhere around the world and once it’s recognised that way I think that will lead to more progress, instead of making it a cultural or religious issue.”
Another topic which has become synonymous with Tunisia’s problems is that of the Salafis. Typically branded violent extremists, Al-Nada have been criticised for dealing with them far too tolerantly. They are right wing, according to Yusra, but certainly not homogeneous. Whilst they have a more literal understanding of the sources, that’s their right, she says.
“That’s the whole Salafi trend, but within that you have those who are interested in scholarly interpretations of the sources, Salafi Alamiyya, textual scientific Salafis. Then you have people who are just Salafis in their own lifestyles, in the way they understand the sources and want to live by them. You have those who are more political and not violent.”
“You have those who preach violence and who practice violence” she continues. “So it’s a wide spectrum and to present them all as violent is wrong. That’s what Ben Ali used to do. Islamists are all enemies of democracy and women’s rights and they must all be eradicated. And it’s that policy that led to the emergence of radicalism.”
Often the government is linked to Salafis, and they are considered to be one and the same. But Al-Nahda believes in an interpretation of the sources that takes into consideration the evolution of society and the purposes of Sharia; rather than just the letter of the text, it takes the spirit. “The purpose of Sharia is justice, people’s interests. So that is to be taken into account when interpreting the Qur’an” explains Yusra.
“No one says that the presence of Salafis or extremists in France or the UK means that there is some relationship between the government and those groups. It’s a global phenomenon, parts of which are peaceful, and they should have their rights. Parts are violent, a minority, and they should be dealt with as criminal groups and the law should be applied. But it’s difficult” she adds. “How do you do that without criminalising whole communities and respecting human rights?”
Part of the problem, says Yusra, is that all the focus has been placed on the Arab Spring countries to distract people from other governments’ violations. “We should evaluate the work of governments regardless of ideologies. We need to reach a level of tolerance where the right to equal citizenship has nothing to do with our religious, political or intellectual choices. Everyone thinks they are the ones who decide who’s Tunisian, or represents Tunisian identity. We may disagree with them but we need to stop demonising a whole trend.”
There are also extreme secularists, which is a kind of non-tolerance in its own way. Al-Nahda offices have been attacked, outbreaks of violence have occurred on both secular and non-secular reporters, though the latter is often not reported. “Violence is a problem, it doesn’t matter who does it. But we don’t want to let go of the stereotype of Islam, violence and oppression of women.”
One of the problems regularly linked to Islamists coming to power, or the existence of Salafis, is Tunisia’s tourism industry, or lack of it since the revolution. To describe tourism as dead is “another simplistic reduction” according to Yusra. Of course, the numbers are lower than before the revolution, but not by a huge amount. Whilst in the first year of the uprising tourism was halved from 7 million to 3.5 million, since Al-Nahda has come to power it has restored 80% of its 2010 capacity.
The same can be said of unemployment statistics, regularly cited at 13% before the revolution and 19% afterwards. These figures are largely considered the responsibility of the government, and unresolvable; both of which are “false” says Yusra. “No one talks about unemployment under Ben Ali,” she continues indignantly, “as though it were an economic miracle and a paradise. If it was then why would there have been a revolution?” Instead, Tunisia’s economy must be evaluated in line with the global recession, the uprising and decades of mismanagement.
As for the future of the country, Yusra assures me that things are going to get better. “Tunisia’s seen so much oppression and injustice and it will take time to change that, but it’s definitely moving away from this. Many people are discovering that being in government is much harder than being in the opposition. Unlike here, in Tunisia and similar countries, that entails repression, imprisonment and harassment. But still it’s not the same feeling as really feeling the responsibility of Tunisia’s future.”