In Partnership With 
nextgen_ben_said_qa
Francesco Zizola—NOOR for TIME

Q&A with Tunisian Women's Rights Activist Ikram Ben Said

Sep 12, 2014

What does your organization Aswat Nissa do?

We started with an awareness campaign to encourage women to vote and to explain to them that their vote counts. We also work on [increasing the] political participation of women, so we help women, we support them, and we encourage them to run for office on the legislative level and the local level. And we also work against violence against women.

What are the biggest issues of disagreement among Tunisian politicians?

Each group feels like it is threatened by the other. Seculars don't want to see Islamists. For them, they are not Tunisian. They have another agenda. They are retrograde. And Islamists see seculars as also having another agenda, a Western agenda, against our identity as Arabs and Muslims.

You train female politicians from all of Tunisia's major political parties. What do these women have in common?

First, they are all Tunisian women. They share the same history. They share the same future, because they're obliged to live together here. All of them are proud to be Tunisian. Also, they are victims of discrimination in their political parties. [Whether they’re] in Islamist or secular political parties, I think that women suffer from the same discrimination. They are not in the leadership in the political parties. They are not in the leadership of the government. So I think they can [fight] together.

One of the first things you did after forming Aswat Nissa was explore the role of women in Muslim and Arab Heritage. What did you discover?

We learned that there is not one Islam. There are many Islams. You can be Muslim and advocate for women's equality. It's not against Islam. This is what we try to explain to people.

What is your definition of feminism?

Feminism for me is not imposing my choice, my vision of society. Feminism is helping women in achieving their dreams and assuming their responsibilities and their decisions. Feminism is also a matter of diversity. When we chose the name Aswat Nissa, [which means] "Voices of Women", we [wanted] "voices" because there are many voices, there is not one voice, and "women" because they are very different.

You participated in the early days of the Tunisian revolution. Can you take us back to those days, how it started and how it went for you?

It was in front of the [trade union headquarters in Tunis in December 2010]. We were a few people surrounded by the police. It was raining and we were singing. It [sounds] like a romantic story, but I was scared. I was very, very afraid, but at the same I said to myself, I should stay here. My place is here.

And then [on] January 14 [there] was the general strike. I remember I was in the street, and my phone rang and [it was] my mom who told me, "There is a demonstration now, I'm watching it on Al Jazeera, so please go home. I'm scared." And then my sister took the phone [from my mother]. She said, "No, no, please stay. We need people there.” And I was confused because my mom was afraid, because she's a mom. And my sister — she's this new generation, full of hope, with very high expectations. So I [thought], I cannot disappoint her and I cannot disappoint myself and I cannot disappoint all this generation. So I stayed.

If you could change one thing about Tunisia what would it be?

Gender equality. I would put it in the constitution [so] that from the beginning women are equal to men and be very severe on that.

Which global figures have inspired you?

The first one is Nelson Mandela, and the second is Martin Luther King. And the reason they inspire me is that both were human rights activists, but in a very inclusive way, in a very constructive way. So each time I have doubts about my approach, I remember their stories and that gives me a lot of positive energy.

You say you're hopeful for the future of Tunisia. What is it that makes you hopeful?

When I see people in Aswat Nissa, very committed, very involved, to help support women and to empower women, that gives me lots of positive energy. Everyone who wants to make change should definitely be optimistic. Because when you have a vision and you have the passion and you have the drive, you can inspire people and make things happen.

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

It depends on the political situation. Maybe I will stay in the civil society. Maybe I will create a think tank or a Tunisian women’s lobby. Maybe I will be in politics. I'm sure that in ten years I want to be useful, whether in a political party, in civil society, in Tunisia, outside of Tunisia. This is my commitment.

interview by Stephan Faris. The interview has been edited and condensed.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.