Aya Chebbi: We are a bold generation because we do not give up

Given to her significant presence in the field of empowering young people in Africa, Aya Chebbi, the Tunisian founder of the African Youth Movement (AYM), has been invited to the UN annual Commission on the Status of Women in March 2015. The award-winning activist has started to blog on the Tunisian revolution in 2011 to aware the English-speaking world about the major developments in her country. Later on, Aya, who participated in many international trainings and events, has pursued her passion for engaging youth in democratization her community. Therefore, she launched the AYM to reunite African youth across the continent, especially North Africa, with the rest of the continent, beyond colonialism and post-colonialism.

In this sense of taking the lead in her community after the attack on Bardo museum, Aya announced exclusively to “Crossing Borders” that with another non-violent activist on March 18th she had launched the first youth led movement for non-violence in Tunisia, CALAM.

The story beyond the 26-year-old young lady who came from revolutionary Tunisia is worth to be told, so here are her answers to “Crossing Borders” questions:

Starting from your last speech at the UN Women event to mark the 20th anniversary of the historic Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, how do you see this opportunity in terms of your continuous efforts in the youth-led civil society sector, generally in Africa and particularly in Tunisia?

The UN Women has taken a great step, for CSW this year, in giving the space for a young voice to speak following Ban ki Moon, Hillary Clinton, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and other influential figures. When I received the invitation, I accepted because I believe we need to claim our space in such high profile gatherings where our voices need to be heard the most. It has been hard to deliver my message in 4 minutes, but I hope my talk will change the audience memory from the Arab Spring to the “Revolution of Dignity”, will give more recognition to our work as youth, our struggles and achievements as a generation of change.

Your speech, which has been quoted at “12 things Australia can learn from the UN Women convention” article, stated that the boldness of your generation shaped your destiny and that of future generations. What are the milestone steps made by your generation compared to the older ones?

Following our 2011 movements, things will not be the same! The old generations have taken independence from the Western colonizers; we have taken independence from post-colonizers and our own dictatorships. We have freed ourselves from repression and mental slavery and faced our fears with bravery.

We are a bold generation because we do not give up! We are creative, innovative and tirelessly changing our realities. We leveraged technology and re-innovated non-violent resistance tactics online and offline. We have rewritten history for the next generation to grow up claiming their rights, dignity and freedoms instead of growing up on police repression and censorship.

In this sense of the political turmoil in Tunis, are you satisfied with the Tunisian youth role in the political life? And why?

Our current president is 88 years old; it’s very annoying after a youth led revolution, but that’s not why I am not satisfied! I will not be satisfied until we see young faces as the mainstream in political life, not the exception. When we have taken the streets following Ben Ali’s flee, we were calling for a Youth Assembly that will decide the future of the country, shortly the elders have taken over under the pretext of “experience and saving the country”. We decided to keep shaping Tunisia’s transition and we organized ourselves in lobbying groups, NGOs, media collectives etc…. Eventually, we ruled Tunisia and influenced its constitution and decisions not from the chairs of political parties but with civil society mobilization and people’s power.

In the light of the criminal attack on Bardo museum, do you see it as a major setback in the revolutionary Tunis, in the sense of spreading the extreme movements?

I like taking the example of the pendulum to explain the situation in Tunisia. We were holding the pendulum from one side with the dictatorship and when it has fallen, the pendulum swung to the extreme of the opposite side in one direction. But eventually it will be swinging back and forth in a slower motion until it will take its balance, so that’s normal.

Terrorism in Tunisia is like mosquitos – when you don’t treat mosquitos in the spring, of course they will appear in masses in the summer. But then, once it’s summer, you cannot just easily fix it. This should be a wake up call for our government, that has not taken the preventive measures for terrorism for the past 4 years, which led to Bardo Attack. Now they want to fix it by increasing security. We need to fix the root causes from poverty, centralization of power and development to marginalization of youth and regional disparities.
But anyway these crimes can never be a setback for the Tunisian people who occupied Bardo Museum few hours after the attack. We are not afraid and this makes us stronger to unite and strategize.

Do you still consider yourself “proudly Tunisian” even though the jasmine revolution has a bloody fragrance lately?

Again, we don’t call it “Jasmine Revolution”. This is a French name, not ours. I wrote a piece called “Not as Soft as a Jasmine” explaining, why this naming is offensive to our movement. The world has to stop these Western narratives and has to write in books and teach in schools a “Revolution of Dignity” if they have respect for people’s rights to define their fate and write their own history.

Regarding your question, of course I am and will always be proudly Tunisian! Maybe this would be the first time to announce, that I, with another non-violent activist, on March 18th have launched the first youth led movement for non-violence in Tunisia, CALAM. Because we believe that combatting terrorism is not made through short term solution of security measures, but we need to build a culture of non-violence to combat all forms of violence and crimes.

You come from a generation that advocates for causes and revolutions by leveraging social media. How do you estimate the influence of this medium?

It’s absolutely vital medium in today’s movements! Social media did not topple Ben Ali and should not be over-emphasized, but it proved to be an important tool for democratization. We live today in a world manipulated by mainstream media and state control. Social media is indeed our space for thinking critically, connecting, organizing, mobilizing, advocating, and most fundamentally excersising one’s freedom of expression.

While you have defined yourself as one of “generation of feminist movements in Africa and the Middle East” in UN speech, you emphasized on “the world must respect our right to define our own struggles, in our own contexts” in the UN speech. Could you explain more how you recognize this context?

One of the myths is that Western feminism is the best for all women around the world. This is not true! Feminism might have been coined in the West, but our feminism in Africa and the Middle East has its own narratives and differs from the Western feminism in many regards. We have the right to define our own struggles in our own context. We are not helpless to patriarchy and we have our own fights, our own strategies, our unique movements and that’s fine too and should be respected.

Take FEMEN movement for instance. It is self-identified as a Western feminist movement and they’re trying to spread in our societies with the same tactics as they did with Amina in Tunisia. I supported Amina’s fair trail but I also think we do not need to walk naked or topless in our societies to claim our space and rights.

Do you agree with the opinion that sets the cultural and traditional context above the global women’s rights, for example: abortion?

For me, human rights are universal. Culture and tradition are often deliberately confused. We should not allow tradition to oppress our rights or be used as a patriarchal weapon. But culture is a changing pattern, a complex and dynamic process, and we need to redefine our cultures asserting human rights over subjugation of women. Discourses on culture and tradition continue to be used to justify and legitimize repression and violence practiced against women. This needs to stop.

Back to your activities in Africa, what is your motivation beyond launching the African Youth Movement?

I have a vision for a movement that re-unites African youth across the continent, especially North Africa, where I come from, with the rest of the continent, beyond colonialism and post-colonialism. Most of our generation in Africa has been born under dictatorships and repression. It’s the time we speak what we think, we dream for the Africa we want, we lead this continent in a joint vision for peace and social justice. The African Youth Movement is my contribution to this reunion.

What are the goals of AYM in 2015? And which possible change do you see happening on the ground?

2015 for AYM is its foundation year to gather as many young Africans around its vision. We are not an NGO that implements projects on the ground, but we provide the support, mentorship, networks and empowerment of ideas and solutions to see the light and be implemented on the ground. We aspire to be the vision that connects the struggles and unite the voice of African youth.

How does it take to be a woman leader in Africa, in terms of your winning the Excellence in Leadership award from the African Viewpoint Journal?

First, believing that there is no women leadership and man leadership! A leader is a leader regardless of gender. Then, be prepared to serve, like former president of Malawi Joyce Banda said “you must fall in love with the people that you serve and they must also fall in love with you”. Once there is that bond, no one can break that love. I live to serve my continent with the people I love, my fellow Africans. All it takes is to have a clear vision and believe in oneself in achieving that vision.

Finally, what is your advice to youngest generation who seek to change their communities in Africa and the Middle East in spite of the tremendous challenges?

We will be in those leadership positions sooner or later as those in power will not last forever so let’s all be well prepared. Small or big, make an impact in your community, while aware that we have the power and duty to positively change our societies and advance our nations.

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