Peace Heroes: Tunisia’s Khedija Arfaoui

On New Year’s Eve, a suicide bombing in Istanbul left 40 dead. Among those who lost their loved ones is longtime Tunisian peace activist and academic Khedija Arfaoui. Although Arfaoui is still in disbelief that she will no longer see her son and daughter-in-law, she continues to raise her voice in the face of extremism and violence.

Arfaoui spoke to Aya Nader about her work, peace in the Middle East, women’s pivotal role in change and why she is attending the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women.

How has the loss of your son and daughter-in-law influenced you? Did you have any second thoughts about peace activism? Did it strengthen it?

The loss of my son and daughter in law has been like an earthquake. It is so hard to think that my beloved children have disappeared forever. In just four days, they were gone. They were young, beautiful, in good health, and so loving and happy. So happy that their happiness was contagious: one became happy with them. How is it possible that I will see them no longer? It is hard to believe such an atrocious reality. I am in deep, very deep mourning, but I remain faithful in my refusal to accept the death penalty. People ask me “wouldn’t you like to kill your children’s assassin with your own hands?” And my answer is no. I am against the death penalty. And they ask me how I can possibly refuse to have the death penalty sentence for the killer of my kids? My answer is that only God should have the right of life and death. Criminals should be judged by a tribunal, because I am for real justice, and put in jail for their entire life. In the past, people would kill the assassin of their beloved ones. It was a common deed. We cannot act as people used to such a long time ago. My children’s assassination may have strengthened my thoughts about peace activism in the sense that I am asked about it and I am speaking out; I am voicing my thoughts more than I do normally. I have to say though, that many people do not agree with me and prefer the death penalty for such criminals – as terrorists are. I know it is a tough issue.

How long have you been in the fields of security, peace and policy? What first attracted you to them?

I first focused on Mediterranean Security issues, as it was a more relevant theme to me. Notably the problems between Algeria and Morocco that prevented a union between the Maghreb countries (over the Sahara Issue) were of special interest to me.

I have been a regular member of Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies for a number of years, the participants being members from America, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and also from West Africa. Members belonged to several sectors: army, foreign affairs, national guards, security, academia, and research. We deal with the problems of terrorism that are affecting our countries, and the world, in an effort to find solutions to counter terrorism. I am interested in that program because my country and my region are directly suffering from it. Tunisia was a very peaceful country before the 2011 revolution, but suddenly it became violent, breeding terrorists that killed and brought chaos. We have had several assassinations of civilians, tourists, and others.

All this violence happened when the Islamists came about, winning elections. They invited Salafist preachers from abroad who gave speeches all over the country, instilling hatred with their doctrines, advising youth to join jihad in order to go to Paradise, presenting this as a religious duty. Islamist outfits for men and women appeared everywhere, and all we could hear was the rhetoric of hardline religious beliefs. Cinema theaters and art galleries were attacked, mausoleums were burned down, people received death threats, even the university was invaded by Salafists.

It became increasingly important for me to join the fight against radicalization.

What are the key highlights and strategies of your work?

First of all, as a scholar and feminist researcher, I wrote and was published in several publications, most of them with Routledge, a British academic publisher of books in the humanities and social sciences. I have also written a book about women’s movements in the country from the past to the present. The book will be published by Routledge in July 2017. I wrote it with an American colleague, Dr. Jane D. Tchaicha, from Bentley University in Boston.

Meeting with colleagues from my country and others, we have exchanged experiences in order to find strategies to combat extremism among youth. One way to do that is find occupations for them in art, literature, poetry, and sports, which are things that Salafists hate as their numerous attacks have shown.

How has extremism shifted in recent times?

The Ennahda political party, which is Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, played an important role in the early days of the 2011 revolution after the departure of the dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali. They were the only unified and fully organized party for the elections and therefore won. They were granted key positions in the government, and gave freedom of action to a number of Salafists. Islamist kindergartens spread, with little girls proudly wearing the hijab. Arrogant young bearded Salafists could be seen everywhere; they had a militia which started imposing rules, such as harassing women who were not wearing the hijab. The US embassy was attacked and the staff had to hide in a bunker.

At the time it was clear that even though they were well organized, they could not govern, because they had no experience. They stepped down and agreed to a unity government without causing violence. But they remain in the parliament and key governmental posts.

Their leader Rached Ghannouchi has stated that they have changed and agreed that there should be a separation between religion and the state. But, can we trust them when we have documentation (videos and written documents) that their ultimate goal was to create a caliphate? We do not trust them.

After promising that there would be no alliance with the Islamist party, President Beji Caied Essebsi suddenly started working with Ghannouchi. That was a big disappointment for all those who had elected him. And this is where we are standing now. We do not know where we are going, or why Ghannouchi pays visits to foreign heads of state when he has no position in government.

Can you describe the environment of civil work in Tunisia?

Civil society has been playing a very important role since the 2011 revolution, because under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, there were very few autonomous organizations. Women had only two such organizations founded in 1989, ATFD and AFTURD, and these were under constant scrutiny by Ben Ali’s police.

After January 2011, NGOs were granted the right to work all over the country. With the help of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, these NGOs were able to reach hundreds, maybe thousands of supporters whenever our liberties were at threat. There were huge, spontaneous demonstrations in Tunis in particular, but also elsewhere in the country. For example, when Islamists wanted to introduce an article in the constitution stating that women were not equal to men but only “complementary” to them, a huge march took place. There were both men and women in that march. It was a complete success and the “complementary” place they wanted to assign to women was crossed out from the constitution. It was also thanks to women activists that the notion of “parity” was adopted in the elections lists. Each party had to have a man, followed by a woman in their lists. Most parties complied with that. So, yes, civil society has been playing a very important role in spite of all the difficulties.

What hinders the Middle East attempts to reach peace?

That is a very good question. I believe some states do not want a strong Arab region or Middle East.

Why are so many Middle Eastern countries in a state of war? Why was Iraq destroyed even though it was clear that the dictator Saddam Hussein had no arms of mass destruction? Why can’t the Palestinians have their own state in spite of the fact that they had recognized the State of Israel? The denial of a Palestinian State has allowed a radical Islamist State to come out: Hamas. Why has Europe destabilized the state of another dictator: Libya? And how about Syria? Yemen?

It seems that the West does not want the Middle East to live in peace. Many are responsible for the state of chaos in which the Middle East lives.


How can women stand up to that, and why are women pivotal to fighting violence?

Women are fighting for peace, all over the Middle East. They know that they have to take part in the struggle against violence. They want to take part in all that is happening. But they know that they will not be able to bring positive changes and end the chaos they live in if they are not given equal rights, if they are prevented from taking leadership positions, and if they are kept out of government.

Women are pivotal to fighting violence because they are the first to be targeted as victims of violence. If they themselves do not speak out, they will remain where they are. They have to assert themselves and reveal to the world the many kinds of discrimination they face. In Tunisia, one woman out of two is the victim of marital violence. Women are victims of violence at home, in the public place, and at work. Unless this violence is tackled, women will continue to suffer and this will have a traumatic impact on the whole society. However, patriarchies of course resist gender equality, and in particular the ideology of radical political Islamists is a deterrent to social peace.

Why is education relevant to the fight for peace and against extremism?

If I take the case of Tunisia, at independence from the French Protectorate in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba made several important decisions; one of them was education. At that time, very few girls went to school. They would live in a closed world, seldom went out as their parents’ goal was to have them find a husband (or rather, find a husband for them). Bourguiba was outraged at this and said that there could be no development without the education of women. So, schools were built for men, and for women. Once women had an education, they felt they had a role to play and they started by integrating in the political parties that were essentially male, and offered their participation in fighting colonialism (in Algeria, Egypt, and other countries, the same thing happened). Women do not like wars, because they do not want their beloved fellow citizens to die. So, give women an education, and they will play a major role in peace building.

How should peace activists work around non-democratic governments?

Peace activists have always worked around non-democratic governments, in spite of the many difficulties they face. Peace activists work peacefully and with time they are likely to reach their goals. They must not abandon their activism in spite of the hurdles (that may be violent) placed by non-democratic governments. Resistance is the word that applies in this case, resistance often ends up in success.


Where does the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) come in, and how is the organization helping with your work?

ICAN has given me the opportunity to meet women from different parts of the world that have non-democratic governments but that are hoping for a better life in their countries. Sharing experiences, that are sometimes quite similar, is important because it enlightens our minds and brings hope to the hopeless. We learn about weaknesses and strengths and that helps hope to come. Learning about other people’s experiences and discussing them enlightens us and broadens our minds. Therefore, education plus sharing experiences are essential and they do help us with our work.

What are you hoping to get out of this UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) Conference?

Each year, women from all over the world meet to see the advances made, and what remains to be done. A lot remains to be done. Although Tunisia has been the most advanced in the Arab world in terms of rights, for example we are the only country where polygamy was abolished in 1956, much remains to be done. In Tunisia, the toughest issue is that of inheritance rights: in Islam, a woman inherits half of a man’s share. The Qur’an is clear about the issue: there is no equality in inheritance. But, with the group of women in ATFD (Tunisian Association of Democratic Women) we are continuing the fight, finding explanations why society and means of living have changed so the laws must also change. A group of experts briefed a parliamentary commission in Tunisia. We are still waiting for the result. For example, they said that women can no longer rely, as it was the custom, on a male relative to provide for them. Also, women are often mothers and themselves in charge of older relatives. And, women pay taxes, just like men, therefore, they deserve equal rights.

We are also working very hard to help women victims of violence, as women no longer hide the violence they survive (from husbands, fathers, companions, ex-husbands or ex-companions). Women’s shelters have been founded, the first one was created by ATFD.

At the CSW I am hoping to learn about positive changes from all around the world.



International Civil Society Action Network is a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to support civil society activism in promoting women’s rights, peace and human security in countries affected by conflict, transition and closed political space. ICAN aims to support women’s efforts through bridging the divisions between activists and the policy community, elevating the voices and experiences of women activists, building skills and ensuring the exchange of knowledge and resources.