Bochra Belhaj Hmida is a Tunisian lawyer, politician and prominent women’s rights activist. In 1989 she co-founded the Democrat Tunisian Women Association (Association tunisienne des femmes democrats – ATFD) and served as its president between 1994 to 1998.
BOCHRA BELHAJ HMIDA – TUNESIA
“Women are the new face of the reformist energies in Tunisia”
Why did you become a political activist in Tunisia? It started during my childhood, I grew up in the middle of the political upheaval against the regime of Ben Ali. Furthermore, cinema and reading books gave me the energy to fight for my mother’s dream, that I become a strong independent women, a lawyer and a voice for freedom. Why did you found the Democrat Tunisian Women Association (Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates – ATFD), in 1989 which seeks to promote women’s rights and gender equality? The ATFD was the result of our debate about the situation of Tunisian women at the time. It was our goal to establish a platform for women to express themselves freely. The ATFD is a network of women who believed in empowerment through education. That is why we launched a review dedicated for women to talk about the meaning of democracy. Women are the new face of the reformist energies in Tunisia.
Bochra Belhaj Hmida at the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Tunis.
What is your personal motivation to work for democratic improvement? I am motivated by the dream of free political speech. I fight every day to create an environment where everyone can express their opinion freely and safely, without limitations. This is needed in Tunisia after the revolution in order to practice democracy, and to strengthen and to improve civic engagement and the role of politics. Have you experienced any personal consequences in the past due to your political visibility and activism? Before the revolution, personal pressure was part of our daily life: the police were eavesdropping on our calls and were following us to normal meetings with our friends. Physical abuse regularly happened during protests, while we experienced verbal abuse each time we had a discussion with a police agent. Even my sister suffered personal consequences due to my political engagement. I was dreaming of inviting someone to my house without being followed. And each week you will find an article about us in the press talking badly about the association that I founded. After the revolution, the situation has changed and many of the threats have moved to the online sphere and social media, where I now receive direct death threats. That is why I have been under personal protection since 2013. When we published a report calling for equality in inheritance law I was exposed to a huge amount of hate speech. There were campaigns about my physical appearance and disinformation was spread about the report everywhere. I received direct threats on messenger services saying that they will be killing me soon.
What form of hate speech and verbal hostility are you exposed to on the internet? On top of the example I have just described, there were campaigns insulting me that were launched each time I was talking about LGBTI rights and the heritage law. I still remember the time when my Facebook channel was linked with awful photos mocking me for three successive days. How do you defend yourself against these campaigns? I do not get involved in those campaigns. If you do so, you will lose your cause. But my mother was a source of concern for me because seeing the online campaigns against me makes her very upset and sad. I do correct false information that is disseminated about me because disinformation campaigns can destroy the cause I am working for. Or sometimes I do select some messages where I respond to the accusing aspect of the sender and I am trying my best to open a debate with him. I engage in these occasional debates because I want to make those people who are vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation understand that I am defending their rights and their safety too.