Hivos International

Ikram Ben Saïd: "Humanitarian work is not enough"

Ikram Ben Said is a dynamic, outgoing, bright-eyed young Tunisian woman. She does not hesitate to give her age, "I’m 34 years old and the president and founder of Aswat Nissa (Women’s Voices), which exists since 2011, the beginning of the Tunisian revolution,” she says proudly. 

Her organisation aims to promote an egalitarian and inclusive society. “In the morning, I think a lot about what I’m going to wear before going out,” not only to be elegant but also “to avoid harassment or a look ... especially because I don’t have a car, I use public transportation or taxis and have to be careful about what I wear,” she says.

Single and young, her fight starts in the details of her private life, "We don’t have that much real individual freedom; I always have to watch out for what the neighbours might say."

When it comes to Tunisia, one often recalls the famous Code of Personal Status, in which, among other things, polygamy was abolished in 1957. For Ikram, it is undeniable that “laws shape minds", but the Code of Personal Status was “extraordinary for the 50s” she says, putting things in perspective. “If the Tunisian man does not marry four women today, it’s not because he’s “monogamous”, but because this new culture eventually merged with his DNA," she adds, laughing.

Involved in defending human rights, she realised after her experience in the 2000s with Amal, an organisation assisting single mothers of children born out of wedlock, that "humanitarian work is not enough; these [women’s] rights depend on policies and laws.” This explains her present work with Aswat Nissa, especially within the project ‘Women’s Political Academy’ that supports future women candidates in municipal elections. This project earned her organisation the prestigious Madeleine K. Albright Award in June 2014.

Passionate, active before and after the Tunisian Revolution, she matured thanks to her experiences as a young woman. Living in a conservative society with a Muslim culture, she says, “I am a practising Muslim and I have a very progressive perception of Islam.” She then continues with the confidence of a woman who reflects on sacred texts, “When God says in the Qur'an, ‘I will create a caliph on earth’ speaking of Adam and humanity in general, I too am the caliph of God; he gave me carte blanche, he did not say ‘I'm going to create a man caliph’.”

Even though she is struggling against mainstream laws and mentalities that restrict women’s rights and assign them duties inferior to men’s, she remains aware of her environment and society, which she defines as "masculine, macho, and where political parties are secular but not democratic”. Under the Ben Ali regime, she was committed to helping single women and their children because it had to be done, “It was not directly about politics, but you can always do something to make a difference,” she says. With the revolution, “possibilities are countless thanks to the freedom we won”. This ‘Pasionaria’s’ free spirit is undoubtedly her best ally.