More interviews with Tunisian activists

Submitted by AWL on 20 April, 2011 - 1:03

Mounjia Hadfi is a women’s rights activist and Marxist based in Tunis.

Under the dictatorship, and today, we see patriarchal attitudes every day. Part of that has to do with our culture here in Tunisia, even in spite of our legal victories such as the banning of polygamy in 1950 and laws guaranteeing the right to abortion and so on, which were passed in the 1970s as part of the population planning policy.

But sexist mentalities and oppression persist. Many women have even internalised these attitudes! We must unveil all the forms of oppression and all the sexist attitudes which exist.

We see political and economic violence against women. Unemployment is one such form — and the criminalisation of poverty. And the feminisation of poverty.

Poverty has a woman’s face. Why? Because of their precarious status. In underdeveloped countries women are not protected by laws which could guarantee a level of quality of life. So since the business closures came in 2000 the crushing majority of victims have been women.

Women are discriminated against in the realm of inheritance law.

Also, after 14 January we have seen a huge expansion in the political presence and confidence of fundamentalist groups. We are fighting for a secular constitution but they are making it harder. You see these groups in the street and they have absolutely no political programme to offer — except on the question of whether or not the constitution should be secular!

So we must fight for secularism and democracy. In the elections for the Constituent Assembly, we must guard against any drift — away from secularism but also away from rights which we have already won. The old RCDists who are re-organising are not the only counter-revolutionaries. There are also the fundamentalists, even through they fake and claim to be for the revolution and human rights. This will be a great battle and we need all the democratic forces to take part.

The struggle goes on. We need a constitution to protect our rights. Patriarchal attitudes are deeply rooted and have grown up with capitalism, which is why patriarchal politics and pro-capitalist politics go so closely together. It will be a long fight — and for me, the fight against sexist oppression has to be a fight against capitalism.

Atef Ben Hassine is a stage and cinema actor in Tunisia.

My new play, “Intox”, is split up into two parts. The first part is set before the revolution and the second part is about our fears for the future of the revolution.

We’re afraid of the revolution being derailed and turned back into the old regime. We don’t trust the old regime. In the play, we put a president in place who is a famous public figure, his face is in all the primers in the schools: “Abi [papa] Mabrouk”. The point is, we should refuse a president who is a “father to the people” — we should just have a President who is employed by the state. We don’t want a father: that is the essential message of the play.

Under Ben Ali, there were two types of art: official art, empty and tacky; and another art, unofficial, under censorship. But in the theatre, we were cleverer than the censor: we had ways of expressing ideas that the censor could not understand.

We would treat social themes — the problem of theatre was the problem of the citizen in Tunisia. We couldn’t talk about politics. But we could put on productions which spoke about social conditions.

Plays were not eliminated, but it worked like this: the state was both producer and distributor. When you were censored, your play didn’t get bought. But that doesn’t mean your play was banned. They didn’t directly ban plays.

Will censorship continue? Let’s say that this latest play is the first time I have performed without having to go before the “commission” and obtain a “visa”.

The revolution has opened horizons. It’s a question of what’s in people’s heads. The thing with this freedom is that we now have to educate Tunisians to be free and accept difference: it’s a matter of democratic culture. I believe artists are responsible for educating people in accepting new ideas. We must see the importance of the artist if we want to really teach people to speak freely.

Regime theatre was very populistic. There was no message, political or social, it was empty. Just jokes, no substance, nothing noble. It was grotesque — but malformed, there is at least art in the grotesque but there was none here. It was boudouro — real cheap.

There is no theatre in the working-class neighbourhoods. We have not had that experience. It is something we have dreamed of, a people’s theatre, but it hasn’t happened. If I went now and did a play in a working-class neighbourhood, got dressed up, it would turn people’s heads around: and the state did not like the thought of that. It would be great to see an infrastructure which would allow theatre in these neighbourhoods — but that takes preparation and resources.

What you see in the streets in the way of popular culture is music, because it’s easier for a musician to just come up and play in the street. If I went into a café now and put on a spectacle, people wouldn’t accept it.

We talk a lot about the social and political aspect of the revolution — work, money, dignity. That’s true. But we must not forget the cultural aspect. If we want to win this revolution, it will come via ideas, via people’s heads. That’s the role of art and artists.

I teach theatre, and teaching to think differently is part of that work for me. We must educate people, and theatre, art is a part of that.

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