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In Tunisia, the death of feminist activist and trade unionist Ahlem Belhadj


She had passed the torch, without ever giving up the fight. Heard in 2017 before the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), the commission created after the Tunisian revolution, to investigate the human rights violations committed by the state in 1955 and 2013, Ahlem Belhadj returned to his rich career as an activist . “Generations of Tunisian women will continue the fight”, she confided, full of hope. Trotskyist, trade unionist and feminist, the child psychiatrist and teacher died on Saturday March 11 following a long illness at the age of 58.

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Originally from Korba, a small town on the northeast coast of Tunisia, Ahlem Belhadj entered the Faculty of Medicine of Tunis in 1982. The university campus, still steeped in the protest movements of high school and university students of the previous year, is in full boiling. “My generation was radicalized at that time”, remembers Olfa Lamloum, a former comrade in the fight. Ahlem Belhadj joined the revolutionary communist movement of Trotskyist tendency (the Tunisian section of the Fourth International) where she met her future husband, Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami.

At the same time, the activist participated on March 8, 1983 in an event organized by feminists from the Tahar Haddad group, on the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day. “It was my first encounter with the feminist movementshe says, during her hearing before the IVD. At the time, we could not celebrate March 8 without being subjected to pressure from power, Islamists, but also from the left. » The feminist movement under construction is already disturbing.

“A woman of all fights”

In 1989, everything accelerated. Freshly graduated, Ahlem Belhadj joined the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and relaunched the “women’s committee” within the central trade union. The same year, she undertook with her Trotskyist comrades a campaign to boycott the legislative elections organized by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali following the coup d’etat of November 7, 1987. “We went out around 4 a.m. with our leaflets to distribute them in a working-class neighborhoodremembers Olfa Lamloum with a hint of nostalgia. In the early morning, we went to hang them on the walls of Bab Saadoun hospitals [à Tunis], Ahlem must have been an intern at the time. »

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A few months later, on August 6, 1989, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) obtained its legal visa. Ahlem Belhadj adheres to it in stride. “She is a woman of all fights”, insists Hafidha Chekir, founding member of the ATFD and longtime friend. “Even in adversity, repression and illness, she always stood strong”adds Bochra Belhaj Hamida, former president of the association.

Very quickly, the repression against ATFD activists intensified, with the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali taking a dim view of this competition on the issue of women’s rights, which until then had been a monopoly of power. “The Tunisian State, since Bourguiba, presented itself as the spokesperson for women’s rights (…). This is what we called state feminism. At the time of Ben Ali, it became Tunisia’s democratic showcase.explains Ahlem Belhadj during his hearing before the IVD.

Defend a “transversal feminism”

In the 1990s, the authorities tried to silence feminist activists by various means: telephone tapping, prohibition of public meetings, censorship, attacks on private life and daily harassment. Despite everything, the ATFD created its listening center in 1993 and welcomed political opponents and women victims of violence to its premises.

In the early 2000s, the noose tightened further on the activist when her husband was prosecuted and then imprisoned. At the same time, she became president of the ATFD for the first time in 2004. From this period, Ahlem Belhadj keeps the memory of the humiliations, the physical and moral violence, the harassment of her family and her children: “I didn’t go to prison, but I was in a big prison”she specifies in front of the IVD.

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From the revolts in the mining area in 2008 to the fall of Ben Ali in 2011, Ahlem Belhadj will never stop defending a “transversal feminism, which crosses all struggles”. She is also working on this by defending the integration of LGBT + causes into the objectives of the association after having returned for a second term in 2012. “It is thanks to her that we were able to move forward on this issue”assures Hafidha Chekir.


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Head of the child psychiatry department in a public hospital, Ahlem Belhadj is also actively involved in the health sector and in favor of autistic children. “Ahlem was a radical woman, firm in her positions, but always attentive and full of love”describes Bochra Belhaj Hamida.

Mother of two children, Ahlem Belhadj was buried on March 12 in Korba, her hometown. She was accompanied to her final resting place by her family, friends and fellow soldiers.