Aya Chebbi is an award winning, Pan African blogger, photographer, women advocate and Peace activist. In this interview with YouthHubAfrica she shares on what drives her and her plans for the future.
Q: Who is Aya Chebbi?
A: A proudly Tunisian citizen and African visionary
Q: From photographer to politician to activist. How did it all start and why?
A: I started as a mentor and trainer for kids in summer camps, facilitator of workshops to hospitalized children with cancers, disabled and orphans, peer educator on reproductive health HIV/AIDS and a volunteer teacher for the unprivileged children. My experience witnessing kids’ suffering, death and poverty from social injustices has given a purpose to my life to wake up every day bearing in mind that I have to give because life is not only about taking but also giving back. These kids have given me a definition of who I should be everyday, serving others, uplifting others, inspiring others… and these are deep-rooted in my talk, principles, actions and humans rights advocacy to be able to change something for them.
When Tunisia’s revolution sparked in 2010, I found myself ready to be fully involved in the change making. A strong sense of belonging and unity emerged with the uprising, because the fear had vanished. I had then an even bigger purpose: to give to my nation. The revolution started at my graduation year during the last semester but I was constantly in the street challenging George Orwell’s 1984 totalitarian regime outside the classroom. I found myself a protester, photographer, blogger, documenter, elections observer, campaigner, organizer and mobilizer…
Q: What notable impact has your blog and work had on Tunisia and Tunisian youth on “securing what was gained” by the Revolution of Dignity?
A: My blog Proudly Tunisian is mainly in English and that’s because it is targeting the international community. Our story outside Tunisia has been manipulated in many ways by Gulf and international media outlets and politics. Blogging in itself, for me, is exercising the right of freedom of expression which we have been deprived of for years. I would consider freedom of expression as the main gain from the revolution. I use my blog to shed the lights on political, social and cultural issues, to document human rights violations and people’s stories and even to correct information released by mainstream media or to cover the misreported or underreported stories.
Q: How has being a woman and a young one at that impacted the work you do? Have you faced any significant cultural barriers or marginalization as a result of being a woman?
A: Unfortunately being a woman in the 21st century is still a big challenge on so many levels. Being a woman in Tunisia, despite all the advancements in feminist movement, I receive a good deal of patriarchy on a daily basis. When I volunteered at the refugee camps at the Tunisian- Libyan borders, the onsite organizers would agree that I deal with the children but not to organize the adults, they used to say “it’s will be a mess so they need a man to handle it”. I’ve seen even military women denied this task because of “only men ability” to handle it. How can we decide for ourselves if societal norms oppress our personnel choices, paralyzes our abilities and interferes not only in our relationships and space but even worse with our professions contesting our leadership?
The last time I went to the Egyptian embassy in Tunis to claim against my ban from entering Egypt, the Egyptian ambassador harassed me instead of solving my issue… and it’s never been solved because of my defensive attitude to his harassment! The list is endless of gender based harassment, violence, decisions, and patriarchy. And it remains tough and challenging as a woman to travel around Africa and work with men as equals and counterpart.
Q: Do you still have plans to go into politics or are you content to drive change from the sidelines?
A: I know that I will be driving change, whether from the street, the fieldwork or the diplomatic offices, what matters for me is that my work continues to follow my vision and respect my values with integrity.
Q: What are your plans for Proudly Tunisian and for your future?
A: Proudly Tunisian will continue to change the narrative about Tunisia, Africa and the Middle East.
For the future, I live with no expectations as I live in the region where everyday is full of unexpected news! We have just elected a new Parliament and President and I believe we shall claim our space as young people at the leadership by getting ready during the five years leading up to the next elections while continuing to contribute to re-building our country at many levels. I’m pursuing my masters next year in African Studies with a focus on governance, security and conflict resolution. I’m concerned about the issue of terrorism in Africa and particularly in Tunisia following the assassination of two prominent opposition leaders and continuous loss of our soldiers. I’m contributing to exposing this issue in my capacity as a blogger, columnist and filmmaker but I think after our campaign for BringBackOurGirls in Sri Lanka, I realized that I shall do more at the policy level and as a scholar and mediator.
Q: You recently were involved in starting the African Youth Movement, what is this about and what do you hope to achieve with the movement?
A: I started the African Youth Movement (AYM) about two years ago as just a Facebook Group that gathers all the inspiring Africans I met in different places inside and outside the continent from all works of life. This summer, I decided to take it to another level and synchronize the energies for a common vision. I organized a series of Google Hangouts through which we decided together on our shared vision, values and actions. Many people thought at the beginning that I already had “a vision” that I want them to follow, but my vision was actually to bring us Africans together, express our concerns and discuss solutions then see what we come up with! I wanted us to practice the values we claim to advocate for as transparency, participatory democracy, inclusiveness and giving a voice to everyone… it wasn’t an easy process but I tried to make it transparent through live broadcasted and recorded meetings, inclusive follow up through all online means possible for the participation of all those in the group. I didn’t also want to create something new but rather “to connect the dots”, to connect all the existing movements, formal and informal groups, and youth workers.
Traveling around the continent as a Tunisian, my hardcore mission has become re-defining Pan-Africanism by bridging the North with the rest of the continent. So, I hope with AYM, we can concretize the African values of togetherness by connecting all African regions and nations with each other and strengthening a common identity.
AYM is becoming a movement of young thinkers with strong ideology based on African values rather than a structured institutionalized entity. It’s an action experiment for me and for all those onboard with me to try everything differently from what we’ve been failing to achieve for Africa. But to change things for youth in Africa, we need to influence policy and decision-makers, and that’s another objective of AYM, though we’re not a political movement but we strive for youth political participation, influencing policies nationally, regionally and internationally.
Lastly, I hope also for AYM to be a safe support system where any member can have our support at all levels backing their meaningful work and a space where any idea can see the light, just like Mashujaa Magazine that came up as an idea from one of the group members and now 7 amazing people who have never met physically are working together on publishing its first edition.
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