“Managing to establish a dialogue and be taken seriously was a real challenge.”
A young, modern and educated woman, Sayida Ounissi represents the new face of the moderate Islamist Movement party Ennahda (“Renaissance” in Arabic). At 28 years old, she is a congresswoman in the Tunisian parliament and a noteworthy figure in the party.
Profoundly Islamic in its identity but moderate in its politics, Ennahda came to power in the first elections after the Tunisian Revolution of 2010-11. After two controversial years in power, Ennahda conceded defeat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, a peaceful transition that marked a milestone in Tunisia’s national transformation into a full democracy.
During an interim in which Ennahda’s legislative power has been reduced, the party is completing its transformation from an opposition party that suffered repression under Tunisia’s former leader into a modern political force.
Against the backdrop of the party’s rapid modernization, Ounissi, the daughter of persecuted Ennahda supporters who has performed doctoral research in political sciences at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, has become an important member of the party. An avid Twitter user, her tweets and commentary were widely quoted in international media in the aftermath of the recent attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Her education in France and strong commitment to youth outreach and women’s rights have made her a rising political star in a country still struggling to define itself in the increasingly turbulent landscape of the Middle East-North Africa region.
HuffPost Maghreb sat down with the young politician to talk about her political and personal evolution and her views on Tunisia's future over the next 10 years.
What would you like to accomplish on a personal level in the next 10 years?
I would like to be in a position to propose a new dynamic in the relationship between the state, the elected representatives and the citizens of Tunisia. Like all societies, we have a tradition of political governance that is unique to us. I find that Tunisia’s current system is one of the major obstacles in the practice of citizenship on the one hand, and one of the principal causes of the lack of transparency and responsibility on the other.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced in the last year?
Being elected and being credible as a parliamentarian at my age. Being a 28-year-old young woman implies a double handicap in any competition. All the more so in a patriarchal society still in transition to a democracy. I had to prove that I knew my work well enough while showing initiative, team spirit and being agreeable. It’s funny showing up in coed cafes to talk with totally disillusioned Tunisians. First comes surprise, then disdain, then interest and finally discussion. Managing to establish a dialogue and be taken seriously is a real challenge.
Who has been your role model in your adult life?
My mom has been the person who has shaped my view of the world and my understanding of the role of women the most. She always made sure to bring up her children as citizens who are responsible for themselves as well as for others. When I was six years old, she dragged us behind her during protests against the Tunisian dictatorship in Paris, then pro-Palestine ones, then ones against the war in Iraq, and the many charitable activities catering to the most impoverished. She always shared her meals with neighbors and gave the best beds to her guests. By putting the comfort of others above her own and considering the sensibilities of those around her, she proved to us that we could give of ourselves without becoming financially or emotionally impoverished.
What topic would you like to see the media cover more or better?
Positive topics and good news of all kinds, coming from all over the world. There is this preconceived notion that the most tragic news is the most economically profitable. I’m not completely sure about that. Given the number of views and shares that videos and articles carrying a positive message get on social media, I believe that readers need someone telling them what is going well, too.
Who is the one person, still living, that you admire most?
Zoulaykha Gharbi, a Tunisian woman, wife of Mohamed Mouldi Gharbi, a former political prisoner. She was tortured by Tunisian security forces that were looking for her husband. She dared to file a complaint against her torturer some years later, after having met him in France in 2008. Sexual aggression and torture were among the weapons used by Dictator [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali’s regime against political opponents and their families. I continue to find her marvelously brave. I often think of her when I myself am in a situation where I have to report on or take action against an act of injustice. I find strength in her example.
What advice would you give to a young man or woman who is trying to decide what he or she should do in life?
Whenever I have the chance, I tell those younger than I am and those who belong to my generation: Let’s not be afraid of diverging from the beaten path. Let’s not be afraid of doing things differently, of taking the time we need to reach our potential, and let’s free ourselves from the models of success that have been imposed upon us. Let’s create our own success.
What are you most grateful for?
My family. Like all families, we have had to overcome hardships together. Every time, it makes us stronger and brings us closer. My brothers and my sister are my most trusted advisers. They make sure that I don’t lose my way or get a swollen head! It’s thanks to my family that I can devote myself fully to my role and to my new mission. A loving, funny family allows you to put things in perspective when you get home in the evening. It allows you to move past the daily struggles, the humiliation, the failures and in my case, the critics and the low blows.
How do you keep informed?
I have several news sources. Traditional online media, social networks and, specifically, Twitter. I never buy written newspapers -- only magazines. And, finally, I make my own news.
What cause or problem would you like to see resolved in the next ten years?
In the next ten years, I would like for us to be able to guarantee freedom of movement for all Tunisians. The issue of migration can no longer be viewed solely through the prism of security or economic threat. I believe that if we work hard enough to showcase our country’s attractions, we will be on our way. And that process is about returning to what has always been there: the possibility of coming and going between different places. I would like for us to rid our minds of this idea that the borders are impassable unless you risk death by jumping on a boat to Europe.
What is the first thing that you do when you wake up in the morning?
I wash myself and I pray the Fajr (morning prayer). Starting my day that way allows me to keep a precious spiritual stability. It’s a moment of meditation that is so necessary before a daily schedule that is often long and filled with stress.
What do you do to de-stress, recharge your batteries and keep a balance?
I do housework and gardening. I spend my days outside, at the assembly, at professional meetings or at public events. When you’re a political figure, even socializing becomes a part of work. On the contrary, being at home, taking care of your house, organizing a space to feel good, it’s something that allows me to take a break from it all. Caring for flowers and watering the plants in the garden teaches me patience and respect for our surroundings.
Finish this sentence: In 2025, we will be…
In 2025, we will be capable of acknowledging that a woman deserves the same salary as a man and that paternity leave is necessary for the stability of our infants.
What is a current trend that we might think of in 10 years with disbelief?
In 10 years, I think that we will find it bizarre that at one time, you were obligated by family and society to dish out almost 10,000 dinars and/or to put yourself in debt in order to be able to get married.
How many hours do you sleep every night? What is the importance of sleep to you?
I sleep between six to eight hours a night. Sleep is very important to me. At times when there is a lot of stress and intense work, I don’t sleep a lot. But I happily make up for it as soon as I get the chance. In spite of being tired, I don’t always go to bed early, because of political life in Tunisia. I always have the feeling that the big uprisings will happen at night.
What do you value the most?
Intellectual integrity. I always try to look at the whole picture and be as rational as possible when analyzing any given issue. I believe, for example, we would avoid a lot of mistakes and save an enormous amount of time if we all had intellectual integrity.
This piece was originally published by HuffPost Maghreb and was translated into English. It has been condensed and adapted for an American audience.