Everything else

Notes From a Revolution: An Interview With Roula Seghaier

A teenage activist talks to us about her role in the Arab Spring and everything after.

Collage by Minna

On December 17, 2010, an extreme act of desperation and frustration literally changed the world: when Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor from the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, had his produce confiscated by a police officer—and this after reportedly enduring years of harassment at the hands of corrupt local officials—he stood in front of a local government building, poured a can of paint thinner on himself, and set himself on fire. He died in the hospital a few weeks later. In the wake of his self-immolation, Tunisians, including thousands of young people, took to the street in protest, demanding jobs, dignity, and justice, and calling for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country since 1987, to step down. Less than one month later, on January 14th of 2011, Ben Ali boarded a plane and fled to Saudi Arabia.

I was living in the south of France at the time and watching news coverage of what was happening in Tunisia. I remember crying when I saw footage of people out on the streets, protesting for change. But it wasn’t over. Inspired by Tunisia, the people of Egypt and Libya ousted their own corrupt leaders, and demonstrators challenged authority throughout Arab countries all over the Middle East and North Africa. There was energy in the air, like anything was possible, and like things that should always be possible—like the right to a life lived with dignity and humanity—were being fought for fiercely, bravely, and loudly.

That summer, I left France and began teaching at a creative writing summer camp for high school students in Iowa City. My camp had partnered with another program, Between the Lines (BTL), which invites teenagers from Arabic-speaking countries to take workshops alongside American teenagers. One evening, I attended a round-table discussion with BTL students about their experience and involvement in the Arab Spring—the term for the wave of revolutionary activity that started after Bouazizi’s self-immolation. One student, Roula Seghaier, talked about a demonstration she organized in her hometown in Tunisia. She was irreverent and serious and beautiful and hilarious about her experience.

Roula was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and lived there for eight years with her grandmother before moving to Tunisia to be with her parents. She was a skeptic from an early age, seeing through Ben Ali’s secular government to its repressive and anti-democratic core, and she was thrown in jail at the age of 17 for protesting his regime. I caught up with her via Skype in September, just nine days before her 19th birthday. She lives in Beirut now, but is spending a semester abroad in Washington, D.C., where she’s studying political science at American University. She was four days into a six-day hunger strike when we spoke.

Hi Roula! So tell me more about the hunger strike?

The Students for Justice in Palestine are protesting Israel’s detention of Palestians without cause. We’re standing in solidarity with the Palestinian detainees. It’s almost our fifth day, and we are dying. We were supposed to do it until they are released, but it’s just not realistic. It sounds ridiculous, like, “Oh, it was too hard.”

It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all! I’m impressed and moved by what you are doing. Have you ever gone on a hunger strike before?

No, this is my first.

Were you raised to be religious?

Yeah. My mom is Russian orthodox, and my father tried to raise me Muslim. I had 13 years of Islamic education. I used to get straight As, and everyone used to laugh, because I was the only atheist in the class, and the only person scoring As. My father used to hang pictures of Allah in my room, and I would cry. He would ask me, “Why are you crying?” And I would tell him: “It’s not pretty!” So he bought me a pink frame to make it pretty. I didn’t come out to him as an atheist until last year.

Was he upset?

Well, he called me during Ramadan this year, and for the first time, he didn’t ask me if I was fasting.

When did you first become aware of oppressive elements in the Tunisian government?

Very early. In my primary school years, I knew there was something wrong. We had a civics class that taught us that Tunisia is a democratic country. That was the only sentence you had to write in order to get your A. You could do a weather report for two pages and then say, “Tunisia is a democratic country.” I realized that wasn’t true. My father was banned from working as a journalist because of his Islamic tendencies.

Another example: in Tunisia, if you are a hairdresser, that carries a social stigma, because the girls who become hairdressers are usually dropouts. The wife of our ex-president [Ben Ali] was a hairdresser. So for 23 years, we did not have a single commercial for hair products. Not on TV, not on a billboard, not anywhere, because the president was so afraid that people would see shampoo and be like, “Oh, his wife is a hairdresser!” We’ve always had censored books and media. In May 2010, we organized a flash mob in protest.

Who organized it?

It’s hard to track it back to one person. Mainly students, and some famous bloggers, like Slim Amamou and Lina Ben Mhenni. I was just one of the local organizers in my city, getting volunteers to attend. People were supposed to show up in T-shirts that said something in Tunisian, like “John Doe 404,” because when you went to a website that was censored, it said “error 404.” When we went to get the T-shirts printed at a factory, the guy refused to print them. So we changed the sentence, but he still refused, and so we changed it a third time, and he said OK. When we went back to get the T-shirts, the police arrested us. That time, I was released, because I had my Russian passport.

Page

1 2 3

38 Comments

  • Libby October 23rd, 2012 3:18 PM

    This is amazing.

  • TinaBallerina October 23rd, 2012 3:34 PM

    I. LOVE. THIS.

    I’m a enviromental activist myself, but this girl seems so amazing and brave. <3

  • Abby October 23rd, 2012 3:43 PM

    Thank you. You are… an amazing human being. I hate that teenagers in the US always complain about things, like politics that they don’t like, but won’t do anything about it. The young people of Tunisia toppled an entire government in a month. Why can’t we even get politicians to listen to us? Because we just complain, complain, complain, but don’t do anything. We don’t vote, we don’t get involved, we don’t do anything. This is why politicians don’t cater to us. Anyway, thank you, Roula Seghaier, for being freaking awesome.

  • jenaimarley October 23rd, 2012 3:45 PM

    This is why I love Rookie so much.
    Getting to hear from a girl about my age who is actually present in these situations that I only hear about in the news is such a phenomenal opportunity. Let alone the fact that she is such an incredibly brave inspiration!
    Her last words are amazingly powerful–don’t make assumptions or take things for granted and if you have to summarize someone else, summarize them with the commonality of humanity.

    Thank you for everything you do and enjoy the omelet, Roula!

  • macks October 23rd, 2012 3:49 PM

    Fantastic article. She is such an inspiration.

  • raggedyanarchy October 23rd, 2012 4:10 PM

    This is great! Roula is such an inspiration! The post-revolution time with all the looting and violence sounds terrifying.

  • Mary the freak October 23rd, 2012 4:10 PM

    She’s amazing.

    ALSO; THERE’S SPOCK IN THE BACKGROUND TODAY! YAY FOR STAR TREK! (sorry, this doesn’t belong here, but I needed to tell this.)

    And she’s so awesome. Everybody who is struggling for freedom there deserves huge respect. <3

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • bethhhh October 23rd, 2012 4:13 PM

    This is a really inspiring interview and it’s helped me understand their revolution as well. Roula, you are badass.

  • koalabears October 23rd, 2012 5:32 PM

    This is so true, how people take things for granted. This article is just amazing, I don’t think I would find something like that in any other teen magazine.

  • puffling October 23rd, 2012 5:42 PM

    Great interview, and I am very pleased to see the mention of the Palestinian hunger strikers.
    I would love to see Rookie talk about Palestine – maybe talking to teenage girls in Aida Refugee Camp, for example?

  • alisatimi October 23rd, 2012 7:45 PM

    This is absolutely amazing. I think a lot of teenagers don’t really know how to get involved and are a bit scared to take the initiative because it’s not something that’s encouraged. I’m Russian and even my family, who is quite outspoken in their criticism of the government, didn’t want me to participate in the demonstrations in Moscow this summer. While they obviously had legitimate concerns for my safety, I think it was mainly because of how people see teenagers – we’re just too young, our opinions don’t really count no matter what they are. Thank god Rookie exists.

  • KusterBeaton October 23rd, 2012 7:50 PM

    Yes! I love love love what Roula said about how if you have to summarize someone summarize them as a human being, because really what’s more important than that?ALSO– you guys should do an article about the Syrian revolution, there’s so much going on and though it’s not easy to get in touch with people inside Syria I just found out that a group of Syrian women formed an all women’s resistance brigade and are fighting on the frontline in Aleppo. Also Syrian writer Samar Yazbek wrote a book called A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution about the first 100 days of the revolution which I HIGHLY recommend. It’s just a crazy and sad thing but beautiful in the way that the Syrian people are persevering. THAT IS ALL.

  • Olivia October 23rd, 2012 8:36 PM

    This is really great. Opened my eyes.

  • Nomi October 23rd, 2012 8:53 PM

    This girl is very brave and kudos to her for standing up for what she believes in. However, I would like to hear a little more about Israel’s side. Plenty of times Israelis are held prisoner in Pakistan with unfair treatment and there is little to no media attention about most of these cases (excepting Gilad Shalit).

  • AnaRuiz October 23rd, 2012 10:55 PM

    That’s new to me, a Muslim supporting the Palestinian cause.

    • puffling October 24th, 2012 12:34 AM

      Palestinians are predominately Muslim though! Most Palestine solidarity work I have seen has been done by Muslims!

    • puffling October 24th, 2012 12:37 AM

      Also, Roula states in the interview that despite what her father may want, she is not a Muslim but an atheist.

    • mismatchedsocks October 26th, 2012 1:02 PM

      You can’t be serious… Majority of Palestinians are Muslim. Majority of their supporters are Muslim.

  • maris October 24th, 2012 12:56 AM

    Just realized that I’ve seen this girl on the Quad before, when she was with the group doing the hunger strikes. Never occurred to me that she might be an ass-kicking Tunisian activist.

    I love my school.

  • 1tsplove October 24th, 2012 1:18 AM

    Dear Rookie,

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU

    This is such an important article that the American public desperately needs. Voices like these (especially when they are pro-Palestine like Roula) are often completely ignored or worse silenced by mainstream media sources.

    THANK YOU!
    - Sara

    Dear Roula,

    I grew up in a Muslim community, and while I still identify as Muslim, my best friends from that community now identify as atheist. As difficult as it was for their parents initially, they came to accept their children. So be patient with your family, it will pay off.

    In the US, many of our Muslim-American communities are very social justice-minded. What I love is that even as people choose to no longer be Muslim, they continue to be activists because of values they learned growing up (equal and fair treatment of women, the poor, etc.). I wouldn’t try to claim it’s the same in Tunisia, but I just wanted to share my experience.

    Finally, you are amazing. I really believe we are living in a time of real global shifts and activists like you are making it happen. I hope the movement is able to stay strong and resist the influence of Islamists.

    LOVE,
    sara

  • ivoire October 24th, 2012 2:01 AM

    Wow, major inspiration right here.
    Well, I think I know what I want in life now.

  • a-anti-anticapitalista October 24th, 2012 8:49 AM

    This is great, I love it when Rookie does stuff like this to inspire young people (and adult ones too!) to get active.
    Just one thing that I think would be worth thinking about though: maybe I’m wrong (although I read rookie consistently) but I’ve never seen Rookie make articles about the political repression going on in the US and in Canada, about the things that have happened in the different free trade agreements in Toronto, Seattle, Miami, etc., about the persecution and repression that happened in Quebec -and about how the students there managed to freeze tuition in spite of the repression!- and about the current persecution of anarchists, including the 3 that have been subpoenaed and taken to a grand jury, and sent to jail (one which is out and just recently spoke out against the sexism shown by both enemies and supporters while she was in jail). How come rookie spoke out when Pussy Riot was arrested, but not when these people were broken into their homes by homeland security simply because they were suspected of being anarchists? About how HS is doing this just to find anarchist literature, therefore making even reading about anarchism practically illegal? It just continues giving people the American exceptionalist idea that all third world governments are corrupt and America -although having issues- does not torture people psychologically (both citizens and those abroad) and put them in solitary confinement simply for being anarchists/communists/green activists and not wanting to tell them about other anarchists/communists/greens they know.

  • a-anti-anticapitalista October 24th, 2012 9:19 AM

    Also, I can totally identify with the thing about her parents, and the fact that she was running such a high risk only carrying a Russian passport gives me a lot of encouragement. I’m not a citizen and my parents are always telling me the exact same thing they tell her, and on top of that are scared that if I get arrested I could get kicked out of the country so they always get paranoid when I go out to protests and actions. But it’s a small risk compared to what many completely undocumented people go through when thy are fighting for their rights here in the US. Seriously what she and these people do is incredibly brave.

  • Ella W October 24th, 2012 11:09 AM

    Just wow

  • GlitterKitty October 24th, 2012 5:57 PM

    What a badass.

  • paige.xo October 24th, 2012 11:42 PM

    totally kickass and inspirational

  • cancercowboy October 25th, 2012 9:52 AM

    this is frigging awesome. kudos and best of luck to Roula Seghaier, and thanks to Rookie for posting this.

  • LRK October 25th, 2012 7:13 PM

    Hooray for activists! I would like to hear Israel’s side too though. In politics, there are always multiple viewpoints

  • Yani October 26th, 2012 2:39 AM

    No, you cannot summarize a person from where they’re from. But where the places that person has been to and where their family is… This says a lot about a person and presupposes their character.

    Interesting to hear about another Russian-born woman who left Russia the same age as I did.

    Good piece, rookie.

  • mismatchedsocks October 26th, 2012 1:17 PM

    Amazing piece. Really interesting! Thank you for covering a topic like this, Rookie!
    I’m floored by Roula’s resilience and determination, but I don’t really understand what she means when she says ‘Islamists are trying to steal the revolution.’
    I’ve been keeping up with the facts since day one, and what I know is that the revolution happened for many reasons: because people wanted to be able to participate in political matters, because people wanted employment rates to increase and they wanted Islam to be practised properly and to allow religious freedom (so people of other religions wouldn’t be discriminated, Islam teaches that people are equal).
    The rulers of these Arab countries are NOT Muslim, they once called themselves Muslim but they contradict every single aspect of Islam. Islam does not say those in authority should kill their citizens. Most of the dictators called themselves God – so how could they be Muslim?
    I’ve watched videos of people protesting in Arab countries and they’re all clapping their hands shouting, ”Allahu Akbar” – God is great! The woman protest in their headscarves and there are videos of people praying in the mosques asking God to help them.
    People are getting confused and thinking that the rulers and dictators want Islam and the public do not. This is not true, just hit up some videos on Youtube and you’ll see! They’re inspired by the Turkish government – which is Islamic.
    The bottom line is that the Arabs want change in the country and one of these changes involves a better practise of their religion (and freedom for others)..

  • originaltitle October 27th, 2012 5:01 AM

    Wow this article is really anti-Islam now I’m starting to hate Rookiemag.

  • Jenny October 27th, 2012 1:56 PM

    What part of this interview is “really anti-Islam” to you? Roula’s father is Muslim. At no point in this interview, does she indicate or flat out state that she is anti-Islam. She is an active member of Students for Justice in Palestinian, which is a radical student group that has fought very bravely and very thoughtfully for the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, to live on their land without being attacked or forced out. In fact, many people have accused this group of being too much PRO Islam (which I don’t agree with personally, but felt compelled to point out in light of your comment.) When Roula expressed that she is disappointed with the role Islamists have had in Tunisia post-revolution, I think it’s important to remember that a few radical Islamic extremists do not represent the full range of the needs and beliefs of all Tunisian, or all people of the Muslim faith. If that distinction was not made explicitly enough, then that’s my own fault. A few days before this interview was posted, we had a post expressing our support and well-wishes for Malala Yousafzai. We had a gallery of hundreds of get well cards for Malala, who is a devout Muslim. There is a difference between being anti-Taliban, for example, and anti-Islam, and I think many, many devout Muslims would agree with that.

    • mismatchedsocks November 6th, 2012 11:26 AM

      I forgot my username so I had to come back to this article to find it (how stupid am I, honestly?) … But now I want to say that Jenny, I love your articles here and I have gained so much more respect for you after reading the comment above! You deserve a round of applause just for writing that! It’s things like this that make me love Rookie more and more because everyone here is so tolerant, loving and accepting of people of all ages, races, faiths and colours. Islam is misrepresented so much by a small group of radicals and like you said, they do not represent the entire faith. Once again, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful comment Jenny! SO well written and well thought out.