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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.

What made you want to be an activist?

I was an exchange student in the States back when I was 16. It was 2008, an election year, and I took a government class. I realized that the things that are written in the Constitution can materialize. I volunteered with Obama’s campaign, and afterwards, when I went back to my country, that’s when I started being a little bit bolder.

What was your reaction to Bouzazi’s suicide?

I learned that the riots were happening first, and when I asked what sparked them, I was told of his death. To be honest, I did not grieve him much at the time, because I was excited that after so many years of stability and silence, people were acting.

You make it sound like there isn’t a culture of protest in your country, and yet the revolution seemed to have happened very quickly. It’s incredible how fast Ben Ali relinquished control. How did that happen?

It does seem fast now, but while it was happening it seemed like an eternity. Many scholars are unable to identify the shift that led to the change in behavior. Self-immolation had happened before. Maybe it was a peak of unemployed, angry youth.

It’s true that during the 50 years we spent with Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali we did not have a culture of political participation. But Tunisia has a lot of history in pioneering social movements. For example, we banned slavery before the United States, and we were the first Arab country to ever have a constitution. We were the first Arab country to ban polygamy, and we were the first Arab country to make legal abortion available to women in cases where it isn’t deemed “medically necessary.”

I would say the technological revolution played a part in the education of the people. One didn’t have to read or look for information on purpose. They could just be goofing off on Facebook, and they would be exposed to the violations that were going on regardless of their desire to know about them.

A lot was made in the Western press of this being a social-networking revolution, because of Twitter and Facebook—did you feel like that was crucial to its success?

Thanks for asking this! The internet was there to document and spread the efforts being made. People used it to gather information, and to learn exactly what we were fighting against. Word of mouth would have taken much longer. But most of the work was happening on the ground. If people had just stuck to their computer screens, the revolution would not have happened. It’s actually kind of offensive that all the credit is given to Facebook and Twitter.

Right. I feel like in the U.S., there is an internet culture where people think they are doing their part by re-tweeting something, or posting on Facebook, but the physical act of congregating isn’t happening so much.

Yeah, you’re getting awareness, but you are not getting change.

So how did you get involved in the demonstrations that helped oust Ben Ali?

I am from Sousse, the same city as Ben Ali. While the revolution was going on, my city was slacking in terms of participation, because it’s the city of the president, and we had a lot of police presence. In our neighboring city, there was a lot of police violence against the citizens. The day I was arrested, there was a soccer game, and our team won, which is like science fiction, because they always lose. And people were out celebrating in the street, and I was like, “Really? People are burning themselves and we are singing about soccer?”

So I went and bought loudspeakers—that was the first thing that came into my mind. I handed them out to students and to people whom I knew had had encounters with the police, and I gave them the slogan: “Policemen, join us against injustice and shame.” It rhymes in Tunisian. I wanted them to over-shout the celebration. It didn’t go on for long, because there were a lot of undercover police on the streets. People were circling around me to prevent the police from getting across the demonstration to me, but eventually they got me, because that’s just how it happens. I was held at the high school until 6 PM, and then I was taken to the Ministry of the Interior in the capital [Tunis]. I couldn’t call my parents or anything, and I’m not sure I even wanted to.

What did your parents think about your activism? Were they worried that something like this would happen

Yeah, my mom would panic every time I asked for my passport. She doesn’t get involved in politics at all, you know? But my father, his fear was more practical, like: “If you do this, then you won’t be able to work. If you stay out of trouble, you would have better prospects.” I did not want them to know, especially since that day my father asked me what the hell was going on, since I was bringing this big bag of loudspeakers with me. And I said, “I have a class project.”

So you are in this station, and you don’t call your parents.

I didn’t call them, but afterwards I realized the dean from my school called my father. Anyway, that’s where I met Youssef.

Youssef is your boyfriend?

Yes. We didn’t speak at the time, because I did not know what he was there for. And also, I was kind of scared! I’m sure I wasn’t thinking anything romantic at that point. But he did stand out.

OK, so then what happened?

The police would interrogate us. The questions would be like: “Who is behind you? What is your political plan? What do you want?” I had a list of political detainees that I wanted out. I was very prepared. Because again, from the internet, I knew who had left and never come back. I don’t know if I was being smart, but I just figured I would answer truthfully. Then I was put in a cell that was meant for 20 people, but because of the revolution, there were like 40 people. Everybody was very close to each other. If you needed the bathroom, you had to go in front of everyone. The food was served in black plastic bags, like big trash bags. The bag would be tossed on the floor, and people would eat food off the floor. And there was no silverware, of course. You basically had to eat with your hands. It was very disgusting, and I did not want to, but eventually when I got hungry, I just had to.


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  • 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


  • 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,


    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.

    - 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.


  • 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.