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Sarah Ben Behia is a Tunisian freedom activist.

Her passion for public service and volunteerism has landed her a position as a respected activist within the ranks of the civil society world. She has become an active member within the JID association (Youth Independent Democrats) and has been elected a member of the executive committee. During her involvement with the organization, Sarah has participated in several projects aimed at raising awareness among Tunisian citizens and helping the community to maintain the gains of the Tunisian Revolution.

Sarah believes that by promoting internationally recognized human rights, Tunisia can continue to make advances toward becoming a democratic society. Sarah’s projects were designed to establish fair and honest elections, encouraging the involvement of Tunisian youth in the decision-making process, as well as empowering women and their status in society.

Sarah has a Bachelor’s degree in Legal, Political and Social Sciences and recently obtained her Master’s degree in Common Law. She is also a member of the George W. Bush Institute’s 2014 Women’s Initiative Fellowship, a leadership program designed to empower and equip women to catalyze change.

Sarah continues to devote her time and energy to make a significant contribution to the development and the empowerment of her country and community. 

Freedom – it is – I mean, I can give this shared definition by everyone telling that freedom is to do whatever you want, while respecting the freedom of the others. Your freedom stops right when the freedom of others begins. But after the revolution, we knew that freedom is really more than that. I mean, being – the freedom we felt – what freedom is about – at the specific moment when we heard that our – I don’t like to call him our president, but our ex-president, ran away. And this is where we really tasted freedom.

Being able to say, “No,” to speak about issues we refuse. To enjoy our rights. To enjoy the rights that our country is offering us. To be able to speak, to have any career you are dreaming of, to be able to fulfill your dreams without being pushed to obey. This is what freedom is about. Maybe I have to explain the former situation, because in Tunisia before, if you want to get something, if you want to get a good job, if you want to – to reach high positions or political positions, you have to join the [government’s] political party. You are not even allowed to speak about politics, even in – he [Ben Ali] made the population talk about football, about cinema, and those are not stupid topics to speak about but it should not be the only thing allowed for people to speak about.

[Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1936- ) served as President of Tunisia from 1987 until 2011, when he was ousted in the Jasmine Revolution.]

So freedom, as I said, is really more than that. You cannot imagine how happy we were to go in streets and being able to talk. And it was as frustrating as that. We were as oppressed as that. We could – even when we were in our houses – even under our own roof, we were afraid from even mentioning his name. Because you don’t know when – when you are under [surveillance] and when you have people listening to you. We didn’t enjoy any privacy, even in our own houses. So what about going to the streets and talking about that? People were not able to enjoy their freedom of belief, the freedom of religion – people were oppressed in every particular field. So freedom is being able to live in your country, and enjoy the right that belongs to every human being without having any fear. This is what freedom is about, for me.

Because life without freedom is not really living. It is not really living, really. I mean, if you are not free in your life, in your country, then – and people died. People died in order for us, for example, to be free – to go to vote. And this is what I kept telling people during this [election]. It’s not a matter of choosing, I mean, a political party from the left or a political party from the right, but go to vote, because hundreds of people died in order for you to go to vote. And this is what I kept telling people.

Some people knew that they were dying because we had policemen all over the country. And they were dropping gas on people, and they were fighting people – they were really and literally – I mean they were being violent toward people. And they were oppressing people, and they were fighting – they were beating people. Some of the people –even people I know – I personally know –were taken to the Ministry of Interior Affairs and they were kept there, and they were beaten for like, two days. And let me tell you even this: some of them were raped. And they knew when they went to street, they knew what they were facing.

When I go to demonstrations, for example, I have my father telling me, “Sarah, don’t go. I’m frightened – I’m afraid.” I was like, “Don’t be selfish. Don’t be selfish, because some parents – and I know that you are afraid that I am risking my life, but some parents – they lost their daughters and they lost their sons in order for us to participate and to be free. So, don’t be selfish, and let me take part in it. Let me participate, too.” And why are people taking the risk? Because they experienced how life is without freedom. When you experience that, you become aware – you realize the importance of the freedom, and you are able to sacrifice your life because it is freedom or nothing. Either to live free, or give your life away. 

Tunisia is situated on the Mediterranean coastline. It has a population of fewer than 11 million people and is the smallest nation in North Africa in land area. In 2010 and 2011, it became the first of the Arab countries to revolt against decades of dictatorial rule, launching the Arab Spring and a wave of change across the region. Tunisia has a developing economy, focused largely on agriculture, tourism, and light industry.

Tunisia has been settled since ancient times. In the 10th century B.C., it was part of the Phoenician Empire. The city of Carthage, near the modern capital of Tunis, was established in the 9th century B.C. In 149 B.C., the Roman Empire conquered the Phoenicians. Islam was introduced to what is now Tunisia in the 7th century A.D., and the area formed part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1881, Tunisia became a protectorate of France. A strong French cultural element continues to this day.

In 1956, Habib Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence from France. His political party, later known as the Constitutional Democratic Rally, went on to dominate Tunisian politics for more than 50 years. Bourguiba’s Tunisia was a largely secular state and was viewed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world on women’s issues. In 1987, Bourguiba was replaced in a “bloodless coup” by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali continued many of Bourguiba’s policies, but ruled with an increasingly heavy hand. The Ben Ali regime was repressive and corrupt, with a dismal human rights record. The regime showed little tolerance for dissent, and lashed out at opposition voices in politics, civil society, and the media.

The Tunisian Revolution began in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest over harassment by a local official. Bouazizi’s act led to mass demonstrations across the country, protesting the lack of human rights, poor economic conditions, and corruption and nepotism in the Ben Ali regime. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country. On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections, forming a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and lead the country to general elections. The role of religion in society is among the most important issues facing the assembly and country.

Under the interim Constituent Assembly, Tunisia has experienced considerable political upheaval, but has begun to consolidate its democracy. There is a major fault line between Islamist and secular political forces. In 2013, several political assassinations resulted in widespread protests and demonstrators calling for the nation’s Islamist-led government to be removed. In January of 2014, after two years of debate, the Constituent Assembly ratified the nation’s new constitution. The constitution is considered progressive for the nation and has many human rights guarantees. With the ratification of the constitution, elections are scheduled for autumn 2014.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Tunisia as “partly free”. The nation received the following ratings on a scale with one being the most free and seven being the least: 3.5 as an overall freedom rating, a four in civil liberties and a three in political rights. Tunisia’s Internet and press were also categorized as “partly free” in subsequent Freedom House reports. 

More on this theme from Sarah Ben Behia

Sarah Ben Behia: What is Freedom? “Life without freedom is not really living.”

Other videos from Sarah Ben Behia

Sarah Ben Behia: Revolution in Tunisia “We can make our future.” Sarah Ben Behia: Message to Dissidents “Dare to dream.” More +