Feminism saved my life، And it could save others

The Lina Ben Mhenni feminist school is a space where we engage in self-discovery, while we also embark on a collective journey, which lead us to see the Other within ourselves, and simultaneously to see our different and similar realities from an intersectional perspective. This process allows us to locate each other on the map of discriminations and privileges, and to respect each other's spaces, voices, will and experiences. All this is achieved by discussing and reflecting on the projects undertaken by the participants.

04 May 2023

Henda Chennaoui

A gender expert based in Tunis. She is a journalist and a sociology researcher. She has followed social movements for years and written about women rights and minorities. She is the founder and organizer of the first intersectional feminist school in Tunisia in honour of the activist Lina Ben Mhenni.

Disclaimer: This article contains testimonies that our readers may find disturbing or upsetting


I grew up in a family where violence and abuse were part of everyday life. My father was so violent that he almost killed my mother. I still have horrible nightmares about him killing people I care about. My older brother had been sexually and physically abusing me for years. To this very day, my family still believes that he was “exploring” his sexuality and that I should move on. For years, I kept consuming tonnes of medications, alcohol, and drugs to forget and maybe even to erase myself.

When I was 21, I attempted suicide. But something kept me alive, a tender moment with my sister, who believed in me and stood by me for the first time. This glimmer of hope was accompanied simultaneously by few encounters I made by chance, where I came across feminist books and blogs. I read Simone De Beauvoir, Ahlam Mostaghanemi, Virginia Wolf, Nawal Al-Saadawi, and May Ziade, and I learned that I was not a monster, and that what I was experiencing was the violence of patriarchy. The glory of female solidarity or, rather, sisterhood, together with the feminist knowledge that opened my eyes to a reality that until then I did not know about, saved my life.

I gradually regained my self-confidence and decided to make my story public in a blog, with simple words. That was the moment that set me and, unexpectedly to me, also other women, free. In fact, once I out my pain into words, hundreds of women found themselves in my story. Reading the stories that they sent to me, and which were like mine, made me feel visible and, for the first time, not alone. Suddenly, I realized that I was not the only-one. Most importantly, I suddenly was not feeling I was a victim, but a survivor who must act and plan as a feminist. Act immediately, and try to save lives, just as I was saved. 

Since then, I have kept saying, "Feminism saved my life!"

Why am I telling this story? Because the private is political and politics led me to make experiences that filled me with hope and strength. 

Feminist politics changed my life for the better. 

Seventeen years later, I am a journalist, a researcher in sociology, a political activist, and a feminist fighter who has been traveling across Tunisia to tell the stories of women and men in revolt; those who dream, who fight for a dignified future. I was not alone in this journey. I was with other activists who had the conviction and the will to make a revolution not a mere dream but a reality. And to tell the essence, I will mention the woman who motivated me for years and continues to be the inspiration of my struggle, Lina Ben Mhenni. 

Lina was the leading figure of the Tunisian revolution and she fought for years for human dignity, equality, and freedom.

I knew Lina through her blog a few years before the revolution. After January 14, 2011, we became friends, campaigned together, and travelled throughout Tunisia. In 2020, Lina passed away, leaving behind herself a big whole, but also an important legacy of values, commitment, and struggles to continue. Lina’s life is a story of unreserved solidarity with all the fighters for dignity and freedom. She was the perfect incarnation of unconditional devotion to Tunisia. We had many dreams and promises for ourselves, those we love, and Tunisia. We wanted to build a strong movement of free citizens for justice for all. One of our biggest dreams was to create a popular university for women, minorities, and youth.

Henda and Lina. Published with the permission of the writer.

When Lina left us, a decade since a revolution full of action, successes were small, and the losses were big. I suddenly found myself alone: a page was turned. Her family and friends created an organization to let her legacy live on. This association, Lina Ben Mhenni, is the family that allowed our small, shared dreams to come true. And so, the Feminist School Lina Ben Mhenni started. 

With the same commitment and conviction to start from the private to elucidate and improve the collective, every year, the Lina Ben Mhenni Feminist School invites women and Queer people to share their experiences in a safe space and analyze them with feminist tools, make them visible and benefit from the feminist solidarity that makes them intersectional and audible.

At the Lina Ben Mhenni Feminist School we share feminist values. We have a space for horizontal exchange of knowledge, feelings, and experiences. The power of telling our stories is based on two main ideas: the first is to give a voice to untold experiences and sufferings. The second is to make these stories part of feminist research to deconstruct the mechanisms of male domination, racism, authoritarian power hegemony, and heteronormativity.

Lina was the leading figure of the Tunisian revolution and she fought for years for human dignity, equality, and freedom.

The experience within the school is concrete: Starting with a central idea of a feminist project, be it artistic or militant. The school sessions include workshops, debates, collective or individual work sessions, conferences, and film screenings, and end with a project outline based on a personal experience, deconstructing, and analyzing situations of domination, discrimination, and servitude with a precise intersectional feminist analysis, integrating parameters of feasibility, management, and creativity to concretize the proposed projects.

On a personal and collective level, we have witnessed and accompanied the transformative journey of over 30 women and queer people. We received women and Queer persons from all over the country with different backgrounds, social classes, and colours. Our policy is to select participants according to an intersectional scale that considers a set of criteria, giving higher scores to various sets of discriminations (geographic location, personal experiences, sexual orientation, and social class, to name just a few), and lower scores to privileges. This approach reverses the mainstream selection criteria, which tends to favour people with more abilities, which most of the time come with privilege. In every workshop, debate, and activity, the feminist school's primary goal of using intersectionality and feminism to reflect and analyze realities prevails, and we look at world problems through these six lenses: 1. Inequality: which intersect gender, class and race.2. Power relationships, which are structural, interpersonal and disciplinary. 3. Interpersonal relations, encouraging dialogue and coalition among individuals and groups. 4. Social climate, considering the influences of historical, intellectual, and political contexts in analyzing individuals' thoughts and actions. 5. Complexity in understanding and analyzing the world. 6.The promotion of social justice.

Queerness and transness on the Syrian cultural scene

03 June 2022
How can we create a sustainable queer archive that has the potential to become a reference for LGBTIQ people, civil society, and the Syrian artistic and cultural public sphere?
A queer refugee in Neukölln

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Omar fled Syria in 2015 and today lives openly queer in Berlin. This is his/her story of self-discovery.

To be more specific and explain what the Lina Ben Mhenni Feminist School experience is about, I will mention three examples of people who, after attending the school, continue to be among the most active in their networks. The first is the story of a black Queer singer who participated in the first edition of the school in 2021. Their name is Nibras. On the map of intersectionality, they are aware of the intertwined discriminations they are facing. But we had to work together to understand the origins of these discriminations, and we did it by relying on their own narrative. Since the first sessions of the school, Nibras helped us to redesign the learning space, according to factors related to emotion, experience, and language. We worked on the affective dimension in recognizing the power relations and differences between the various situations of women and non-binary people. Now Nibras, together with other women, are leading a feminist choir (for women and non-binary people) in the school, something they have been dreaming of for a long time.

The second example comes from a woman who particularly touched me for her sincerity and courage. She is so aware of her privilege that she wanted to write and speak about other women rather than herself. In fact, Rym came to the second edition of the school with a project to write a novel about trans women. However, once she joined the school, she opened her heart and shared with us her experience as a woman who found out to be sterile nine years before. has been sterile for nine years. With great talent, she wrote a text that exposes the medical and patriarchal violence to which her body and soul have been subjected since then. Rym is a specialist in new pedagogies, yet she trusted the learning process we were doing together. After a few weeks, she devoured feminist books and began to fully engage in the school. The lesson we have learned from her is that, despite our privileges in education, heteronormativity, and developed social networks, we are all women who can incur in injustices caused by sexism. Yes, to be able to tell people's stories and ask them to reveal themselves, we must start from ourselves. Rym has managed to walk this path, and now, in collaboration with another fantastic student, Amal she runs the school's feminist book-club and also the writing-club.

The third story is about the feminist theatre workshop, which now, thanks to the artist Sihem Akil, has become an independent project. Sihem is an actress, director, and a theatre critic. Dedicated, talented, and generous, Sihem accepted my invitation to lead a four-hour theatre workshop during the second edition of the school. After this magical session, the group decided to put on a theatre performance using the stories of each of them and the texts they had written. Sihem managed to balance the theoretical with the practical. Through theatre, the participants made the exercise of telling their stories with poetry, analyzing social constructs closely, and lending each other their stories in an approach of sisterhood and trust. The result was a 30-minute theatrical performance in which the stories of women and non-binary women were heard and felt in a touching but relevant theatrical beauty.

The Lina Ben Mhenni feminist school is a space where we engage in self-discovery, while we also embark on a collective journey, which lead us to see the Other within ourselves, and simultaneously to see our different and similar realities from an intersectional perspective. This process  allows us to locate each other on the map of discriminations and privileges, and to respect each other's spaces, voices, will and experiences. All this is achieved by discussing and reflecting on the projects undertaken by the participants.

We are preparing the third edition of the school, which will deal with migrations, sub-Saharan black women in Tunisia, Tunisian women, and queer people on exile. These are all issues that, so far, have been neglected by feminists in Tunisia, or, at least, have not been addressed from an explicit feminist perspective. Our challenge is to bring back the feminist activist scene to a shared debate and reflection on the issue of migration. We will work towards developing a reflexive and interactive approach, which aims at re-formulating ideas and theoretical concepts about feminism, migration and race, through recovering personal experiences.

When I recall my first personal revelation, the journey I took through and with feminism, all the discoveries, the friendships, the breaks, and the joy I shared with pride, my friendship with Lina and all the activists who made the Tunisian revolution, I think about how the Lina Ben Mhenni Feminist School is the logical continuation of everything I experienced and everything I wanted to do. From the excruciating pain in my chest to screaming in the public squares and streets of Tunisia, and now to getting back to the basics of learning and listening together through and for feminist struggles. Feminism saved my life, And it could save others!

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