Interview by Houda Trabelsi
Known for her unabashed criticism of the former Tunisian regime, Lina Ben Mhenni was one of the most vocal voices behind the Tunisian revolution. Through her award-winning blog, “A Tunisian Girl”, she exposed the practices of the ousted regime and chronicled events in Sidi Bouzid and Regueb during the uprising.
Last April, Ben Mhenni, 28, won the Best Blog award at the 2011 Deutsche Welle Blog Awards, which promotes human rights and freedom of expression. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but did not win this year’s award.
Ben Mhenni spoke to Magharebia about the nomination, the trials of blogging under repression and her views on religion and Islamism.
Magharebia: The Nobel Peace Prize went to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, activist Leymah Gobwee and Yemeni rights defender Tawakkul Karman. How did you take the news?
Lina Ben Mhenni: I feel relieved now because I had a horrible week under the spotlight but the fight continues. I am happy that an Arab woman has won the Nobel Prize.
Magharebia: Did you expect to be nominated?
Ben Mhenni: I did not anticipate an award for my efforts to expose the dictatorship of the former regime. I was surprised by this nomination, which I learned of by accident on Tuesday (October 4th) on Twitter. This honour places more responsibility on me to continue using my blog to inform public opinion in the whole world to defend freedom of expression and to convey the image and voice of all those whose rights were violated.
I was nominated along with Egyptians Wael Ghonim and Israa Abdel Fattah. Furthermore, my nomination for this award was due to my criticism of social and political conditions in Tunisia and coverage of the scenes of persecution and censorship during the reign of the deposed president on my blog in three languages: Arabic, French and English. Although I was exposed to harassment at the time, I withstood the difficulties and tried to convey the true image of the practices of the former regime in Tunisia to different parts of the world through social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
Magharebia: Some people do not think you can represent Tunisia’s youth revolution. How do you respond?
Ben Mhenni: I say it to myself. I do not represent Tunisia’s revolution because many honourable and liberal people participated in the revolution. We were all joined by love for Tunisia and the power of freedom and lifting the country out of oppression and intellectual tyranny in particular, and social tyranny in general.
Magharebia: Some critics also say that you are hostile to Islam and that is why you were nominated. What do you say to those people?
Ben Mhenni: I am a Muslim and I am not hostile to its values and principles. However, I am hostile to the reactionary ideas that have penetrated it, being threatened with death because of my opinions or told I am a woman and my place is the kitchen and home and I therefore deserve the harassment that happens to me. According to my knowledge, Islam rises above such shameful behaviour because it is a religion of tolerance, love and rationality.
Moreover, I have Salafi friends or those that belong to the Ennahda Party, and they call me and thank me for my courage even though sometimes we disagree on certain issues.
I also stress the importance of diversity and different opinions and authorities, for this is the only guarantor of democracy, without exclusion of any party.
Magharebia: You said on the French channel that you fear Islamists and this may be the reason they attack you. Why this fear?
Ben Mhenni: First, my comment on this channel has been exploited in a roundabout way. They cut out a large part of my response to the programme host’s question, limiting my words to saying I am afraid without identifying the reason for this fear, which I see as logical when some Islamists use religion to gain access to political positions or some parties want to return women to the dark ages and to confine their role to the home.
Magharebia: What is your response to those who allege the West took advantage of bloggers to overthrow Arab regimes through revolutions?
Ben Mhenni: Personally, neither the West nor any foreign party created me, and I was not one of the first bloggers in Tunisia.
How does the West support bloggers when they were the ones selling the blocking devices and supporting authoritarian regimes and continue until now to back the interim government? It is true I visited several Western states before and after the revolution, but with the summoning of non-governmental organisations. I hate everything official so I rejected several political positions, because I want to continue in the field of blogging and to remain a human rights activist seeking to change reality and rid some citizens of corruption.
Furthermore, I did not undertake training to overthrow the regime, as some have also alleged.