Ahlam Belhaj, Your Heart Beats Within Us, Because You Carried the Meaning of Life

06/04/2023 |

By Rajaa Dahmani

A moving tribute to Ahlam Belhaj, who dedicated her life to Tunisian women’s struggle and to revolution

Ahlam, we see no sense in crying you. You chose not to tell about the acute anxiety that for years grew in your body, and, because of that, we avoided asking you about how it was advancing, about what had been left and what had been taken from you, even when you were admitted to the hospital and surgery followed surgery. At each time, we lost a part of you, but when we visited you, we didn’t ask questions.

What matters is that you always got up and, within a few days, you were with us once more. You shone and beamed a broad smile on your tired and pale face, making us happy of all such selflessness, joy, and determination to move on.

How could we mourn and cry when you taught us to transcend and defeat that illness, that bad wolf, just as you have done for years through your activism, dynamism, and struggle in so many fields?

Ahlam was born in 1964 in the city of Korba, on the Tunisian coast, in the province of Nabeul. She was an athlete within the national team (running and long jump) and completed her studies with a specialization in child psychiatry. She was an expert in her field, doctor and president of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department of Mongi Selim Hospital, in the city of Marsa.

She was an active member of the Tunisian General Union of Students against the authoritarian regime of Habib Bourguiba. She believed in the revolutionary cause and was active in the Tunisian left-wing movement.

Ahlam studied Medicine from 1982 to 1987 in the capital city and contributed to the preparation of the 18th extraordinary conference of the Tunisian General Union of Students. She was among the founders of feminist groups in the university in 1983 and 1984 and of the Women’s Conscious Committee. After that, Ahlam took part in the foundation of the Organization of Revolutionary Communists with her comrades in 1985. She then specialized in psychiatry in Paris.

Returning back to Tunisia, she started her practice as a psychiatrist in public sector. She wrote her first master in Genetics, a second one in Education and Psychology, and, after that, a PhD thesis in Female Sexuality. Ahlam held the position of deputy general secretary of the Public Health union of university doctors and pharmacists.

She went through many struggles side by side with the revolutionary communists and the General Union of Tunisian Workers, in addition to having significantly contributed to the establishment of Women Workers’ Committee within the General Union of Tunisian Workers in 1985, as well as the Committee for Female Studies in 1989.

Ahlam Belhaj was a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD, in French). She became president of the association for the first time in 2004 and once again in 2011. While in this position, she took a crucial role in the Tunisian revolution events that overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. During the two following years, Ahlam and her comrades contributed to writing the new constitution in Tunisia through a feminist approach, so as to ensure the constitution would contemplate equal rights for women and men.

The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, led by Ahlam Belhaj, rose up against the attempt of approval of the “complementarity” act, which would abolish the principle of equity between women and men, a reactionary move led by Islam forces at that time. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women organized a big demonstration on National Women’s Day, on August 13, 2012, which defeated the regressive attempt.

Ahlam, you were a psycho-pediatrician, a field your colleagues know well, and we knew that when we reached out to you for help. Your experience and diligence in saving a child’s life or even a young woman’s or young man’s life were one of a kind. Your political actions since university soon made it clear to your comrades who you were. Everyone who met you got something about you from a unique perspective. Because of all of that, you’re a multiple dream in the dreams of each of us.

As feminists know you as a defender of women’s rights, and we know well how your left-wing position took part of your approach and orientation as a human rights defender. Many of us, coming from different left-wing organizations and gathered around the same principles, are well aware that when our voices needed to converge and be raised — when we needed to build a position based on principles of freedom, social justice, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism, breaking away from the right wing and from everything that ravages our country and encroaches its wealth and energy — you were always our sister, and we care about and support your position.

DESTAQUE: You always made the difference with your statements, uniting and bringing views together, appeasing when positions were inconsistent, being decisive when establishing principles with your intelligence, insight, vision, and political analysis.

For all of this and much more, there is no sense in mourning now that you’re gone. But to us, it means that it is upon us to keep treading the path steadily, despite the pain and the deceptions, despite the fact that we are standing on shaky ground and on the cracks of this crevasse that frets the left wing and the progressive democrat movement.

Death is but one of life stages, an inevitable reality which we will all face, and our departure is much less important than life. Crying makes no sense for us, dear friend. You experienced love, its joy, its calm, its noise, and also its disappointments. You also experienced the pain of childbirth, and life rebirth. You lived the revolution we dreamed of, even though they wanted it to fail. You faced a dictatorship that oppressed us for so many years, and, like us, you shared the happiness of their defeat and exile. You shared with us the joy of our achievements, bringing justice to women and restored their dignity.

You were a wonderful mother who bravely fought all difficult time to support your son and daughter and assist them to go safely on this life’s journey. And here is Yusef, a lawyer, just as he wanted to be. And here is Mariam, just as she wanted, taking her steps into the world of medical field. Dear Ahlam, your friends of the association called you “Juriste Maison” [self-taught jurist] as you knew how to speak the language of law. You were versed in the stages, the rules, and in what should be done, and you went all out to give advice and support in the absence of ATFD jurists.

Dear Ahlam, our Ahlam, you have left to us a great legacy in form of words, of lectures, of writings about love, of beautiful memories in your welcoming home that united us in so many special nights full of generosity, which were a real gift of life. You offered us countless moments of happiness, love, dance, conversations and discussions. Thanks to your sense of unity, if someone was angry there, they would reconcile, and women who were absent joined with happiness.

“We have no choice”. You repeated this phrase whenever I asked you how you were feeling: you smiled and asked me back how I was feeling, and we laughed out loud at the damn destiny that forced us to coexist with death as a truth and reality.

We will laugh and mock at this immense absurdity, and let us give meaning to all of this, because life is so much bigger. We will just remember the smile on your face and your red lipstick capable of defeating pain. We will just remember our dance together to the melodies of love and life.

We will just remember your song, which you insisted on listening to in New Year’s Eve 2023 with your beloved ones, friends, comrades, with your son and your daughter.

Let’s love, let’s dance
Yes, this is life
Girl, give me hope
Just a smile, I wanna believe
And if fortune smiles on us
We’ll be more than only good friends
But we have the solution
Let’s love each other together, yes, love each other
And yes, we have the solution
We won’t give up, we’ll dance
La la la la
Let’s love, let’s dance
Yes, this is life
Girl, give me your heart
I don’t wanna look for it anywhere else
Without asking me many questions
Let’s do things my way
But we have the solution
Let’s love each other together, yes, love each other
And yes, we have the solution
We won’t give up, we’ll dance
La la lala
Let’s love, let’s dance
Yes, this is life
And this morning or never
Let’s love each other throughout our lives, hey
Yes, it’s now or never
Let’s love, let’s dance
This is, this is, this is life
Let’s love, let’s dance
Yes, this is life

Our beloved Ahlam, rest in peace. We will keep struggling for the women of the world. The World March of Women will keep up. Our forums, meetings, and resistances will go on. And we will try, as always, to build bridges between viewpoints to create a new possible Tunisia.

We will go on with the youth because we believe you and we believe on them, as we always repeat they are the future. They will rejuvenate the association and thus ensure its continuity.

We, your friends, are your lovers and dear comrades. We will keep despising death and insisting on consistency, on continuity, on standing up every day for new projects to promote women’s rights, both for women from Tunisia and from all over the world, for the sake of life.

Because you’re within us, even though you’re gone.

By Rajaa Dahmani, from the World March of Women and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD, in French).

Translation from Portuguese by Rosana Felício dos Santos
Translation reviewed by Kaouther Abbes

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