Pan-African feminist Aya Chebbi knows how to shake shit up. In September, she joined activist and musician Madame Gandhi for a 16-day tour across the South that aimed to spark conversations with women and girls who are making waves in their own communities. While in Atlanta, Madame Gandhi played an amazing set at Aisle 5 and then spoke with Aya at Emory University the following night about global feminism. We caught up with Aya after her speech to ask her how Southerners, specifically queer youth, can mobilize a movement in the wake of our oppressive governance and surroundings. Before we hear her answers, let’s tell you a bit about Aya’s work.
“My liberation is your liberation. My access to education, my access to power, my access to resources, my access to the internet… is YOUR access. That is the ultimate act of solidarity is when you reach that point where every privilege you have, you want every woman in the world to have as well.”
Aya Chebbi comes from what is considered the most dangerous place in the world – a region between the Middle East and North Africa. As a 23-years-old in 2011, an American woman would hopefully be starting her career, a family, or perhaps continuing their education. At this age, Aya and her friends faced tear gas and a budding revolution. Tunisian women became bold in a time when acting out could easily mean death, using social media as their weapon.
In Tunisia, she fought for democracy and stability. Some call this violent time the “Arab Spring,” but Aya and her community know it as “The Revolution of Dignity.”
Aya’s determination to mobilize women and youth has brought her to many parts of the world. It even brought her to Statesboro, Georgia as a part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. While there, she worried about the challenges she’d face in such a conservative area of the American South. Even with the cards stacked against her, she inspired many in the small town to become more informed about other parts of the world.
We can learn a thing or two from Aya, so let’s begin!
(Above) Aya Chebbi joined musician and activist Madame Gandhi for a conversation about global feminist at Emory University on Thursday, September 7.
What was your main goal during the 16 days tour?
First, we wanted to inspire other women and show how powerful it is when women collaborate and support each other. Kiran [Madame Gandhi] always says, “It’s radical when women support each other because it threatens the patriarchy.” Secondly, we wanted to learn from each other. We wanted to learn from each other’s worldview and how we individually experience oppression. We also wanted to learn from other people we would meet along the way and that’s why I started the #16Days concept which is related to a global campaign called 16 Days of Activism between November 25 and December 10. It’s main mission is to promote the fight against violence against women. I wanted to join those two concepts together! Everyday, we posted Vlogs of women and girls doing cool stuff in their communities. We loved opening discussions about fourth-wave feminism with people we met along the tour.
Did you feel the weight of Trump’s America while on tour?
You cannot be in the States today without having a Trump conversation. While in Denver before starting the tour, I met with Carmen Perez, the co-chair of the Women’s March, and she gave a great speech to us. Kiran and I often talk about the Women’s March. I think the focuss should be about action. I feel like we all know the problem now. We know what needs to be fixed but what can we do to keep momentum of it? I think many people that you would meet, Trump supporters or against Trump, always talk about the problem. But I think we need to move onto what we need to build and finding solutions. On a policy level, on an everyday level, on a community level… What can we do about it? I don’t feel that happening even though I see so many people opinionated about it.
What are some ways Southerners can mobilize?
When I lived in Georgia for a year, I was in Statesboro. We called it “Statesboring” [laughing] which was really brutal and it was even more brutal for the LGBTQ+ community. Madame Gandhi’s message and hashtag we often use is “#OwnYourVoice,” which is featured in her “The Future Is Female” song. I think you really need to be bold in order to actually understand what you believe in. Be ready to take the risk to say outloud what other people might not accept. But I think the key there is that to be strategic… to use different tactics on when and where you say what. Secondly, you need to create a support system, not only to be protected but to know you’re not alone in the struggle of activism. That will keep your motivation, confidence, and your hope for things to change.
I think in general, young people in the South need to organize and unite around issues that matter to them. Organizing means bringing everyone to the conversation. Unite your voices because that is more powerful and it becomes more legitimate and influential. You will be more protected. The more you are, the more you are protected. No one can pick an individual out and say you’re wrong when you become so massive. When you are a part of a community of changemakers, it becomes harder for whoever you’re fighting against to crack down on you. To organize, you also need to listen to get informed and engaged. Talk to people you disagree with. Where you sit when you’re old shows where you stood in your youth. Get out there and get involved. What you’re going to do now will make the fruit for the next decade or two.
If you look at yourself after 20 years and have not made change, you’re actually being unfair to the next generation. That’s what we did in the revolution. We were not thinking about ourselves because many of the people protesting actually died in their countries for freedom but we were thinking about our children. We don’t want our children living under a dictatorship or to be a product of dictatorships. We want a different future. I look at in a solidarity sense and in a futuristic sense that whatever I’m doing I might die and not see the impact of it, but it will have an impact so therefore it’s my responsibility to do it now.
I feel like it’s become more real and raw after seeing multiple people die from police brutality just this year… especially after Scout Schultz was murdered on Georgia Tech’s campus. Some protesters caught a cop car on fire and the news wanted to know why they committed property damage more than why the cop shot Scout in the chest. How do folks continue to stay afloat after witnessing so much tragedy?
When Trayvon Martin was murdered, his death prompted the beginning of The Black Lives Matter movement. Obviously, there were a lot of other murders of black civilians before. In Tunisia, many people committed self immolation. One action in the right moment and the right time can create an action after it. It’s enough and we need to do something about it. When you feel that moment inside of yourself and feel really frustrated, take it into action. Start your own initiative. Bring people together and call on your friends to have a conversation. My circle of activism works off of the frustration we see from our surroundings. The power is when you turn that frustration into making social change. When I felt that frustration in 2011, I began to blog and still do today. Sometimes I’m so frustrated by something that someone said to me or that someone has done, but it’s a simple thing on a daily basis to make a whole blog about it because I’m so frustrated. Tragedies like Trayvon and Scout’s deaths also give your cause even more legitimacy. Make their injustice a rallying point.
Chelsea Hoag is one of the founding members of Rotten Peaches, a solid space for queer women in Atlanta to dance, party, network, and be themselves.