Ahlem Belhadj (1964-2023)
The death of Ahlem Belhadj in Tunis on 11 March affects the feminist movement, the trade union movement and the revolutionary left in Tunisia and beyond.
A child psychiatrist by training, Ahlem became involved in the revolutionary struggle when she was a student, first as a militant in the ranks of student trade unionism and then by joining the Tunisian Trotskyist group affiliated to the Fourth International [OCR]. This was a time when her country was still ruled in an authoritarian manner by the founder of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba. In 1987, he was overthrown by a coup d'état led by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia with an iron fist until his overthrow in January 2011 by a popular uprising. It is known that it was the Tunisian uprising that triggered the revolutionary shockwave known as the Arab Spring, inspiring other populations in the Arabic-speaking world.
After becoming a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, then head of the child psychiatry department at the Mongi Slim Hospital in La Marsa and president of the Tunisian Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Ahlem pursued her trade union commitment and became general secretary of the General Union of University Hospital Doctors, affiliated to the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT).
The revolutionary group she had joined having entered a crisis, she distanced herself from organised political activism while maintaining her political convictions, in a way that resulted in maintaining personal relations with the Fourth International. At the same time, Ahlem invested herself fully in feminist action, becoming president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, first in 2004, then a second time in 2011, the year of the radicalisation of Tunisian social movements. In this capacity, she played a leading role in the revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia and in the constitutional process that followed, notably by fighting against moves to reintroduce clauses discriminating against women in the new Tunisian constitution.
Ahlem thus became a leading figure in her country, as evidenced by the widespread reaction in political, trade union and associative circles and in the media to her death. Her reputation as a leading figure of Tunisian feminism went beyond the borders: she received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize on behalf of the AFTD in 2012. In the same year, the US magazine Foreign Policy ranked her 18th in its annual list of the 100 most influential thinkers in the world. She was also the subject of several international press reports.
Her untimely death came after a long battle with illness. Anyone who knew Ahlem could not help but admire her exceptional courage in the face of the disease that consumed her, as well as the difficulties of her family life. As the mother of two young children, she found herself obliged to look after them alone after her partner Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami went into exile and they separated amicably.
It obviously takes a singular strength of character to combine maternal, professional, trade union and feminist responsibilities as Ahlem did for years. She was striking for her intelligence, affability and friendly warmth, as well as for her ability to laugh in the face of adversity. Her death is an enormous loss for all the struggles she led, and a painful loss for all those who knew her well in the course of these various struggles.
13 March 2023