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“In the course of my involvement, the cause has emerged”

Sondos Garbouj (She), psychologist

By Haithem Haouel
English translation by Yasmine BenSalah


Talking to her is not something you can do half-heartedly. Sondos Garbouj is a clinical psychologist, currently teaching psychology at the university. A profession that echoes the question of Gender / Human Rights / Feminism, which reflects her intersectional involvement. Practicing goes hand in hand with her unwavering support for minorities. In this interview, she talks about her involvement, which she advocates loud and clear.

1- You have devoted your career to human rights, to the fight for equality and feminism, and you have turned it into a fight for the minorities. Your involvement is intersectional. But who is Sondos Garbouj before her accomplishments?

This is my life story (Laughter). It all started with two important and contradictory things that made me who I am now: first, my family, which on the surface seems conformist, ordinary, and quite Tunisian. It didn’t take me long to realize how unwavering my father’s support was. In addition to that, my position in the family meant that my relationship with my father was … strange, distinguished. (Laughter) I’m the eldest child in a large family and I had very intellectual and precocious conversations with him. Conversations that were certainly not devoid of pitfalls, or problems, but were always underpinned by intellectual honesty. My father was indeed an enlightened man. I remember that when I started to formulate my arguments for the abolition of the death penalty, he was my first interlocutor: the arguments and counter-arguments were made with him. I am what I am today thanks to this family environment and my personal life path … which has not been spared from violence. Important episodes allowed me to discover myself and pushed me to do psychology. Besides, the first concept I had to master was resilience. One of the ways to build resilience? Turning the pain you feel into a battle horse: That’s why I’ve been involved in human rights issues ever since I was at school, thanks to film clubs and then the UGET at university, the cradles of discussion and debate circles in the old days. In my memory, these were fairly politicized circles, but they did provide an introduction to collective debates. UGET, ATFD, AFTURD and Amnesty International were part of the Tunisian landscape before the revolution. I spent a lot of time with them, even though I was apolitical. I am and was a feminist. I would say, however, that I don’t like to be labelled or compartmentalized. I militate on all fronts for different battles.

2-Do your fights remain fundamentally intersectional?

Yes. When one is fighting against discrimination and opposition, it is inevitable. One is intersectional. This is how we enter the great sphere of Human Rights. All causes are intersectional!

3- Involvement or militancy before and after the Tunisian revolution of 2011: let's talk about that !

What is it to be an activist? (laughter). The term has become overused, a catch-all. And we see so many “militants” that I’ve ended up ceding the field to them. (Laughter) Let’s try to define the term “activist”: What do I mean by the word “Activist”? If I support a person who is like – me or different from me, in a position of fragility, ignoring what can separate us and focusing on what they are going through? In this case I am an activist! If I listen to people who consider themselves to be minorities? I am an activist. I’d add that I’m constantly on the lookout for information: you have to avoid getting lulled into your comfort zone and never stop maintaining your flexibility of mind: that flexibility that allows you to open up to the lexicon and the discourse. By being an “ally” of several causes, I’m not substituting myself for those concerned, I’m not expressing myself in their place. What’s bothered me since the start of the revolution, up until now and with the freedom of speech, is these terms / functions, which are randomly attributed…

4-Do you approve of the expression or designation “Person involved in Human Rights”?

Absolutely.  Without a doubt. It’s very significant. It’s easy to wave the flag of militancy these days… We need to develop things further.

5-What does it mean to be “involved in Human Rights” before and after the revolution of January 14, 2011?

It is especially much more difficult after 2011. Before 2011, Ben Ali and Bourguiba were unifying despots in Tunisia. Ben Ali was the best enemy, the dictatorship was even clear in his time: All and all against him. We were even divided in two: those who expressed themselves and those who did not. Under Ben Ali, it was almost impossible to be involved as a group in organizations or associations. It was easier to be involved on a personal level. Then, just after 2011, there was a honeymoon phase, this memorable collective euphoria during which we had the means to work…. Right up to the present day, and I can only say that the last two years have been by far the most difficult we’ve ever experienced. The physical torture inflicted by Ben Ali is indisputable, but the torture of our times is to clash amongst ourselves, giving rise to a virulent populism that can only give rise to the most dangerous of governments. Citizens can become potential enemies, and in populist governance, it’s always “human rights” that are targeted first. I parody a quotation from Simone de Beauvoir when I say that all it takes is one populist change for all freedoms to be threatened. What could be “tastier” and easier for detractors to do than belittle minoritized communities? It’s a perfect way to divert attention. Add to that human rights education, which is totally absent from school textbooks, university curricula and even less so from the media… This systematically puts the whole of society at risk.

6- Can you come back to your contact with the Queer community? Was it easy, complicated and in what context was it done?

Long before. As I am a psychologist and over my years of practice and training, including in organizations, everything has been done within this context. And then, everyone without exception, has been confronted with the question of identity, one day or another: Some live it in denial, and others dwell on it. At the end of the 1980s, I even rubbed shoulders with and knew university professors who considered, at the time, homosexuality to be “a disease” with textbooks and journals that supported this aberration. Homosexuality has long been considered even as a “deviation”, a “perversion”. The WHO had already declared it as not being a pathology and yet, in Tunisia, and ten years later, it was still taught as such in our curriculums. Personally, I was lucky to be surrounded by scholars, enlightened intellectuals including Alia Bafoune, a great specialist in sociology who had given me books to read. The first questions therefore began to arise… Questions that also concern transidentity. A rarity at that time! Then, it was in France, at the age of 25,  where I first met a homosexual couple, who lived together. It was memorable! The couple was great, but it was also and above all the people around me that fascinated me. Over the course of my involvement, the cause has emerged. It was only later, in contact with my students, at the university, that I began to know the first people belonging to the community… It was in 2005 in Tunis.

7-Until you were elected President of Amnesty International: You devoted yourself to human rights in general, including the LGBTQI+ question, which was also present within this organisation. How was the work done on the LGBTQI+ cause within this organisation?

Amnesty International was a very heterogeneous environment for me: On the inside, there were people affiliated with Amnesty International… who were homophobic and who proudly claimed to be so. The period during which I was elected president was from April 2011 (just after the departure of Ben Ali) to 2014. There were homophobic people in the managing committee. At the same time, Amnesty International, on a militant level, was the first to address the LGBTQI+ cause publicly: a first in 2011. Everything was done through a manifesto which was submitted to the Constituent Assembly in 2012 and which was called “10 Steps for Human Rights”. We listed in this manifesto: 10 essential points / huge flaws to take into account including point 8, 9 and 10 which evoke the abolition of the death penalty, non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, color, race and of course, non-normative sexuality. The question was approached in this way, via a manifesto… It was a first and everything took place in a stormy way for 3h45. It was tense and violent also because of the various sensitive topics listed and discussed including marital rape and gender-based violence etc…. Another essential detail to remember in relation to Amnesty International is its youth commission. It is my greatest pride. Young people who were so committed, exemplary, and admirable… this core group was unique. Ali Bousselmi and Abir Boukornine were part of it… This is where Mawjoudin – We Exist was born. Amnesty worked on the Kairouan homosexual affair, on article 230, and on the anal test. Currently, and since 2014, I work as an outsourcing consultant on several intersectional projects. I am interested in all projects that affect Human Rights and specifically the rights of LGBTQI+ people: I focus on it and prioritize it, and even if it does not specifically concern the community… I find a way to deal with the LGBTQI+ question. When I am consulted for projects that deal with gender-based violence, the question I always ask is whether it is binary or non-binary gender that is concerned. And I explain it … and often there is refusal or acceptance, but I contextualize by affirming that I work from a non-binary perspective. If people ask me these days, why do we go so hard on the community? Is it out of homophobia or out of ignorance? I would say that homophobia is ignorance. It is caused by a great lack of information and a deep deficiency on all levels. As soon as I deal with the subject in a playful and intelligent way, the result is different. It takes time to free oneself, to free oneself, to dare to change one’s mentality. Many are afraid of change and are terrified of change.

8- Do you consider yourself an ally of the Queer cause?

Regarding what I do, I am an ally of the Queer cause, yes. And I’m happy about it. In particular, thanks to the head of department in the faculty where I teach, and who introduced a subject called “Education and gender”. I do education and gender, yes, and gender education, too. I deal with the non-binary genre with my students through exchanges, debates, screenings etc. One has to start somewhere…

9 - How would you define an ally to the Queer / LGBTQI+ cause in absolute terms?

Firstly, the Ally must campaign under the umbrella of “Human Rights” in their most holistic definition. Secondly, the Ally must defend people’s individuality/complexity, while being aware of the system of domination, discrimination, persecution, and oppression in which they have evolved: people want to be respected in their individuality, and as Allies, we must be the first to respect them as they are, in their freedom. Being an ally doesn’t mean dictating your truths and beliefs or flaunting them… And being an ally in a cause – no matter which one – means being there and stepping aside a little for the Others: you mustn’t speak on behalf of the Others. You must give an argument, develop a counterargument, deconstruct and finally, I would say that an ally has to be persevering and tough.

10- Still in your opinion, is there a difference between "Allies "? Are there different ways of being an ally? And is being an ally structural or emotional??

You can be so in both ways. I would prefer the term “affective”. We cannot advocate or defend a cause to which we are not attached viscerally, affectionately and by conviction. And yes, of course, there are different ways of being an “ally”: there are some who are structural in their way of supporting or operating on the field, who are on the front line and who can even be considered as guarantors of the cause. As an ally, we can also be on the front line by working on legal texts, advocacy, public appearances, visibility. These allies are effective and bring a lot to a society like ours, especially if they have a certain reputation, position, or are cis heterosexual. The second way, in my opinion, of being allied to the cause, is to work directly with the community and to be in direct contact with it, listening, present, ready to support and help. The third way of being an ally is to work on Others and those around you, to raise awareness, to hold yourself to talking about it with homophobes, or with reluctant cis heterosexuals… One must not hide being an Ally to the cause, one must not be politically correct, or worse, be silent. Unfortunately, many allies do not know how to speak, are not equipped and often do so in an obsolete manner, hence the interest of multiplying training, of enlightening. Often, they are also afraid of being stigmatized by being allies…

11- Your meticulous observation over the years has undoubtedly allowed you to notice generational differences in the Queer feminist struggle in Tunisia, both in terms of the substance and the way in which the fight is conducted. Can you tell us more about that?

That’s a road answer! (laugher) I knew several generations of feminists: When I was younger, I knew and rubbed shoulders with the founders of feminism, and I had an eternal fascination for them. I’ll mention two of them: the late Ahlem Belhadj. We’re the same age, yes, but she was a child psychiatrist, my former president at ATFD, and Ahlem fascinated me and always will. Ahlem Belhadj isn’t a person, she’s a mission: she hasn’t gone away and she’s not going to. Ahlem was open to the LGBTQI+ question, I believe, well before anyone else because the word discrimination didn’t exist for her. The 2nd is Bochra Belhaj Hmida: she was carrying the cause before we could even put words to it. Before that, the feminist movement was not in step with what was happening in the world or in the Tunisian society. The LGBTQI+ issue was not raised. Shortly before the revolution, the internet emerged and allowed many people to open up to the world. The LGBTQI+ issue came up just after the revolution, and the decisive turning point that liberated speech and loosened tongues, in my opinion, was led by the young people of the post-revolution period. My greatest joy is to see all these young people still very active in the best-known organisations and associations, and even in new structures. That’s change! The Bras de fer continues… all these young people have joined and continue to join in new ways. That’s always good. I’m not forgetting the feminists too, who are silent… We have to stick together and remain united for the future, because our future remains fundamentally intersectional.

12-Does your stance on the rights of LGBTQI+ people harm you and threaten your safety?

No. I consider myself happy. I was stigmatized when I was young, because of the positions I took, my convictions and my opinions. I was confronted with religious arguments, of course, and called a miscreant. These days I don’t mind: I even use it to formulate arguments and counter-arguments.

13- When did you question your privileges and put them to good use for the Queer cause?

Right from the start … but the real realization came during my presidency of Amnesty International: from the height of my position, my status, my privileges enabled me to be a full ally of the community.

14- At the moment, you're training a number of different professions, often sensitive ones... How do you go about this apprenticeship?

A hard time. (Laughter) From 2015 to 2022, I trained the police. I trained over 1,800 people on the issue of violence against women, and I never missed an opportunity to deal with issues relating to discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community. It was difficult, but there were some nice surprises. I find it simplistic to make the police “the only enemy”: they have power, it’s true, but when it comes to “individual freedoms”, if you take that power away from them, they’re no worse than other professions. Other professions that can be just as virulent and dangerous for the community. I’ve met some wonderful people who are curious, who want to change, who scrutinise, who are open to change. The nice surprises are finding professions that stand firm to protect human dignity. There are always bad surprises too… it’s all part and parcel of the fight. My hobbyhorse is undoubtedly my students: future educators.

15- Do work and involvement go hand in hand?

That’s a philosophical question (laughter). Some people can be involved through their work, like me… others not. What I’m sure of is that the question of involvement remains intrinsic to the individual and we can above all be involved in our day-to-day lives. Having said that, being able to do so through your work remains a great help.

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