Since ISIS emerged in 2011, an estimated 5,000 young men from Tunisia have joined violent extremist organizations in Syria, Iraq and Libya — the highest per-capita population of foreign fighters in the world.

A woman wears a Tunisian flag during a protest outside a government building in Tunis, Tunisia. January 21, 2011. (Holly Pickett/The New York Times)
A woman wears a Tunisian flag during a protest outside a government building in Tunis, Tunisia. January 21, 2011. (Holly Pickett/The New York Times)

Searching for a way to stem the flow of young men to violent extremist groups, a 2013 Tunisian law gave security forces wide-ranging authority to investigate a suspected extremists’ family members, impose restrictions on their movement within the country and tap into their private calls and interactions.

Many of the foreign fighters were beyond the reach of Tunisian authorities, meaning these measures often had few direct effects on them. But for the families they left behind, relation to or association with a foreign fighter meant the possibility of surveillance, harassment, extra-legal interrogations, as well as arbitrary detentions and movement restrictions.

These circumstances have led to a strong social stigma against the families of foreign fighters. This stigmatization has isolated innocent family members and created social divides — both within local communities and between the communities and local authorities. Amid already simmering tensions over the country’s economic and governance woes, Tunisian authorities’ crackdown on relatives of foreign fighters has only further fueled youth vulnerability to extremist recruitment.

The Cycle of Violence and Fragility in Douar Hicher

Few places in Tunisia have been as hard-hit by this cycle as Douar Hicher, a marginalized district situated in the western suburbs of Tunis. Many families in the district live in poverty, lacking access to basic services such as transportation, education and recreation. Meanwhile, jobs are scarce, with the recorded unemployment rate reaching as high as 19.15 percent. Douar Hicher’s fragile circumstances opened the door for recruitment by violent extremists, with one of the highest rates of radicalization in the country.

The result has left many family members of foreign fighters, particularly women, deeply traumatized. Mothers and sisters of foreign fighters were not only forced to endure the loss of their family members to ISIS — they were also burdened by the institutional and social stigmatization.

From a Healing and Reconciliation Exercise to A Peacebuilding Movement

Considering the heavy impact of radicalization in Douar Hicher on national and transnational security, USIP chose strategically to work in this community to build a human infrastructure that is resilient and more immune to violent extremism. USIP and the Tunisian Coalition of Facilitators (TCF) started by bringing together mother and sisters of foreign fighters, as well as other women from Douar Hicher, to form a social club called Lammetna (Our Gathering).

The club began in 2019 as a space for these women to share their grievances, interests and hopes for a better future. Eventually, as trust was built, many spoke of how their association with foreign fighters, as well as with Douar Hicher more generally, had altered their daily life, with one of women saying that she was “denied medical services in a public hospital, and even a taxi ride, because [she] was identified as resident from Douar Hicher.”

But as carefully facilitated conversations in the club went on, the women’s shared experiences made them rethink their roles in society. What started as a healing journey quickly turned into a program to empower them as they sought to be active peacebuilders in their community. “What is the mother’s fault if her adult son decided to join ISIS? I want to change people’s perception regarding my family and my community,” said the woman who was denied medical care.

To support these efforts, USIP has provided Lammetna with group therapy sessions and trainings on dialogue, communication, peacebuilding, and collaborative community security approaches.

When the pandemic broke out in 2020, the women of Douar Hicher were part of the district’s rapid COVID response. And when the nationwide lockdown threatened the already precarious jobs of those in Douar Hicher, Lammetna worked to diffuse tensions caused by protests and confrontations with local authorities.

In one instance, a Lammetna woman was able to convince a desperate man to refrain from self-immolation on the steps of the local government office. She not only prevented a tragedy that could have sparked further unrest, but she also mobilized local associations to support the man mentally and financially during the lockdown. On what inspired her to intervene, the woman said: “I always wanted to have a purpose, I just didn’t have the skills or the confidence before. With the peacebuilding knowledge and practices provided [by Lammetna], I felt empowered and able to act”.

Becoming more aware of their role in preventing violent extremism and violence, Lammetna started to engage with other parents to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence, violence against children and violent communication. “Beating children is the way most parents communicate with their children here,” said one woman. “That’s how I was raised and how I thought I should raise my children to impose respect and discipline. [But] being an active member of Lammetna made me realize that violence in society starts from the family.”

Groundbreaking Engagement with Government Officials

In 2021, the women of Lammetna decided that broader societal impact would require moving beyond community engagement to direct engagement with government officials. They want to make sure local authorities play a constructive role in addressing the grievances of the community. “Officials need to understand that they are responsible for the living conditions in Douar Hicher,” said one Lammetna member. “They shouldn’t just hide in denial behind their desks. We are here to make them accountable and aware of this.”

To do so, Lammetna launched a series of dialogues with the local municipality and the National Guard of Douar Hicher. Through these collaborative problem-solving initiatives, the women were able to work with government officials to improve basic infrastructure and prevent violent incidents against women on one of the most dangerous streets in Douar Hicher.

The talks also helped to change National Guard officers’ perceptions on the use of violence and their role in preventing it. “Listening to Lammetna women today really helped me understand the community’s security needs in Douar Hicher,” said a National Guard representative after one of the dialogue sessions. “We want to close the chapter of violence and prioritize non-violent approaches. I realized that our junior staff, especially colleagues who are in direct communication with citizens, need further trainings on non-violent communication and de-escalation techniques.”  The two sides are now working together to plan a community security initiative to address violence in high schools.

The dialogues have been groundbreaking — and not just for public policy, but for Lammetna members’ sense of agency. After one of the preliminary dialogues with the National Guard, one Lammetna woman said: “I can’t believe that we were conversing with police on the security issues of our region. This was impossible for me few years ago. When we sat at the same table for lunch with colonels and security officers after the dialogue, I felt dignity. There was a wall of wounds and traumas that was fading away after every meeting.”

The relationship between the women and National Guard representatives has transformed from mistrustful and wounded to collaborative and constructive. Currently, the National Guard and women of Lammetna are planning a joint initiative to engage youth and cultural centers, high school personnel, and parents to create a nonviolent environment for youth in Douar Hicher.

“Don’t be afraid to act against violence, and to improve your community and your country,” said one woman. “You are powerful. Your country needs people who believe in peace.”

Sabrine Laribi is a project officer for USIP’s Middle East and North Africa Center.

Tahani Yaghshi is a visiting student at USIP’s Middle East and North Africa Center.

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