Tunisians Are Shaken as Young Women Turn to Extremism

by Carlotta Gall
New York Times
Nov. 20, 2014

TUNIS — Leila Mustapha Saidi returned home on a recent day to find her daughter Henda missing, along with her computer. Mrs. Saidi, who had watched her daughter grow religious and “obsessed” with the conflict in Syria, said she feared she had run off to join Islamist fighters there.

Instead, the police called four days later. Her daughter Henda Saidi was holed up in a house outside Tunis with a group of suspected insurgents. A day later, security forces stormed the house. Of six people killed in the raid, five were young women.

“They classified her as a terrorist,” Mrs. Saidi said bitterly.

After more than two years of mounting attacks and assassinations, Tunisians are no longer surprised by shootouts between gunmen and anti-terrorist units, even in the capital. But the standoff in which Ms. Saidi was killed nonetheless shocked many here for the sheer number of women involved.

It has also driven home the fact that — nearly four years after events in Tunisia set off the Arab Spring, and with presidential elections Sunday — the lure of extremism has touched virtually every part of society, men and women, the poor and the comfortable alike.

It has reached even the relatively affluent district of La Marsa, where the Saidis live in a pretty house with arbors of flowers in an enclosed front garden. Henda was the third person from her high school to die for the Islamist cause in the last year, teachers and acquaintances said.

“We are all uncomprehending,” said Linda Ben Osman, an art teacher who worked at the high school several years ago and knew Ms. Saidi. “These were smart kids, kind kids, ready for life — very beautiful in the case of Henda.”

“The youth are desperate, I think,” Ms. Ben Osman added. “Before Syria and ISIS,” she said, referring to Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, “people self-immolated, or took boats to escape to Europe and died in the sea.”

She and others consider the outburst of extremism to be a reaction to the authoritarianism of Tunisia’s former ruler, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose overthrow ushered in a free-for-all democracy.

Radical Islamists released from prison and returning home from exile were quick to exploit the new freedoms, taking over mosques, setting up associations, and recruiting thousands of young followers. Tunisia has been grappling with a surge of Islamist extremism since.

“We were in some sort of prison,” Ms. Ben Osman said. “The former president worked to keep our minds closed. When freedom came, people didn’t understand it. And maybe it did not bring what people wanted, and they look for it elsewhere.”

Young women have been as susceptible as anyone. In an interview, the interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, said all the women killed in the October raid were in their late teens or early 20s, and had joined the insurgent cell over the past several months. “They were educated,” he said.

Government officials said the women had refused to surrender, even using two children as shields. One small girl was shot in the head. Two men were also in the house; one was killed and one wounded.

Barely a week after burying their eldest child, Ms. Saidi’s parents sat at home stunned at the turn of events.

Mrs. Saidi said she could not bring herself to view her daughter’s body when it was brought home for the funeral. Her husband, Hedi Saidi, left the house and refused to attend the burial. “I could not accept the fact that it was my daughter,” he said. He criticized the government for hastiness in shooting at a house with women and children.

The Saidis described their daughter as highly principled but sometimes stubborn. “My daughter was a good girl, a hardworking student,” Mrs. Saidi said. “I do not think she was unjust. She did not do any wrong to anyone.”

Ms. Saidi, a 21-year-old law student, had become radicalized, and they knew she often hid her true intentions from the family, they said.

“For a year and a half she kept a system so we would not notice when she left,” Mr. Saidi said. “She was always reading, on the Internet, painting in her room.”

Ms. Saidi’s former high school French teacher, Dejla Abdelhamid, posted a heartfelt message on Facebook lamenting her death and wishing she had done more to prevent her being lured into extremism.

“Henda Saidi with her long fair hair, her radiant smile,” Ms. Abdelhamid wrote. “Her death is our failure, and the failure of a whole society, and in some part it is my failure as a teacher who fell short, missed something.”

Her post received a storm of comments, some accusing her of leading Ms. Saidi into radical Islam when they saw from her photo that she wore a veil. After Ms. Abdelhamid called on Ms. Saidi’s grieving parents, a colleague berated her for visiting the family of a terrorist.

“People do not know what is happening,” Ms. Abdelhamid said in an interview. “People are scared of each other.”

“The youth are lost, they do not have a reference,” she added.

She had met Ms. Saidi on the street a year after she had graduated from high school, she said. When she saw that she had abandoned her jeans and makeup and was dressed in the full black covering and gloves often worn by radical Muslims, Ms. Abdelhamid burst into tears. Ms. Saidi nevertheless seemed happy.

“She just smiled,” her teacher said. “I did not feel she was the girl who was lost.”

Ms. Abdelhamid attributes the turn to extremism by Ms. Saidi and others to the forced secularization under the dictatorship, which she says has left Tunisians ignorant of their religion, and now easily misled by radical preachers who have rushed in with new ideas.

“It’s like a tsunami we have not had time to understand,” she said. “We have to teach them to defend themselves in a solid way.”

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