Voices of Memory - presents a unique museographic experience that incorporates the testimonies of nine Tunisian women—some, victims of the dictatorship and others, newly engaged in activism—united by their belief in the power of storytelling as a vehicle for change. After more than a year of exchange and collaboration, the exhibition artistically relays a very complex history through the lens of their stories.
The exhibition explores Tunisian women’s experiences under the dictatorship through “El Koffa,” the traditional Tunisian basket used to bring food to prisoners. The Koffa is a symbol of the economic burden for the women who struggle to bring food to their loved ones in prison. The Koffa is also a symbol of love and resilience in the face of repression.
By presenting a distinctively interactive experience and platform for memorialization, the project goes further, inviting participants into a dialogue about the universality of the women’s experiences, and to form a bridge between generations and among marginalized voices. The exhibit seeks to raise awareness of the public, create a sense of rejection of these violations; push for humane treatment for all prisoners.
The two main partners are the University of Birmingham and the International Center for Transitional Justice.
University of Birmingham
The University of Birmingham is acknowledged as one of the world’s great universities – proud to offer an outstanding educational experience delivered by excellent teachers in a global institution renowned for its research and teaching.
We have been challenging and developing great minds for more than a century. Characterised by a tradition of innovation, research at the University has broken new ground, pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge and made an impact on people’s lives. We are ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Our work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
The International Center for Transitional Justice works for justice in countries that have endured massive human rights abuses under repression and in conflict. We work with victims, civil society groups, national, and international organizations to ensure redress for victims and to help prevent atrocities from happening again.
The technical partners who made the projects possible are Museum Lab, Lab 619, Haifa Zangana and Salam Mlik.
Museum Lab is a creative laboratory open to those who are passionate about culture, archeology, innovative technologies, and who share the vision for an open, connected, and participatory museum.
"Those who misinterpret the past will misconceive the present and the future. That is why it is essential that we take stock of what happened in order to avoid making the same mistakes again. It would be foolish to bear the consequences of a single mistake twice." -Abderrahmen Mnif
In their quest for truth, nine Tunisian women of various generations came together under the framework of the “Voices of Memory” project with the support of the International Center for Transitional Justice and the University of Birmingham, each one carrying inside them previously unvoiced experiences and stories, and all of them dreaming of a future devoid of injustice and full of tolerance.
Despite their different ages and backgrounds, they were united in their quest to unveil truth and achieve justice by advocating for the rehabilitation of women victims of the dictatorship to ensure non-recurrence of past violations. Their ideas started to develop while the ties between the two generations grew stronger and deeper; one part of the group had endured injustice, and the other was yearning for freedom and justice. Both generations were craving love and life, despite the burdensome memories of despotism and oppression they had been through.
Over a year of workshops and visits to various regions of Tunisia allowed the group to strengthen their ties, values of tolerance, and acceptance in addition to building bridges between the past and the present. A profound human experience that reflects the dynamics of inter-generational collaboration, “Voices of Memory” aims to highlight how acknowledging suffering can become a catalyst for hope and change.
Hela Boujnah, human rights and transitional justice activist
Oppression has for a long time been an obsession for me. In addition to the feelings of injustice and pain it causes, it makes me wonder why some people resort to oppression, while problems can be resolved in a more effective way and governance can be more successful through dialogue and respect.
I believe that it is essential that dialogue should not be confined to the people of a single generation. It should extend to embrace various generations, which can help ensure better communication and better insights into pain and anger along with better expectations from the different generations. This will, consequently, culminate in tolerance and reconciliation, the very same values obliterated by the dictatorial regime.
As far as I am concerned, this exhibition consecrates the effort of consultation and diversity in its preparation, with the involvement of a group of Tunisian women: bearers of various ideas and real-life experiences told from the standpoint of different ages.
The exhibition also represents a project on memorialization, understanding and the building of a bridge that links the past to the present and future. In order to express all of these aspects, we chose the “Koffa” (the basket).
The Koffa has a powerful symbolic significance in Tunisia in view of its originality and daily use. Indeed, the expression “taking the basket”, for instance, symbolizes the Tunisian people, advocates of the former regime whose main duty consisted in snitching on neighbors, friends and relatives, reporting anything that comes to their knowledge to dictatorial security apparatuses in order to gain privileges, material or immaterial benefits. This led human rights violations befalling many people. The Koffa has also another significance within the collective memory. It is a symbol of suffering, sacrifice, strength and the struggle to survive.
Hasna Ben Abid
62 years old, wife of a former political prisoner, without children because of the injustice suffered under the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
Active in civil society, Hasna is a member of many associations including Amnesty International Kelibia branch, the Observatory of Tunisian Prisoners, the Tunisian Transitional Justice Network, the Dignity Association, and a founding member of the Transitional Justice is also for Women Network.
Repression leads to auto destruction which in turn generates internal frustration. In response, I continually search for faith and determination to stay on the right path. Through this project, we have contributed to revealing truth. For me, it has served as a form of therapy.
Under past repressive regimes, the Koffa, the traditional Tunisian basket, was the mode of communication between the prisoner and their family. The Koffa thus stands as a symbol of love, comfort, and hope. With this exhibition focused on the Koffa we are commemorating the past and a part of our history that everyone must know and that we must never forget. Through intergenerational dialogue we have been able to exchange ideas that help us learn about the difficult past and discover ways to work together to fight against impunity.
Mounira Ben Kaddour Toumi, widow of Toumi, a mother to two and a grandmother to five grandchildren7
Daughter of a Tunisian father and Italian mother, Mounira has been immersed in two different cultures. She speaks four languages: Arabic, French, English and Italian, and had a long career in tourism, spanning from working with a travel agency to being the general manager of a hotel. She was a member of the “Lions Club” during the 1980s and a human rights activist after the Revolution. She firmly believes in the values of tolerance and solidarity, dreaming of a society where peace and fraternity reign supreme.
At the beginning of the Ben Ali era, like a great number of Tunisians, I was so carefree and above all indifferent to matters pertaining to public and political life that I did not even realize that we were living under a despotic and repressive dictatorship. Over the years, even carefree as I was, gradually, I felt that things had changed and we were all under heavy surveillance; that the “walls had ears” and that we had to continually monitor our actions and our words. I thought I did not face any risk; until the day I wore the headscarf. Then, I understood that this simple gesture was considered by Ben Ali’s totalitarian regime as an act of rebellion, even if I did not adhere to any political party or any dissident group. There began the “friendly visits” of the police to “take my news” and slip into the conversation an “innocent” question about what led me to wear the headscarf.
My first reaction was to laugh because I found it funny that such an important apparatus of the state could be interested in a person as innocuous as me. Afterwards I started to realize that problems did not affect only others as I initially thought. Under a repressive regime, everyone was guilty, especially those who dared challenge it like me. And there I really started to feel fear, an irrational, uncontrollable and pervasive fear. We lived in a big prison without bars, but still a prison, oppressive and suffocating.
After 23 years of forced silence, this exhibition is like a burst of fresh air. We can now express ourselves freely, protest loudly, criticize openly, denounce publicly. Finally, we are citizens who are helping build a nation of free and equal citizens in rights and duties and where every individual, whoever they may be, will have their say.
Khadija Salah, born in 1963, from the governorate of Gbelli, an agricultural engineer, childless widow
I was not imprisoned inside tight walls behind iron bars but I was imprisoned outside. Apparently, I was conducting a normal life, but in reality I was caught up in a vicious circle, waiting for my turn to be arrested, going from one police station to another to sign the ‘information card’. I endured economic harassment and deprivation of work, until finally realizing that detention would be more merciful on me than waiting.
The exhibition is a liberating event from internal restraints and a form of expression of the freedom we have acquired after the Revolution. What happens behind bars and even outside prisons used to be taboo, nobody dared talk about it; all we could do was to hint to it in secret gestures. Today, we have been liberated from our fear and from the psychological restraints that used to oppress us, free enough to convey our experience for all to see and hear.
In this process, it is crucial to have an open inter-generational dialogue. It is essential that we remove the divide that affected families, due to the oppression they endured, and which doubled their suffering. In this regard, it is essential to achieve reconciliation between the second generation (the children) with the past of the first generation (the parents), convincing them that this history is just the building block of the present and future together, for there can be no future without a connection with the present.
In this exhibition we chose the Koffa, because it is not only a vehicle to meet the needs of prisoners, it was also a bridge that connected prisoners to the outside world, serving as a messenger for unspoken emotions. The Koffa is a living witness of the suffering sustained inside and outside prisons.
Hiba Ben Haj Khalifa, activist in Tunisian civil society
Hiba was born in 1987 when a landmark change took place that the Tunisian people thought to be a radical change that would cut ties with lifetime rule. She lived in a bubble within Tunisia, unaware of the injustice that befell so many political activists. She managed to follow the mining basin incidents in Gafsa in 2008, through social media. At that moment, she discovered the regime’s oppression and its attempt to silence those who stood up for their rights.
Her civil society activity started in 2011 and exposed her to multiple experiences and accounts told by women who had experienced the period of dictatorship.
A firm believer in the power of art on these issues, she joined the “Voices of Memory” project, where the idea of establishing an art exhibition depicting women’s experiences during that period came into being. This project, which carries with it the painful past and its wounds, is an attempt to connect the present, the past and the future by building bridges of communication between generations.
Some people may wonder about this focus of the Koffa. There is no single answer to that question because all answers and interpretations converge into a memory or into a picture that depicts the past. But through the various accounts about the “prison koffa”, we have come to notice the duality of unconditional resistance and love that women sought to express through artistic and innovative perspectives, where hope mingles with pain.
Najet Gabsi, born in Sfax in 1969, political prisoner
I was imprisoned for six months for my trade union activities when I was a student, which turned my life upside down. The impact of detention and the cruelty of dictatorship witnessed by our country during the 1990s impeded my dreams and ambitions.
I am proud to take part in the “Voices of Memory” exhibition. This exhibition combines art with suffering, and that means a great deal to me in terms of its goals and the message we try to convey. Our aim is to highlight in particular the need to respect personal liberty and individual choice, showing due consideration to the human character of the prisoners and treating them humanely.
I consider the “Voices of Memory” exhibition as an adaptation of art to help highlight suffering, an opportunity to inform children and youth about the violations that were sustained by women under the dictatorship era and the oppression and suffering associated with the Koffa. The Koffa was for me a postman carrying love and conveying my family’s concern about me; a symbol of my dignity inside the prison, failing to realize back then how cumbersome and burdensome I was on my family.
Married, 54 years old from the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, chief nurse, head of a women’s organization and member of Sidi Bouzid’s committee for women and families.
The impact of oppression during the period of dictatorship took its toll on my entire family. For twenty-three years of my professional career, I was never promoted. My father’s firm stance against all forms of despotism, injustice and nepotism, along with attitudes hostile to the conduct of local officials led to his imprisonment in 1969.
After my marriage, I was harassed because of my activism with the unions and because my husband was a political activist and a unionist who opposed the regime. I witnessed the suffering of so many families whose love ones had been imprisoned because of their political opinions and views. The relatives of imprisoned members had to follow their loved ones from prison to prison, taking the Koffa. Consequently, the Koffa has become the secret that linked the prisoners to their families, spouses, mothers and children. The basket is part of the family affection that prisoners are deprived of, the missing touch, the pure and honest smile of the family members; so much more than the blanket or the clothes they wear to ward off the cold of the humid walls.
The basket stands for the yearning of the embittered mother and the hurt wife and the grieving son. The basket is about the yearning for freedom, the urge to go beyond the fences, the dream to get rid of the pain, frustration, and humiliation. Since the basket has been associated with the lives of an entire generation, it is essential to transfer it through various means to the next generations to bear witness to an era of totalitarianism and the gross human rights violations that affected the physical and moral dignity of people. The basket ensured that the suffering of the frustrated shall not go unnoticed, and that people stand united ready to counter any threat to the freedom of any human being.
Houneida Jrad, civil society activist and a psychology student
The repressive regime did not have a direct impact on me, but I witnessed practices and precautions for which I could not find any satisfactory response back then. For instance, there was a type of clothing or activity that were banned, but I could not understand why until the Revolution. That is when I came to grips with what was unseen and unheard.
I have always believed that art is there to perpetuate truth, and that we may be able to unveil some of that truth through the exhibited works about the suffering that befell so many women who were not necessarily part of the process of transitional justice.
I also believe that we will not be able to build the future without addressing yesterday’s events and incidents, nor can we understand the present without heeding the lessons of the past. That is how we can turn inter-generational dialogue into a pillar that helps heal the wounds and build a common future.
Until recently, the koffa has stood as a public symbol in the imagery of Tunisian people with various uses, including the prison koffa that bears various social psychological significance for the prisoners and for those in charge of preparing and taking it to the detainee.
This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the University of Birmingham.
Cette exposition est rendue possible grâce au soutien généreux du gouvernement du Canada, le Grand-Duché de Luxembourg et l’université de Birmingham.
لقد أصبح هذا المعرض ممكنا بفضل الدعم من حكومة كندا ودوقية لوكسمبورغ الكبرى و جامعة برمنغهام
Government of Canada
Government of Luxembourg
University of Birmingham
Reflections - With this exhibition, we hope to offer to Tunisia, and by extension the world, an indispensable instrument of reflection; a crucial first step towards honoring and acknowledging women victims of the dictatorship.