When this picture was taken, I was a kid who had absolutely no idea about the future and how life would turn out for her and for these two little girls whom she met one day in the countryside.
But first things first; you are probably already wondering: who are these little girls?
They are: Souad (left), Khaoula (center) and me (right). Souad and Khaoula lived in a village called “Lehniet” where my parents recruited workers to gather olives in my hometown Chebba.
A friendship grew between my family and the workers’ families as my dad picked them up every morning and then drove them back to their homes every evening.
They are extremely generous people. Sometimes they would insist to invite my parents for dinner. My parents would visit when they heard one of them was sick and this is how our families became friends. They took me with them to this village few times where I met these two girls.
A few days ago, I was going through old photo albums when I found this picture and seeing it brought back a lot of memories and questions.
Souad and Khaoula were born and raised in Lehniet, one among a lot of Mahdia’s small disadvantaged villages. The parents in the village are almost all alike; fathers work as fishermen and mothers are farmers who had to do everything for their families as the fathers were always away (at sea).
Most of the parents in Lehniet didn’t really see why education could be so important. All they needed is for their children to help them with the agriculture tasks. But as the Tunisian state punishes the parents who don’t send their children to school, they were obliged to let their kids get some education.
That’s why Khaoula and Souad went to elementary school, to a school that lacked the necessary equipment but at least taught them how to write and read.
As Souad proved to be a good student and succeeded all six grades with no problem despite the lack of support from her parents or anybody, Khaoula and her twin sister Dalenda have failed. Old enough to be considered as labor force, their parents wouldn’t allow them to go back to school and try again and eventually they dropped out and their life became revolved around milking cows and farming.
As for Souad, after finishing elementary school, going to middle school wasn’t for her as easy as it must be. She had to walk no less than 3km to get to the nearest middle school (le college) in another village called “Aouled Abdallah”. There were no roads connecting the village and the school and no provided means of transportation. She had to walk through rough terrain and olive fields alongside with fellow students form her village in order to go to school, which is an exhausting task. A task that got even worse in winter.
Souad and her fellow students after walking for so long arrived so tired and hungry to a school without a canteen and without heaters. Their teachers complained about their lack of motivation for learning.
Souad didn’t get to finish her education because her father couldn’t stand the idea of his daughter walking back home when it’s dark in the middle of nowhere while he is working in the sea and cannot protect her.
For me, it was an outrageous act, as the rest of the villagers did the same with their girls but allowed the boys to finish their education because for them, only girls need to be protected. They are the honor of their families…
I remember the last time visiting Souad few years ago. She was really sad after her father forced her to drop out. I remember when she said “I wish I was a boy!” She wanted to finish her education, she had big dreams, she wanted to become a big accountant, to travel and enjoy life and and…
The last time I visited Khaoula and Dalenda, they were fifteen years old, they were complaining about hard labor and all they dreamt about is a husband as their only way to escape home. It was their optimum dream…
Today, I asked my mother about them, she said they are getting married and their husbands’ families expect them to work hard in their farms…
I just wonder when I think about them: how unfair was their life? How unequal were the chances they got? How many dreams were buried in Lehniet and in hundreds of villages with similar conditions in Tunisia? Where are the Tunisian authorities? And is there any candidate to the future elections who thinks about these girls and how to change their lives? Or there will still be more and more generations of “Souads” and “Khaoulas” wishing they were born boys…