Dr. Ahlem Belhadj: Bridging Mental and Social Health

Studying medicine in the 1990s is one thing and studying psychiatry in Tunisia in the 1990s is another. Dr. Ahlem Belhadj is a child psychiatrist who decided to pursue this domain during her medical education. More than ever, at that time, Dr. Belhadj believed that her work should have a direct impact on the Tunisian community and decided she wanted to help children who face personal challenges. 

Dr. Belhadj’s family was in favor of education. Unlike how Arab societies dealt with women pursuing higher education, she enrolled in a medical program at a time when not many women in Tunisia were willing or able to do so. Being a high achiever at school, Dr. Belhadj had the choice to either go into engineering or medicine but was motivated to go into a field with a direct impact on society. However, she did not receive the same encouragement from society itself. While in the form of discrimination, people around her told her to change paths and find a job within the private sector instead. Dr. Belhadj’s family remained her main source of strength and the main reason why she persisted and succeeded as a psychiatrist. She believes that being a medic for children is one of her main strengths, in addition to being a mother who had a challenging yet rewarding journey.

Dr. Belhadj could have worked in the private sector in Tunisia if she wanted to. However, she was a strong believer in providing equal healthcare to all, and healthcare, as she defines it, is not only attention to the physical but also to the mental. She was employed at a public hospital in Tunisia that had no specific division for psychiatry. She was frustrated with the stigma that accompanied psychiatry hospitals being only for those who have severe psychiatric issues. This, of course, led people to avoid going to psychiatric hospitals to be treated for less severe, yet treatable, illnesses and difficulties. Dr. Belhadj decided to open a new psychiatry division at the public hospital she worked at for all people to receive adequate diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up. This was a ground-breaking milestone where she felt that she was capable of change. 

In 2004, Dr. Belhadj became the president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD). She is a believer in gender and social equality. She led several marches of women against the Tunisian president at the time and was viewed as a feminist icon in Tunisia, specifically during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. She was an advocate of women’s rights in applying for their own and their children’s passports, reclaiming this right back from the patriarchal system. Dr. Belhadj was described by the Socialist Resistance as the “Arab Spring’s Tunisian Heroine” and is the recipient of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize. 

Activists in the Arab world have had distinct experiences with non-governmental organizations. Being a feminist and a healthcare professional for children, Dr. Belhadj found NGOs to be very helpful in her pursuit of justice and awareness. She states that she collaborated with many feminist organizations in the Arab world and abroad to raise women’s concerns so that they can be heard by policymakers. Despite giving special attention to women, she acknowledges that different social groups suffer in one way or another in society, such as public sector workers who are not paid on time. Dr. Belhadj also acknowledges that rights are not the same in all cultures, however, all rights should be reclaimed no matter the context. She states that democratic feminists should always advocate for the universality of rights and should not mind multiculturalism. 

Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance.” Dr. Belhadj advises girls to persevere in what they do. She advises them not to give up easily. She also believes that girls should not have only one goal in life and should build their goals one after the other and try to reach them as milestones. Dr. Belhadj has lots of faith in girls who want to reach a certain destination but urges them to study all the possible ways to reach this destination. Having a clear plan and examining all possibilities is what makes a girl achieve great things in life, whether academically or professionally. 

Growing up, Dr. Belhadj has not been exposed to the media the way girls of this generation are. She states that the media has both negative and positive impacts on young girls. She claims that some social media platforms offer great advice and credible information, making it a fast and easy way to become more knowledgeable about many topics. Besides increasing one’s own curiosity, she believes that social media has a strong negative impact on youth where false information is mixed with authentic and credible information. Social media also acts as a space to violate ethical standards, says Dr. Belhadj. The way to deal with this issue that surrounds us today, she advises girls to be mindful of what they read and what they follow. She also advises girls to differentiate between false and correct news so that it would not affect them in the future. 

As a children psychiatrist, Dr. Belhadj has some advice for schools that stems from her experience. She advises schools to respect girls’ privacy. While much advice can be given to schools in Tunisia with regards to boys and girls, she believes that this one has impacted girls the most. Throughout her career, she saw how girls turn out to be insecure and lack trust in any educational system. This also led her to advise schools and universities to include the concept of gendering the curriculum in their programs, as the current systems target boys and men primarily.

In all educational topics, she believes that girls should be provided with an opportunity to explore their utmost capacities and to have the chance to pursue them without any gendered consequences that have to do with their gender or biology. By doing so, Dr. Belhadj has faith that girls can grow to amend their societies and become leaders of change, by collaborating with other active members of their communities. 

This story was written by Tamara Sleiman

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