Irina and Manel Msalmi talk role models, Muslim women in the west

Irina and Manel talk political Islam and world security 

Editorial | Republic Underground  

March 22, 2021 

Irina Tsukerman (left), and Manel Msalmi (right) met for a roundtable event this women’s month. They discussed many relevant world issues, including political Islam and world security for minorities. Msalmi shared more of her story in this event, and how she was inspired to be an active voice for Muslim women in the western world. 

This Women’s Month, Republic Underground’s media vice president Irina Tsukerman was honored to speak with Manel Msalmi, who is originally from Tunisia. Msalmi is an International Affairs Advisor at the European Parliament, as well as a blog contributor for the European Parliament. She is the President of the European Association for The Defense of Minorities.

An active voice for human rights, Msalmi recently commented on behalf of the Brussels Attacks anniversary. 

“Today we pay tribute to the victims of #BrusselsAttacks and their families. Five years later, our fight against extremism and radicalism is a priority and our values of freedom, democracy coexistence, and peace should be spread #togetherwearestronger #saynototerror #Brusselsremembers,” wrote Msalmi via her Twitter, on March 22. 

Despite her impressive career, Msalmi remains down-to-earth. She spoke with Irina about her career, noting that she found it “difficult” to talk about herself.

In her chat with Republic Underground, Msalmi noted that “every woman” can be inspiring to young girls.

I find it difficult sometimes to speak about oneself because sometimes we prefer to let others speak about us. 

She told Irina how she came from Tunisia and resides in Belgium, a nation that “inspires women” with many opportunities. Despite having found solidarity in the western world, she hails back to the role models at her roots. 

“My role models in my family were my mother and my grandmother. They were big entrepreneurs in the agricultural field,” she said.

 

 

Msalmi talked about the people and events that inspired her to become an activist

 

“So I have this inspiration this model about women leading in business for instance. But also here in Belgium. When I started doing my engagement, especially in politics, I met a lot of inspiring women. One of them is our previous Prime Minister Mrs. Sophie Wilmes, also a minister of foreign affairs, then Mrs. Francoise Schepmans, former Mayor of Molenbeek, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the head of European women’s lobby  Mrs Viviane Teitelbaum Belgian deputy. So, I met lots of women who are very very inspiring.” 

“As for Schepmans, she’s a very, very engaged woman in the neighborhood of Molenbeek, which is very important for women to be assertive in this kind of neighborhood.”

She then detailed the impact political Islam events in Europe has had on her own career.

“I started my political engagement in 2010 in the liberal party here in Belgium and what drew me here is changing things. I really wanted to change things, especially from my perspective as a migrant as a young woman from a Muslim background but also being a change maker not only just a viewer because sometimes you do things to you you’re just watching how it is going to happen in the world you watch, we witnessed a lot of things from 2010-2015 when the attacks Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Brussels attacks.”

She then acknowledged the experience of Muslim women in the secular world, and their activism. 

“Now we are going to have in a few days, the tribute to, let’s say to the victims of Brussels attacks so we have a lot, a lot of things so when I saw all that is happening in the world what is happening to you and in Belgium and Europe. I said, I would like to be engaged more I would like to do something for the community, I would like to, to show that there are a lot of women who are from Muslim backgrounds, who are engaged or liberal who advocate for peaceful coexistence against terrorism. So I wanted to be an activist.” 

 

Irina and Manel likewise talked about the role of women in leadership, especially with regards to Muslims 

“Some men refuse to see women leading in leading positions, and you have to speak with them, you have to convince them. You have to speak to your people and you have to speak to also to women who sometimes don’t vote for other women they prefer to vote for men,” said Msalmi.

“So, this is what was challenging for me is just assertive being self-confident, even though sometimes you might feel a little bit, hesitating or afraid because  it’s a huge responsibility. Anyway, this was a kind of an experience which was very challenging for me, and I thought what I wanted to do is just to be an inspiration, a change maker, and a role model for young women and girls here in Belgium,from migrant backgrounds, especially.”

Msalmi talked about how she wanted to exemplify especially to Muslim migrant women that it was acceptable to defend their principles in the public space.  She noted that she had a lot of positive support that empowered her to continue, especially from the youth demographic.

“What motivated me is the reaction of young people,” she noted. Then she explained how with Muslims cultural appearances of role models were trumped by the content one produces.

“They say, “okay it’s difficult when you run for a campaign, you have to go into neighborhoods, you have to meet people,”  It is very complicated sometimes. They don’t see in you this example of leadership. They want another example of leadership, maybe a Muslim woman with a scarf, and if you are not wearing a scarf, it’s sometimes it’s not their role model, but when they speak with you when they see how much you are defending ideas and defending jobs and  economy and something very consistent. Then, it’s not a matter of appearance, it’s a matter of content.”

She also explained the importance of a consistent content strategy across any campaigning individuals agenda to engage electors and the public audience.

‘”What you are providing as content. Even though you can be a woman or a man that is a political leader, you should provide the content, you should provide something, you should have a program, you should have ideas. This is what you should demonstrate to your potential, let’s say electors or audience.”

Irina then asked what Manel’s experience was with the struggle between convincing conservative Muslim society and anti-immigrant sentiments during her political campaigns.

“You’re tackling a challenging field, you’re trying to break through stereotypes among conservative segments of society, on the other hand, there are also anti-immigrant sentiments in some other segments of society, how did you come to want to be engaged in politics, to begin with?” asked Tsukerman.

“The fact is that on one hand, we have this conservative and high migrant, feeling, and we also, on the other hand, people who are very conservative and have tried to, let’s say, to preserve their identity, to preserve the Muslim identity, from what they call being westernized,” said Msalmi.

She then explained how effectively this was not true, and how the western world has not contributed to a degradation of religious identities.

See more in our next discussion. 

Irina and Manel’s chat tackled many things. We will soon follow up. Share your thoughts on the points that Manel made above about her own career, and her views on the common experience of Muslim women in the western world. Follow the link to our event channel and leave us your comments, questions, suggestions in the video thread.