Tunisia: debunking stereotypes with science

A young Tunisian high school student debunks stereotypes and spreads knowledge through YouTube videos.

When science and logic are used to debunk misconceptions, stereotypes, and to promote tolerance and open-mindedness, you might end up changing someone’s perceptions. This was the goal of Baha Lajmi and Fahd Baaziz, two 16-year-old Tunisian high school students from Soussa, when they started a YouTube channel, Draw My Science, in May 2015, with the aim to vulgarize scientific concepts and phenomena in Tunisian Arabic.

During the past three years, the project grew and has now gathered almost ten thousand followers, which is quite astonishing since they haven’t used any sort of advertisement.

“Science is just a simple game with the goal to bring light to the endless mysteries of the universe, and even of everyday life.” – Baha Lajmi

The story of Draw my science

The videos of Draw My Science explain scientific concepts, or phenomena graphically to a young public in Tunisian dialect with English subtitles, and visualizing the explanations through the use of colourful drawings.

The subjects touched in these videos often have a socio-political trace, as they are often taboos within Tunisian society. They vary from topics such as masturbation, homosexuality, vaginism, and the hymen, to themes, such as multiple intelligence, evolution, astrology, and immortality.

The channel also features a series of videos on the human mind, where Lajmi and Baaziz explain psychological phenomena, such as depression, social anxiety, the bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In these videos, Lajmi and Baaziz act out a patient-therapist situation, in order to explain a given psychological problematic.

Baaziz left the team recently, so, now, Baha Lajmi is currently carrying the project alone. The young educational activist is also setting up an association, Beta Plus, which should act as a platform for educational projects, such as Draw My Science, in order to bring about change in the lives of young people, and in the Tunisian society. Spreading knowledge to debunk stereotypes and misconceptions, such as homosexuality being unnatural and the choice of the individual, within Tunisian society is one of Lajmi’s goals.

He is, therefore, part of the community of Tunisian social activists actively pushing and working for socio-political change in this period of democratic transition. Youth activism and participation has been intrinsic to the democratization process in Tunisia. The majority of these young activists are volunteers, who just like Lajmi, who is still in high school, divide their time between their activism and their studies. More often than not, this comes at the expense of their studies, or of a daytime job that ensures some kind of subsistence.

 

Tackling taboos

One example for this is the Draw My Science video on homosexuality. This is a rather touchy subject within Tunisian society, as homosexuality is criminalized both by law and religious preconceptions.

In the clip, homosexuality is first defined as the sexual desire between two individuals of the same sex. This is a phenomenon, that has also been witnessed in about 450 animal species, the video says. By talking about it being a natural phenomenon, which exists and has been existing for ages in nature, the general misconception of homosexuality as something unnatural, or unhealthy, is debunked.

The clip then moves on to talk about the question of choice and then goes on to explain the distribution of hormones – testosterone for masculinity, estrogen for femininity. The distribution of hormones to the fetus influence its sexual orientation, which is why it can’t be a choice. Then, they go on to debunk the perception that this can be influenced by your beliefs – whether you are a practising believer of a certain religion, or not.

This kind of bias is widespread within Tunisian society, which is why the video has had a rather fierce homophobic online backlash. Creating such a counter narrative to oppose the common educational and societal discourse is extremely important when it comes to creating social change.

Demand for a new education system

A lot of young Tunisians don’t really get interested in science, and in acquiring scientific knowledge, because of the way it is taught and explained in class, Lajmi explains. The educational system is old, and in desperate need of reform. Young Tunisians often feel left out, or rather, can’t find their place in the education system according to their interests, as the system leaves very little space for individual expression, as Lajmi pointed out during our conversation.

The Tunisian education system was built on the French model, which is why reformers concentrated on the Arabization of the system after the independence in 1956. Despite the progress that has been achieved throughout the past years, young Tunisians are disappointed by what the system has to offer them, and subjects, such as those that Draw My Science discusses are being ignored in the general education system, especially regarding sexual education.

Lajmi, therefore, sees himself as filling up this gap. With Draw My Science, he hopes to inspire others to get interested into science, to spark their curiosity, and to open their eyes and minds by debunking stereotypes with scientific knowledge. This, he hopes, will help work against youth radicalization, and raise the level of tolerance and knowledge within the Tunisian youth.

Ignored by the local media

As Lajmi pointed out repeatedly, Tunisian media has been ignoring his project, and the issues it raises since its creation in May 2015. The media attention has been limited to online platforms, such as Huffpost Maghreb, and a radio program, which hosted him once.

When asked about the reasons for this silencing of this story within the Tunisian media, Lajmi said that the majority of Tunisians probably weren’t interested so much in youth activism and educational initiatives, such as his, and that the media responds to the demand.

However, it would be in the interest of critical media to emphasize causes and initiatives that are critical to certain socio-political phenomena.

Tunisia: debunking stereotypes with science
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Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently based in Tunis. Fluent in German, English and French, she has spent significant time traveling and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. For the past 2 years, she has been going back and forth between Tunis and Vienna studying Arabic and volunteering for a NGO project focused on racism and discrimination in the MENA region. She is a passionate advocate for human rights and gender equality. She is also interested in photography, art, and loves music.
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