This policy brief addresses the issue of racism in Tunisia and its economic and social intersectionality. Tunisia was a pioneer in the fight against racism, by establishing laws for the abolition of slavery for example. However, racism persists and manifests in social behavior. State policies that perpetuate racism pose a threat to social cohesion.
Ten years have passed since the January 14 revolution paved the way for freedom of expression and encouraged diversity of perspectives. After decades of regime control, this revolution allowed people to engage in debates on many previously overlooked issues such as racism which is perhaps one of the most important. This question is crucial because it represents a general lack of the State’s political civility. In addition, it is an issue that has been either ignored or denied which further aggravates relations with repressive structures.
This policy brief dissects the issue of racism in Tunisia by addressing not only ethnicity but also its economic, social and political dimensions. It offers theoretical and practical recommendations to help combat and criminalize all forms of racial discrimination
Racism in Tunisia: between reality and denial
Racism is a reality in Tunisia that needs to be addressed. This requires ending society’s denial of its existence and recognising the authority’s inability to confront the problem. Despite strengthening legislation on this issue, there is a considerable gap between the legal framework and social reality. Furthermore, black women suffer from double discrimination; an intersection of racism and sexism makes them an especially vulnerable group. victims and therefore the most affected by the phenomenon of racism.
Constitutional equality and social inequality
Although the 2014 Constitution sanctions and criminalizes racial discrimination and stipulates equality between all citizens, these laws remain theoretical and have no impact on social reality and daily life. Moreover, parliamentarians have failed to put this legislation
Mazen Korshid, lawyer and civil society activist, argues that laws are supposed to intervene to counter gaps created by reality, such as racial discrimination. However, mechanisms that restrict and punish are required to implement legislation.
Tunisia has produced several laws for equality such as the decree for the abolition of slavery, the Security Pact, the constitutions of 1959 and 1968, the constitution of 2014, and the organic law against racial discrimination 2018. In addition, there are international agreements, laws, measures and decrees that establish the foundations of civil status and the rule of law, and were brandished as slogans by the post-independence regime. Although these texts were introduced to strengthen the legal framework and align it with Tunisia’s international commitments, most are not being implemented.
Slavery and racism are the product of social context, economic patterns, and relations of production. The centralized authority, both before and after Independence, has not worked to enact radical changes on this issue, instead it limited the discourse to religious considerations during the Beylical era or focusing on national unity after independence.
Korshid summarizes this matter by stating that “this manifests today in several instances that are observable in the public sphere. The most notable cases are the absence of black people in political and civic life, a social stagnation that prevents any social mobility, a previously low enrolment rate and a now reduced number of graduates. Furthermore, the majority have difficult physical jobs and do not own real estate or means of production”
Geography, politics, and racism
The geography of Tunisia reflects the political, developmental, and social inequalities between regions. In addition, the majority of blacks live in the south-eastern (Gabès, Medenine, Tataouine) and those of the south-western (Tozeur, Kébili) governorates, regions that have higher poverty rate than the northern and coastal provinces. This regional inequality is due to the political conflict between Saleh Ben Youssef and Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba, who became Tunisia’s first president, sided with the coastal areas, while his opponent, Saleh Ben Youssef, made himself the representative of the South, the hub of his support base. As Ben Youssef became politically marginalised, the southern areas bore the brunt of this antagonism and were left out of investment and development plans.
This conflict continued as President Ben Ali, who was also from the coast, sought to marginalise political Islam supporters, who were more present in the South, consolidated anti-black racism. This developmental disparity between the South and the Coast exacerbated the social divide.
In addition to this geographic and regional discrimination, there is discrimination within the region itself because the political, geographic and economic factors have fostered the creation of a climate of racism. To this day, blacks still inherit the position of slaves, find themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy and suffer from social, economic and professional discrimination.
Although some progressive and leftist forces have tried to highlight the issue of racism, their attempts were unsuccessful due to their low political influence. In a political context dominated by populism and forces resistant to rational and practical solutions, the discourse on racism remains inconsistent, cyclical, and dominated by the desire to expose the efforts of the state despite the latter’s obvious incapacity to effectively address the problem.
Women are a weak link
The racism suffered by black women poses a complex structural problem. They are victims of double discrimination as a woman and as a black person. Khawla Ksiksi, a Tunisian activist and lawyer, suffers from daily harassment and abusive behavior. “In all aspects of life, I am not seen as a human being capable of creating and innovating. Instead, I am reduced to this black appearance, forced to always depend on a white woman. We suffer great psychological pain on a daily basis, and without the will and perseverance of some, it would be impossible to get up. There are numerous examples, such as comparing the unemployment rate among white women and black women who have the same university and academic level.”
Ksiksi adds, “We suffer from injustice being both female and black. For example, I fight against the stereotype promoted by some white women that reduces a woman to the role of a man’s docile ally. But because of my skin color, I threaten to tarnish this image they have constructed, and I find myself reduced to the role of a subordinate. On the other hand, I suffer injustice as a black woman. I have experienced enormous financial and social difficulties because we do not like the color black, and this is despite my merits and my distinctions. I experienced this situation when I was rejected when applying for different positions because of my skin color.”
Ksiksi argues that “racism ultimately remains the responsibility of blacks. If we don’t stand up, no one will understand what we’re going through. And if we don’t impose ourselves, you’ll see them take our merits.”
Tunisia’s legacy of racism
Just as racism has a heritage and a history in Tunisia, so does the fight against this phenomenon.
Slavery was abolished in Tunisia by Ahmed Bey with the support of Zitouna University. In 1846, Tunisia became the first Muslim and Arab country to abolish slavery during the reign of Ahmed Bey with the support of Zitouna University. This reformist spirit led to the creation of the 1861 constitution and made it possible to obtain certain rights.
From the 19th century and until the Bourguiba regime, Tunisia was considered a model of progression and modernity, which made it an exception in the Arab world. However, decades have passed since then and the presence of racism is still persistent in Tunisian society. Its enduring presence is a threatening social cohesion. Despite the reformist project of the newly independent state, it failed in terms of demographic and socio-cultural diversity. Persecution in the name of religious affiliation (in the case of Jews) or because of skin color (for blacks) persists. As a result, after so many years, black people are still excluded from social and developmental dynamics in parts of the Southeast region.
Despite the modest reforms by the post-independence governments, important steps have been taken in the fight against racism [in the post-revolution era]. In 2018, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People passed Organic Law 50-2018 which criminalizes any form of racial discrimination or favoritism in the name of race, skin color, affiliation, or otherwise.
According to the new law no 2018/11, is liable to a sentence of one year to three years in prison and a fine of 1000DT to 3000 DT (1000 dollars) any person who incites violence, hatred, discrimination and which propagates ideas based on racial discrimination, as well as “the formation of a group or organization which clearly and repeatedly defends racial discrimination by joining or participating in it.”
Towards the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination
Mechanisms for implementing laws against racial discrimination
We cannot account for racism and discuss the law against racial discrimination without considering the Tunisian political context. Racism is the product of both societal and political structures. Therefore, state institutions are primarily responsible for ending or perpetuating prejudice through their development of laws that clarify and determine forms of racial discrimination, as well as the implementation of current laws. To ensure that the state is serious about addressing racism, it must establish advice centres for victims of racism and encourage them to testify.
This approach will be useful in determining the number of victims of racism and thus establish a map that would allow authorities to accurately calculate rates of racial discrimination from demographic data. It would also ensure the implantation of the law in social reality while actively fighting against the exclusion of blacks from the public sphere.
The national anti-discrimination committee was an innovative and promising project. It has been involved in the collection and monitoring of various relevant data as well as the design and proposal of strategies and public policies to eliminate racial discrimination. Its working procedures and composition have been determined by government decree to guarantee the principle of parity and the representation of civil society.
Equitable development between regions is a cornerstone of the fight against racism
Equitable development between regions is the starting point for combating racism, regional exclusion, and the marginalization of areas where blacks are present in large numbers, such as the El Gahbéya neighborhood in Gabès. El Gahbéya is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the region, most of its inhabitants have marginal occupations, which contributes to worsening their economic and social precariousness and to raising the unemployment rate. Moreover, none of them hold political posts or important functions. For the inhabitants of El Gahbéya, any ambition for social mobility is only a dream . Therefore, economic development and social justice as the ultimate bulwark against racism.
The role of education, culture, and the media in eradicating the legacy of racism
Denying the reality of racism will not eliminate racial discrimination. Instead, effective solutions must be found at political, social and cultural levels. Finding the necessary means to apply existing anti-racism legislation is key but this cannot be achieved without the development of progressive culture and education capable of countering racism and preventing all forms of denial.
For example, if Tunisian films stopped propagating clichés about blacks and the media supported the causes of the marginalized and the oppressed, it is possible to convey a positive message that does not perpetuate repression and discrimination. Regarding education, public education can play a decisive role through implementing educational approaches that value African identity. This is especially relevant because, in addition to black Tunisians, ten thousand refugees from sub-Saharan countries are integrating into Tunisian society and are attending school. A good approach is based on positive interactions with black people as they are essential components of Tunisian identity. Representing black people in school textbooks and teaching programs, by including them in particular in stories, for example, would also facilitate their integration.
The role of civil society and progressive forces
Countering racism in Tunisian society and institutions can only happen by strengthening the role of progressive and modernist forces. Likewise, it is crucial to open debates, to continually raise the issue of racism in the public space, to strengthen the political participation of blacks by encouraging institutions to include and represent them in the political and civic arena and to promote their social advancement.
The problem of racism is not solely the responsibility of the state and its institutions. It is also the concern of Tunisia human rights movements that must conduct more awareness campaigns to fight racial discrimination. Therefore, these groups should be leading the fight in the public space through daily actions aimed at eradicating the legacy of racism at different behavioral, linguistic and social levels, which contributes to the application of laws and their impact on society.
The fight against racism represents an aspect of the broader fight against social inequalities. It also represents the development of the civil status project for equality between citizens beyond all political considerations and regardless of gender or race, which has experienced major progress in recent years. Furthermore, it represents the application of the concept of citizenship, an essential principle of the revolution. This will reinvigorate the Tunisia revolution, which has been ongoing since 2011, and provides further opportunities for debates about racism.
- For the Ministry of Education:
Modernize the education system through teaching methods that strengthen Tunisia’s awareness of African identity, thereby helping to educate an enlightened generation that does not perpetuate the patterns of oppressive structures.
- For the Ministry of Cultural Affairs:
Pay more attention to the heritage of blacks in Tunisia, exploit it, develop it and promote it.
Encourage the representation of blacks in the Tunisian cultural landscape and work to combat racial clichés.
- For the Higher Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA)
Warn programs that broadcast discriminatory content to put an end to stigmatization.
Disseminate awareness messages to warn of the dangers of racism and its repercussions.
- For the Ministry of Social Affairs
Work more to improve the situation of black people by creating development projects and including them more in the economic model. These projects should focus on where they live to address their isolation.
Private interview with Mazen Korshid on February 20, 2021 in Tunis. Private interview with Mazen Korshid on February 20, 2021 in Tunis.Private interview with Khaoula Ksiksi on 14 February 2021Private interview with Khaoula Ksiksi on 14 February 2021 Ksiksi, Khaoula (2020) “The fight against racial discrimination in Tunisia: an interview with Khaoula Ksiksi”. Arab Reform Initiative. Available at https://cutt.ly/Lzlnf3u Draft Basic Law No. 11/2018 on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Availble at https://cutt.ly/1lBTM5N Moutaa Amine El Waer (2017) The blacks of El Gahbéya in Gabès: instrumentalised racism and a difficult struggle. Nachaz Dissonances. Available at https://nachaz.org/السّود-في-حي-القهباية-بقابس-العنصريّ-2/