Tunisia's dark history of racial discrimination

Tunisia's dark history of racial discrimination
6 min read
Comment: Transitional justice in Tunisia should extend to those who continue to be excluded from society, writes Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The rights of black Tunisians have gone unaddressed since the revolution [Getty]

Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia, although you wouldn't know it without digging deep. On the surface, Tunisia is seen as a shining example of democratic evolution in the Arab world.

It is true that Tunisia has made great strides since its 2011 revolution. Rival political parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha, are governing as a coalition based on compromise. Tunisia's constitution is also the most progressive in the region.

However, some areas of the country's progress have stagnated. One in particular - minority rights - needs a major boost, as the rights of black Tunisians have gone completely unaddressed since the revolution for citizenly dignity. Without an honest examination of racial discrimination and attempt to improve treatment of its black citizens, Tunisia will be selling itself short in the years to come.

Munathara debate kicks off conversation about birth certificates

The Munathara Initiative, a pan-Arab debate program, recently hosted a debate in Tunisia about minority rights in the Arab world. Tunisia is the perfect venue for such a debate, as in 1846, it became the first Arab country to abolish slavery.

Two teams jousted back and forth, debating minority rights. The most notable moment came when Rania Belhaj Romdhane, director of Mnemty, an anti-racism NGO in Tunisia, produced the  birth certificate of a black Tunisian.

Rania, who is black herself, showed the certificate to Abdelbari Atwan, who was debating against her as part of the anti-minority rights side. Atwan, a journalist with celebrity status in the Middle East, originally hails from Gaza and not Tunisia.

On the certificate, the word chouchane which in Tunisian Arabic translates to "owned by" is written next to the name "Hamrouni". In other words, it reads "property of Hamrouni".

Without an honest examination of racial discrimination and attempt to improve treatment of its black citizens, Tunisia will be selling itself short in the years to come

Abdelbari told Belhaj Romdhane that if such a practice of racial discrimination exists, then he would raise the issue with President Beji Caid Essebsi. Belhaj Romdhane declined the offer, stating that she could handle the matter herself.

Despite her rejection, Atwan still obtained a copy of the document. Speaking to The New Arab, he said, "I consulted with four journalists and found nothing racist in the document." Atwan visited Essebsi and spoke about "the economic situation and the call for a national unity government." However, he never raised the issue of the document because he saw "no discrimination in it".

When asked if racial discrimination is a problem in Tunisia, Atwan refused the claim, "Maybe there are a few cases of racism, but it is not generalised. It is being exaggerated."

Bigger problems to deal with

Atwan believes that there are "much bigger problems in the Arab world" and this is a common opinion among policymakers in Tunisia. Of course, there are major problems. As President Essebsi said recently, the three main problems are "corruption, unemployment and terrorism". It is hard to disagree; yet those like Essebsi who are saying this, have never experienced racism in their lives.

This begs the question, is Atwan correct? Is the birth certificate discriminatory or is racism just an exaggerated problem?

A history of slavery in Tunisia

Birth certificates like the Chouchane Hamrouni one are held by many black Tunisians. Not all black Tunisians hail from slave ancestry, yet those with the "chouchane" format have ancestors who received this name when they were purchased by slaveowners in Ottoman Tunisia. White slaves also existed, as criminals and kidnapped Europeans were often forced into slavery.

Najwa Younes, a journalist and researcher of the history of black Tunisians, helped clarify the ambiguity surrounding names of former slaves. Younes, who identifies as "brown-skinned", told The New Arab:

"Upon emancipation, white slaves dropped the names of their previous owners: They just kept the last names abid meaning slave or atig meaning former slave. Other emancipated white slaves even kept the last names of their owners, such as "Mamlouk", without the possessive preceding it. Many black slaves, however, were forced to keep "property of" plus the name of their previous owners."

'People in the cities don't see racism as a generalised problem because they identify blacks as sub-Saharan foreigners' says Myriam Amri

In other words, the names of black Tunisians solely indicated them as property of prominent families. The black Tunisians who submitted these certificates to Mnemty wanted to both change their official names and raise awareness that this practice still exists.

Atwan was not aware of this practice, nor the fact that in certain towns in southern Tunisia, public school buses are segregated, one bus for whites and one bus for blacks. In response, Atwan said, "They should be thankful. They are lucky to have two buses."

Should black Tunisians really be thankful?

Black Tunisians comprise up to 15 percent of the population, but only one black Tunisian serves in parliament. According to Rania Belhaj Romdhane, in certain parts of the country, such as the small town of Gosbah in Medenine, wesfan or slaves are separated from ahrar or freedmen in racial segregation.

It is worth noting that these egregious examples of racial discrimination are by no means widespread. They only exist in small communities in southern Tunisia. In fact, Article 21 of Tunisia's constitution "guarantees freedoms and individual and collective rights to all citizens".

However, without a specific article guaranteeing equality to all people regardless of race, more insidious racism, like the issue of names, will continue to exist throughout the country.

Insidious forms of racial discrimination

In "Tunisia’s Dirty Secret", a short Al Jazeera documentary showing racism in Tunisia, a black Tunisian named Hamza walked a day in the streets of Tunis wearing glasses with a hidden camera. In the footage, one man walks by Hamza and asks, "Slave, have you been kicked out from your house?" while another walks by saying "have a shower you lazy bastard".

In fact, words like chouchane or kahloush - a derogatory way to refer to black people - are still used quite frequently, either in jest or as actual labels. For many black Tunisians, chouchane represents not just a name, but a form of constant humiliation.

Tunisia can and should be a leader in the fight to attain racial equality

Speaking to Al Jazeera interviewers afterwards, Hamza says that he hears many racist insults in the streets of Tunisia. "It's like someone's piercing your heart", he admits.

Myriam Amri, a graduate student at the School of Anthropology at LSE, believes such racial discrimination is by no means exceptional. "People in the cities don't see racism as a generalised problem because they identify blacks as sub-Saharan foreigners. They don't see it as a problem between one Tunisian and another. Black Tunisians almost don’t exist."

Hope for a future of equality

In the future, Tunisia can and should be a leader in the fight to attain racial equality. Across the world, people look to it as a role model. Transitional justice in post-revolution Tunisia does not just extend to those who were explicitly persecuted under the regime, but also to the individuals and communities who were and continue to be excluded from society.

Tunisia first needs an article added to its constitution, specifically preventing discrimination based on race. On top of this, it should be possible for individuals with such names to change them easily.

Belhaj Romdhane remains hopeful. "We need to guide people to learn to become more accepting. Parents can start by teaching their children to appreciate differences."

Conor is a journalist based in Tunisia. His work has been published in the Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, and Al-Monitor. He also works in the Tunisian education field to promote cross-cultural understanding.

Follow him on Twitter: @ConorMichael28

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.