Tunis – For four consecutive days last month, black Tunisians marched against racism, travelling from the island of Djerba in the southeast to Tunis in the north.
The “Equality Caravan”, which marked the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was organised by a group of black Tunisian citizens who hoisted banners reading “Wseef is not a colour,” referring to a pejorative racial epithet sometimes used against black Tunisians.
“We wanted to raise awareness, break the taboo subject of racism through this march. We wanted to shock people about the reality of discrimination,” said event organiser Maha Abdulhamid, the co-founder and a former member of the black rights’ organisation ADAM for Equality and Development in Tunisia.
The first fallacy that we have to debunk is that of considering all Tunisian blacks as slave descendants.
Although Tunisian census data does not take into account ethnicity, and there are no specific population numbers available, the population of black Tunisians in the south is larger than in the north. Black Tunisians in the north are sometimes confused with sub-Saharan Africans, who are viewed as lower class by many non-black Tunisians.
Another organiser, Imen Ben Ismail – who founded the Tounous radio station, an unprecedented venture run by black citizens that deals with subjects related to racism in the country – called the march a wakeup call for all Tunisians. “We want to educate people who are desensitised to the meaning of the words they are using to designate their fellow black citizens,” Ben Ismail told Al Jazeera.
Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, a number of black-rights advocacy organisations such as Mnemty and ADAM have emerged in the country. Mnemty recently held a demonstration in front of the National Constituent Assembly, condemning the marginalisation of black Tunisians and demanding the criminalisation of racist acts. There is currently no law that protects Tunisian blacks from racial discrimination, but the assembly ultimately rejected the call for criminalisation, saying all citizens are protected under the country’s constitution.
In 1846, Tunisia became the first Arab country to end slavery, a decree that formally took effect years later, in 1890, after strong resistance by slave traders. But the legacy of discrimination against darker-skinned Tunisians has persisted.
Some still refer to black Tunisians as abeed, Arabic for slaves, as opposed to their non-black masters, referred to as colour (free). Many black families in the south still bear the names of their ex-slave owners, and in Djerba, many carry the term Atig meaning freed slave as a last name on their identity cards.
“It is the government’s role to look at this problem. It should make it easier for those people to change their last names without long bureaucratic and legal procedures,” said Lotfi Azouz, executive director of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International.
In the remote southeastern village of Gosba, black Tunisians even take separate buses. “They are separated for fear that more interracial marriages will take place,” said Omran Nouiri, an anti-racism activist from Gosba.
Many told me that they will never keep silent, and I think that this is good progress.
Ethnologist and historian Abdulhamid Largueche told Al Jazeera: “The first fallacy that we have to debunk is that of considering all Tunisian blacks as slave descendants… With colonisation the idea of a black sub-Saharan Africa and white North Africa was constructed. The advent of decolonisation did not help to eliminate this division.”
The population of black Tunisians in the south is larger than in the north, although Tunisian census data does not take into account ethnicity, and there are no specific population numbers available. In the north, black Tunisians are sometimes confused with sub-Saharan Africans, who are viewed as lower class by many non-black Tunisians.
The new Tunisian constitution enshrines equality between Tunisians, with Article 21 affirming this principle. But some critics say the article is not specific enough. “The Tunisian constitution is, overall, a good one. Yet it lacks a simple and a universal declaration that highlights ‘the denunciation of all forms of discrimination irrespective of religion, language and skin colour’,” Largueche said.
Abdel Hamid Ben Abdallah, a representative of the Tunisian Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, said the government was working towards “an ambitious strategy of internalising the culture of human rights”.
“We will try to bring up our future generations on the principles of human rights through awareness campaigns in the regions where nostalgia for the slavery times is still alive,” he said.
Just last month, a black pupil was called “abd” (a singular form of abeed) by his teacher at the Ibn Rachik-Zahra school in Tunis. Parents of his lighter-skinned classmates were outraged and heavily condemned the act.
As an act of solidarity, 50 pupils wrote on their exam sheets: “No to racism in our school.” They were summoned to the school board for that action, but after the case gained national media attention, no punishment was levied, said Mohamed Amin Krifi, the president of the Pupils’ Defense Organisation, a group that calls for reforms to the educational system.
Krifi said the publicity surrounding the schoolboy’s case strengthened the resolve of black Tunisians to fight for their rights.
“Many told me that they will never keep silent and I think that this is good progress,” Krifi said.