Systemic Racism in Tunisia Hasn’t Gone Away

15 November, 2020

As the Arab Reform Ini­tia­tive recent­ly point­ed out dur­ing a dis­cus­sion with Tunisian activist Khawla Ksik­si, Arab/Muslim coun­tries of the Mid­dle East and North Africa have “gen­er­al­ly failed to adopt laws or mea­sure to fight racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion against black peo­ple.” To be sure, many Blacks are indige­nous to the SWANA region, such that anti-Black racism can­not only be explained by the latent xeno­pho­bia of those who wor­ry that refugees and ille­gal immi­grants are harm­ing social cohe­sion or endan­ger­ing the econ­o­my. To go deep­er into the DNA of Arab/Muslim racism, TMR asked Khawla Ksik­si to give an in-depth overview of the sit­u­a­tion in Tunisia.

Khawla Ksiksi

Anti-racism activist Khawla Ksiksi

Anti-racism activist Khawla Ksiksi

Wsif (slave/nigger), guerd (mon­key) kha­dem (ser­vant) tsafi edam (lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed this means remov­ing tox­ins from the blood­stream and is used as a pejo­ra­tive expres­sion to say it is a rem­e­dy for dis­eases), nos elil (mid­night). These words have not been tak­en from a his­tor­i­cal book or heard in a sto­ry about slav­ery: they are the dai­ly rou­tine of black peo­ple in Tunisia. This accursed sym­pho­ny com­posed by the state and played by soci­ety is repeat­ed inces­sant­ly in the lives of Tunisians who get lost between its notes.

Although Tunisia is among the first coun­tries in the world to abol­ish slav­ery and the first Arab coun­try to estab­lish a law crim­i­nal­iz­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism is still omnipresent. It is embed­ded in all fields in dif­fer­ent forms: direct or indi­rect, con­scious or uncon­scious, soci­etal or institutionalized. 

I have to admit that racism in Tunisia has cer­tain pecu­liar­i­ties gen­er­at­ed not only by his­tor­i­cal facts, but also by the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. In what fol­lows, we will dis­cuss all these elements.

Stig­ma­tiz­ing and Omission

Slav­ery in Tunisia was abol­ished in three suc­ces­sive phas­es. First of all, it came in 1841 with the deci­sion of ruler Ahmed I ibn Mustafa, the 10th Husainid Bey, to pro­hib­it the trade, import and sale of slaves on Tunisian ter­ri­to­ry. Then, a year lat­er, Ahmed I ordered that all new­born Black chil­dren be pre­sumed free. Final­ly, in 1846, he dic­tat­ed the lib­er­a­tion of all slaves and total­ly abol­ished slav­ery. This his­tor­i­cal aside shows that the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in Tunisia was not as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as believed. Nev­er­the­less, it went through all its stages because of the resis­tance of landown­ers (lords) and oth­ers who ben­e­fit­ed from the “advan­tages” of slavery.

After 174 years, the resis­tance of Tunisi­a’s Blacks is still rel­e­vant. Why? This is sim­ply the result of our fail­ure to observe con­crete changes in our sit­u­a­tion in soci­ety. We live de fac­to the same hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion­ship, the same eco­nom­ic sub­or­di­na­tion and espe­cial­ly the dom­i­na­tion and pater­nal­ism exer­cised over the Blacks in all areas. In this sense, I dare say that the expe­ri­ence of every Black per­son in Tunisia is traced by this heavy and exhaust­ing her­itage. I rely on my per­son­al expe­ri­ence to bet­ter explain this point.

saadia-mosbah je lutte pour une tunisie plurielle.jpg

Res­i­dent in Tunis, the cap­i­tal, I am orig­i­nal­ly from south­ern Tunisia. Liv­ing in these two envi­ron­ments, which are dif­fer­ent in many ways, has allowed me to have access to a rich cul­ture, but also to con­front a two-sided racism. 

As a youth I was shocked by the nor­mal­iza­tion of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in the south where the Black per­son is called “wsif” (slave) and the non-black per­son is called “horr” (free). These terms were/are used by the dom­i­nant and the dom­i­nat­ed with absolute ease. We are faced with qui­et social divi­sions that are going on qui­et­ly, even unno­ticed. I used to think it was a lin­guis­tic habit that had no con­no­ta­tions; but with time I began to grasp the deep­er mean­ing of these “sim­ple” words. 

Soci­etal racism is noth­ing but the fruit of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism, plant­ed and fed by the state. Indeed, the abo­li­tion of slav­ery was moti­vat­ed by polit­i­cal stakes rather than the will to defend a human­i­tar­i­an cause. This deci­sion was not accom­pa­nied by reme­di­al mea­sures. As a result, slav­ery was abol­ished on the legal lev­el only but with­out reach­ing the social lev­el. A pol­i­cy of invis­i­bi­liza­tion and mar­gin­al­iza­tion was estab­lished: Blacks did not/do not have the same priv­i­leges as non-Blacks and they did not/do not have access to the same rights and posi­tions. They were/are invis­i­ble in the pub­lic space, in edu­ca­tion, in pol­i­tics and in the eco­nom­ic and social spheres. A Black per­son was/is not allowed to be a judge or lawyer. He/she can pass writ­ten exams (where col­or is “masked”) but not oral exams. 

Attempts by Blacks to break out of the mar­gins, move clos­er to the cen­ter and catch up on eco­nom­ic and social gaps are not always wel­come. I pick as an exam­ple the case of Ichraf Debbech, a young Black entre­pre­neur, who was try­ing to improve her eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion by open­ing a gym in Med­nine (south­ern Tunisia). When she suc­ceed­ed, she suf­fered racist attacks. She was advised to shut up and accept this injus­tice and when she refused, a call for a boy­cott was launched against her busi­ness, her moth­er was fired from her job and she lost every­thing. (Ichraf Debbech talks about her strug­gles on Face­book.) This is not an iso­lat­ed case, because the pol­i­cy of the state is that soci­ety refus­es to see a Black per­son out­side of the small set­tings in which they have been impris­oned: for them the role of a Black per­son is lim­it­ed to serv­ing, but when it comes to tak­ing cen­ter stage, they must be invisible. 

In the cap­i­tal, I was con­front­ed with indi­rect stigma­ti­za­tion and racism. The peo­ple I met often asked me the same ques­tion: am I an “African”? (Syn­ony­mous with sub-Saha­ran in Tunisia). This expres­sion reveals a huge iden­ti­ty cri­sis. Tunisians do not rec­og­nize their belong­ing to Africa and asso­ciate the whole con­ti­nent with the col­or of Black skin. This stigma­ti­za­tion leads to sev­er­al racist behav­iors. Indeed, the image of sub-Saha­ran migrants is so neg­a­tive that they are per­ceived as dirty, igno­rant, stu­pid, uncul­tured and unciv­i­lized. This xeno­pho­bia mixed with racism makes the life of a Black per­son in the cap­i­tal dif­fi­cult and our inte­gra­tion in the pub­lic space almost impossible.

Two dic­ta­tors, same policy: 

The pol­i­cy of invis­i­bil­i­ty and stigma­ti­za­tion began after Inde­pen­dence, when the first pres­i­dent of Tunisia, Habib Bour­gui­ba, traced and shaped the Repub­lic and its val­ues. He cre­at­ed an unequal cli­mate where he total­ly ruled out Blacks. This col­or that has become more than a skin col­or is an obsta­cle to any attempt to suc­ceed. Dur­ing the peri­od of Bour­gui­ba, Blacks were for­bid­den to occu­py posi­tions of pow­er and deci­sion-mak­ing. It mar­gin­al­ized the south in gen­er­al and the Blacks from the south in particular. 

It is not by chance that Blacks have remained at the bot­tom of the social lad­der, that Tunisia has known through­out its his­to­ry only one min­is­ter and one Black deputy and that even in regions where there is a large con­cen­tra­tion of Blacks, there are no elect­ed offi­cials in leg­isla­tive or munic­i­pal elec­tions. It should be not­ed that 10 to 15% of the Tunisian pop­u­la­tion is Black, but they are drowned in a sys­tem that forces them to be sub­or­di­nate to their masters. 

The case of Slim Mar­zouk under­scores my point. This Black man who stud­ied avi­a­tion in Paris, asked to deliv­er his ser­vices in Tunisia dur­ing the Six­ties, but Bour­gui­ba refused his request because of his skin col­or. Swept along by his rage, he tried to form a polit­i­cal par­ty based on the defense of the Black cause. To bury this attempt, Mar­zouk was impris­oned in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal where he spent more than 30 years. 

Protesters earlier this year in Tunis (Photo; Getty Images)

Pro­test­ers ear­li­er this year in Tunis (Pho­to; Get­ty Images)

This delib­er­ate, sys­temic and cal­cu­lat­ed mar­gin­al­iza­tion flour­ished dur­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship under Ben Ali’s regime. 23 dark years in the his­to­ry of Tunisia, 23 years under a regime of tor­ture, racism, sex­ism, clas­sism, cor­rup­tion and all forms of despo­tism, 23 years of injus­tice and inequal­i­ty where Blacks found no way to raise their voic­es, because rais­ing one’s voice at that time was equal to tor­ture to the death. 

Dur­ing this peri­od, all our strug­gles demand­ed democ­ra­cy. We did­n’t pick our bat­tles because we had only one enemy—a dic­ta­tor who extin­guished every spark of strug­gle and uproot­ed every attempt to revolt.  

A rev­o­lu­tion and then what?

The oppres­sion was not for noth­ing, a rev­o­lu­tion was slow­ly brew­ing over a low flame. Final­ly thou­sands of voic­es came togeth­er to demand jus­tice and dig­ni­ty, two notions that had been buried for years. On Jan­u­ary 14, 2011, we shout­ed, “Get out, get out, down with the dic­ta­tor,” and by a mir­a­cle, he got out! 

At the time I was 18. My com­ing of age coin­cid­ed with the blos­som­ing of human rights in Tunisia. We had both just seen the light, both young, ambi­tious, at the begin­ning of the expe­ri­ence. There were strug­gles that were rekin­dled and oth­ers that were born, includ­ing the strug­gle against racial discrimination.

Asso­ci­a­tions began to raise their voic­es, to speak of an atro­cious real­i­ty and an ingrained injus­tice. Faced with a denial by soci­ety, the strug­gle was not easy. Nei­ther soci­ety nor deci­sion-mak­ers were used to lis­ten­ing to these voic­es. The begin­nings of our strug­gle were a kind of social sui­cide. We were accused of being paid agents, trai­tors, prof­i­teers and even sick peo­ple with an infe­ri­or­i­ty com­plex. Even with­in activist cir­cles our strug­gle was not wel­come. The pol­i­cy of mar­gin­al­iza­tion suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing us invis­i­ble even to the advo­cates of human rights. 

In 2018, after a young Con­golese girl was stabbed because of her skin col­or, the Tunisian par­lia­ment rec­og­nized that Tunisia is not a utopia and final­ly enact­ed a law against racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. Our Par­lia­ment estab­lished the law to ban all forms of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion with penal sanc­tions and fines for :

·       incit­ing hatred, vio­lence, seg­re­ga­tion, sep­a­ra­tion, exclu­sion or threat to any per­son or group of peo­ple based on racial discrimination.

·       the dis­sem­i­na­tion, by any means, of ideas based on racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, racial supe­ri­or­i­ty or racial hatred.

·       the praise of prac­tices of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion by any means.

·       edu­ca­tion, mem­ber­ship or par­tic­i­pa­tion in a group or organ­i­sa­tion that clear­ly and repeat­ed­ly sup­ports racial discrimination.

·       sup­port­ing or financ­ing activ­i­ties of asso­ci­a­tions or orga­ni­za­tions of a racist nature.

Such was the case with the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, as this law remains ink on paper with the absence of con­crete deci­sions show­ing a real polit­i­cal will to change things.

We anti-racist activists and mil­i­tants want to go beyond sanc­tions. We are look­ing for sus­tain­able solu­tions. Our pri­ma­ry focus is on edu­ca­tion. There­fore, we call for a nation­al strat­e­gy to fight racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, in-depth stud­ies and research on the sit­u­a­tion of Black peo­ple, train­ing for all stake­hold­ers in the process of seek­ing jus­tice, edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams to raise aware­ness of this issue among young learn­ers, a media strat­e­gy to break down the stereo­types devel­oped around Black peo­ple, restora­tive mea­sures for those who have suf­fered from years of mar­gin­al­iza­tion, and equal oppor­tu­ni­ties and con­di­tions. Since racism affects all areas, its elim­i­na­tion must also be aimed at all areas, with­out exception.

To con­clude, I would like to say that it is true that in Tunisia there have not been mur­ders of Blacks by the police as in the Unit­ed States, but silence and igno­rance also kill. While vio­lence against Blacks has not reached the same degree of sever­i­ty, still it is there and vis­i­ble to the naked eye. Cer­tain­ly, the road is long and even if we are mov­ing slow­ly, I think we are head­ed in the right direc­tion. I end this essay with a quote from my idol, Angela Davis, who said, “I’m no longer accept­ing the things I can­not change. I’m chang­ing things I can­not accept.”

Khawla Ksik­si is a 28-year-old activist and attor­ney by train­ing who works at the Rosa Lux­em­burg Foun­da­tion in Tunis, where she man­ages a pro­gram on envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. She is deeply involved in fem­i­nist anti-racist inter­sec­tion­al activism, which began for her after the rev­o­lu­tion when she joined Mnem­ty (my dream), an asso­ci­a­tion that fights against all forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion, espe­cial­ly racial. She has forged her knowl­edge on human rights, asso­cia­tive projects, advo­ca­cy, and polit­i­cal train­ing dur­ing these years and is a part of a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist infor­mal move­ment called Fal­gat­na (we are fed up). In Jan­u­ary 2020 she unit­ed her fem­i­nist activism with her anti-racist strug­gle and became a cofounder with Huda Mzioudet and Maha Abdel­hamid among oth­ers of the group Voice of Black Tunisian Women, a non­prof­it fight­ing Tunisian racism.