Activist, Ghofrane Binous is running out of options. “We went to see some well-educated people for some insight on what to do about racism. They told us, ‘Given that you’re a minority, why don’t you ask the government to consider black people as part of the disabled population?’”
Whatever Tunisia’s claims to the contrary, racism remains a persistent issue that, according to activists goes both unmentioned and consequently, unaddressed, irrespective of the number of reports of racist incidents civil society groups highlight. Taken together, the absence of black people from key government posts, and the dearth of dark skins on the nation’s TV screens create the impression of a Tunisian racial purity that the presence of the country’s black population give the lie to.
There are no official figures confirming how much of the Tunisian population is black, but it’s estimated to be around 15%, some say it might be even higher. However, despite their number, there is still no legal protection for the country’s black population. A draft bill criminalizing racial attack was approved by the parliament last June. However, it has yet to be passed to the relevant commissions before final approval.
In the meantime, even addressing the issue of Tunisia’s internal racism can provoke extreme reactions. Saadia Mosbah is President of Mnemty, an organization that seeks to fight against the country’s domestic prejudices. She told Tunisia Live how she had been forbidden from even entering the southern city of Medenine after she went on a march during the 2015 World Social Forum. “They said I was provoking sedition, so the local Imam, during his Friday speech, said that I be forbidden from entering the city. He said, ‘We live among good masters and obedient slaves. What’s her problem?’” Afterwards, when she tried to go back there to take part in the filming of a video, the police and the National Guard both tracked her down and asked her to leave.
Mnemty member, Ghofrane Binous had applied to train as a flight attendant. She told Tunisia Live about her experience. “When I arrived, they laughed; and theses are well-educated, ‘classy’ people who went abroad for some time,” she said. “Then I had the interview, and I did very well. However, I had to wait for a long period of time without any word and I started to worry about what I might have done wrong. Maybe it was my haircut, or my English wasn’t good?” In the end, the flight company responded to Binous. “They told me I was ‘large at the top,’ which makes no sense at all. Luckily that day, Saadia Mosbah was with me and when she suggested their possible racist motivations, they denied it. In the end, they chose to accept me rather than get into something that could escalate I guess.”
Binous’ experience with racism goes back a long way. She recalled how a teacher used to slap her and ask her to sit at the back of the class from the beginning of every course for no reason. “When my mom went to talk to her she stopped slapping me, but she asked me to stay silent at the back.” Binous also recalled how as a young child, other children would tell her that her skin was black because it was dirty, causing her to scrub her face so hard that she ended up injuring herself.
Later in life, the families of white boyfriends refused to let their sons get engaged to Binous. “They told me they didn’t want to mix our bloods, either directly or indirectly.” From her perspective nothing has changed since 2011. “The only thing now is that we can talk about it. And even so, there are people who say there is no racism in Tunisia.”
Discussion over the new law has sparked a wider debate. Moreover, while acknowledging the importance of the proposed law, Binous qualified her support, “It’s not really for us. We’re adults now and things will take time to change. We need to start with education, with our children and to teach them about diversity.”
“I want a law that protects me,” Binous said. It’s a feeling shared by, ‘ A.S,’ (name changed) an engineer originally from Gabes, but resident in Tunis since 2007. A.S talked of the various degrees of harassment and insults that she has had to experience because of the color of her skin, and said, “It is the subtle discrimination that is more prevalent in Tunisia. This is what hurts black people the most. It’s the preferred form of prejudice for Tunisian racists, as it leaves no trace and you can easily miss it.” She says that she encounters this behavior on a daily basis.
“Racism exists everywhere in Tunisia. However, it takes different shapes depending upon the region,” she says, adding that in certain parts in the South, like Djerba or Zarzis, attitudes reflecting the regions slave trading past run strong. Perhaps the most extreme example being the, ‘Abid’, (slave) Medenine village of Gosbah, separated from its neighbor by a narrow river and an impossible cultural and racial gulf, where even graveyards and buses must be separated along lines of race.
However, for Mnemty President, Mosbah, with the proposal of legal protection has come some cause for optimism. Change is coming, Mosbah conceded, albeit gradually. “We still don’t see black presenters or speakers. I know it won’t change overnight, but there’s also a new dark-skinned woman, Yamina Mathlouthi, at the head of the Center of Research and Social Studies.” She added that people are finally starting to talk about the problem of racism in a more open, if not widespread manner.
However, for some members of Tunisia’s black population, the need for the new law is growing daily. “There has been an increase in racial aggressions over the last four years,” AS said, “Meaning that the new law becomes a necessity for three reasons,” Firstly, AS explained the law would give victims a legal basis upon which they can base their complaints. Secondly, the new law would incriminate the aggressors. Lastly, a change in the law would make the state finally take responsibility in protecting citizens with black skin. She added however, that cultural shifts were as important as legal change. “The course of study, (at school) needs to be adapted. We need awareness campaigns along educators and many other elements. In short, a mental revolution!”
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.