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Mobilizing for social justice: Black Tunisian activism in transitional justice

Mobilizing for social justice: Black Tunisian activism in transitional justice©@DRBlack Tunisians demonstration in Tunis in March 2014
8 minApproximate reading time

Introduction:

 

With the end of authoritarianism in Tunisia, transitional justice has become the backbone of a battle for social justice, in particular for long-forgotten minorities including Jews, Amazighs and Blacks. The Tunisian Revolution ushered in unexpected social movements whose common rallying cry was ending the injustices endured under dictatorship. Such movements include that of Black Tunisian activists who, as a long-time silenced/silent minority, had struggled to get their voices heard when denouncing the social stigma and abuses suffered as well as their marginalization and quasi-absence from public life. The establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission (L’Instance Vérité et Dignité, IVD) in late 2013, to investigate and shed light on human rights abuses committed by the former regimes, was instrumental in this search for justice. In 2016, a Black Tunisian civil society organization called M’nemty submitted a file to the IVD, seeking to right the wrongs of the social, cultural and political stigmatization of Tunisians of Black ancestry[i]. In this paper I attempt to highlight the nexus between the role of transitional justice in uncovering past abuses and the struggle of the Black Tunisian social movement in preserving the collective memory of a forgotten part of Tunisian history. I will also show how these mobilizations have strengthened Black identity politics in the domains of respect for human dignity, diversity and recognition of minority rights as part and parcel of the democratization process.

Black Tunisians are fighting the injustices of over a century of systemic discrimination and socio-economic marginalization. In this, transitional justice can play an active role in the following ways:

  • Inscribing Black Tunisian heritage in the collective memory through the unearthing of repressed, forgotten, neglected testimonies of Black Tunisians.
  • Monitoring testimonies and accounts of Black Tunisians of the systemic racial discrimination which they have been facing since independence.
  • Strengthening a policy of equal opportunities between Black Tunisians and their lighter-skinned/White fellow citizens, by spreading a culture of unity and reinforcing the cultural identity of Black Tunisians.

These possibilities lead us to ask how transitional justice can redress injustices inflicted on victims of racial discrimination and how it can address the absence of a historical narrative of the Black presence in Tunisia.

 

The politicization of Black Tunisian activism:

Black Tunisian activists consider that the absence of known and strong historical Black figures is a shortcoming in the movement’s battle to achieve justice. In addition, the lack of solidarity and interest by other civil society organizations made Black Tunisian activists look for a rapprochement with the pan-African Black cause on an international scale (Mrad-Dali, 2015).

In 2011, emboldened by the Tunisian Revolution’s promises of restoring dignity and equality, Black Tunisians came out in the public sphere, this time not as entertainers or sports figures, but as “full citizens” asking for an end to what they called “silent racism” perpetuated against them for centuries. This led to a revival of the collective mobilization of Black Tunisians, often under the leadership of women (Mrad-Dali, 2015). Social media gave voiceless Black Tunisians a platform to discuss different issues facing them, and to organize events such as marches and protests across the country.

For example, Black Tunisian activist Maha Abdelhamid published on social media a short biography of Slim Merzoug, a Black Tunisian leader, persecuted by the Bourguiba regime, who called for Black Tunisians’ self-determination in the 1960s. In his public speeches – held notably in the village of Mdou, close to Gabes – he denounced anti-Black racism. Between 1962 and 1963, his activism led to his imprisonment, then to his internment at a psychiatric asylum in 1968. He was released in 2001 and died afterwards. Similar testimonies were also made public by mainstream media that broke the taboo on anti-Black racism, with talk shows in which Black Tunisians as well as Sub-Saharan Africans lifted the veil on silent discrimination and on the violent racist attacks that often take place.

Activism of this kind was met by a strong opposition from the mainstream population. A section of Tunisian society was bewildered by the fact that there could be “anti-Black racism”, further exacerbated by the state’s non-recognition of its existence. For example, Yamina Thabet of the Association Tunisienne de Soutien aux Minorités argues that racism is all the more pernicious because of its denial on the part of sections of the population and the authorities. Moreover, racism is not penalized in Tunisia[ii]. With the Tunisian Revolution, Blacks in Tunisia realized that their battle for full citizenship and equality would also have to be a legal one. One of the methods to make their cause visible in the public sphere and heard by policy makers was street activism, for example the March for Equality against Racism that took place from March 18 to 21 2014. The march started from the southern island of Djerba, passed through Gabes – a city with a strong Black presence – and Sfax, to finally arrive in Tunis. It ended on the United Nations (UN) International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in front of the parliament, where the organizers were received by two deputies. They thus submitted a request of legislation against racial bias targeting Blacks in Tunisia. In this way, Tunisian civil society, human rights organizations and activists, along with the UN Human Rights High Commission (UNHRHC)[iii], set off on a long journey for the drafting of a legal text that constitutes a cornerstone of the transitional justice process.

 

The legal battle:

 

Black Tunisian activists denounced what they consider as the “institutionalization" of racism and the reactions of those denying its existence in Tunisian society. They underlined the stark fact of discrimination with two concrete examples of the legacy of slavery (Mrad-Dali, 2015). First, birth certificates provided by state institutions still bear traces of slavery for people whose surnames are accompanied by titles such as “abid” (slave) or “atig” (freed person). A second case is the physical separation of students from the village of El Gosba, in the governorate of Medenine (southeastern Tunisia), in school transport, with one bus being reserved for "Whites" and the other one for "Blacks". This separation – enforced since 2000 by the national transport company following an obscure feud between two families (over a White woman who eloped with a Black man to marry him against her family’s wishes) – became the subject of heated debate in Tunisian media and was repeatedly denounced by rights organizations such as M’nemty.

In an attempt to remedy such situations, the Ennahda-led government, through its then-Minister of Administrative Reform Mohamed Abbou (of the party Congrès pour la République) suggested in 2012 positive discrimination as a solution to the absence and invisibility of Black Tunisians in the civil service. This initiative was rejected by Black Tunisian activists, as they declared this is not their movement’s demand and that they demand equality and recognition (Mrad-Dali, 2015). With the 2014 legislative elections, Ennahda’s Jamila Debbech-Ksiksi became the first Black Tunisian female MP. Her election brought some visibility for Blacks in the political sphere but this remains insufficient, despite her efforts to highlight the Black Tunisian cause in parliament (Pouessel, 2018).

On June 14, 2016, M’nemty submitted its file to the IVD through its president Saadia Mosbah. The demands included the memorialization of historical sites that attest to slavery in Tunisia, the regulation of the legal limbo on the changing of family names with slave connotations, as well as the redressing of the “segregated buses” case in El Gosba. Another thorny issue regarded the “segregated cemeteries” for Blacks and Whites in Djerba, which M’nemty also considers to be a human rights violation[iv]. These efforts contributed to the drafting of a bill criminalizing racial discrimination, which was lodged with parliament in July 2016.

On December 26, 2016, on the occasion of the National Conference against Racial Discrimination, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed authorized the examination of the anti-discrimination bill in parliament. The council of ministers transferred the bill to the parliament on January 17, 2018. This was a significant victory for Black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan Africans who have been lobbying for the passage of this law since 2016. On June 6, 2018, the parliament's Rights and Freedoms Committee unanimously approved the anti-discrimination bill, which – if voted by the whole parliament[v] – will impose on offenders sanctions ranging from six months to three years in prison as well as financial penalties (Mzioudet, 2018).

The bill is expected to respond to the constitutional requirements as well as to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Tunisia was one of the first countries in the world to ratify on January 13, 1967. In order to protect the victims and prevent perpetrators from re-offending, the state will implement anti-discrimination policies in all sectors, especially health, education, culture, sports and the media (Mzioudet, 2018).

Human rights organizations discussed the bill and argued that enforcing strict penalties will not end the suffering of victims of racial discrimination. In fact, a long-term process is necessary to achieve a change in mentalities and depriving the perpetrators of their freedom is not the solution. The future generations will have to be educated in a culture of human rights, equality and tolerance. Black Tunisian activists thus called for a change in formal education programs, doing away with racial stereotypes from textbooks, especially literary books, which portray Blacks as slaves. An example concerns Tunis’ Souk El Berka, a former slave market that symbolizes the history of Black presence in Tunisia and in particular the legacy of slavery. Black Tunisian activists, in particular from M’nemty, called for the establishment of a memorial site there (Mrad-Dali 2015).

In any case, the anti-discrimination bill is an important achievement of the work that civil society organizations have been carrying out since 2011 (Mzioudet, 2018). This was also made possible by the context of transitional justice, in which the concerted efforts of civil society activists, lawmakers and politicians (especially some MPs) produced legislation on issues specific to a country in transition, which relate to human rights and in particular to minority groups’ rights.

 

Conclusion:

 

There is a deep ignorance of the history of the Black presence in Tunisia which, contrary to popular belief, is not only linked to the slave trade, as Blacks have always lived in the area for millennia along with the autochthonous Amazigh population. Black Tunisian activism has found in transitional justice a platform to highlight the grievances Black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia have been expressing since the Revolution. This culminated in the lobbying efforts of different civil society and human rights organizations for a legislative text that criminalizes race-based discrimination, long time a taboo in the country. Through social and political mobilization, Black Tunisian activists succeeded in galvanizing other rights groups to support their cause for a fair recognition of their collective identity reclamation concerning their repressed past and historical memory. By appealing to transitional justice, in particular through the IVD, the movement has waged a legal battle for an end to systemic discrimination against Blacks, exercising judicial pressure on policy makers to overcome the culture of denial of racism in Tunisia.

 

Sources:

 

 http://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/opinions/pourquoi-les-tunisiens-se-mobilisent-     contre-le-racisme-212651574 (Accessed June 22, 2018).

 

[i]  Its file is being examined by the Commission at the time of writing. The person handling the M’nemty file is a jurist of the Research and Investigation Department of the Commission. In April 2018, a correspondence was sent to the association’s president to attend a secret hearing session to discuss the case of Black Tunisians’ grievances as presented by M’nemty. The IVD is yet to hear from the Black Tunisian association.

[ii]Lilia Blaise, “« Est-ce que tu vis dans un arbre ? » : chronique d'un racisme ordinaire en Tunisie”, 30 May 2018,  http://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/reportages/est-ce-que-tu-vis-dans-un-arbre-chronique-dun-racisme-ordinaire-en-tunisie-841458716.

[iii] These include Tunisian jurists, organizations such as the FTDES (Forum Tunisien des Droits Sociaux et Économiques), associations Adam, M’nemty, HEDUCAP, Minorités. The Baha’I faith community in Tunisia has also endorsed the text.

[iv] In an interview with the jurist in charge of the M’nemty file, the author became aware of the IVD’s active involvement in handling other minority groups’ files, such as Tunisian Amazigh and Jews (the meeting took place in the IVD’s headquarters on July 6, 2018).

[v] The vote has been delayed at least three times this year. At the time of writing, some Black Tunisians activists, civil society and international human rights organizations are hoping that it may be voted by the ARP deputies before the end of the year.

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