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Tunisia still has much to do to eliminate racism

Racism remains heavily present in Tunisian society, as black people are subject to discrimination on a daily basis.

TUNIS — In an interview with Tunisian Attessia TV on June 7, Tunisian black artist Salah Misbah accused prominent Tunisian artist Lotfi Bouchnak of racism, saying, “On one occasion when the Ministry of Culture honored us, Bouchnak rejected this on the pretext of me being a ‘wasif’ (servant),” referring to his dark skin.

A photo published by the company Nana Tunisie on June 9 caused much controversy on Facebook because it showed the face of a white woman whose face was painted various skin colors. Activists believe this photo is a type of racism in which blackface is used — blackface is considered deeply offensive.

Comments and reactions were mostly negative. Nana Tunisie deleted the photo and published a post June 12, stressing that it is committed to rejecting racism. The company said it supports all Tunisian women and attached a post with pictures of women of different skin colors.

Speaking on racist practices in Tunisia, Yamina Thabet, president of the nongovernmental organization Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, told Al-Monitor that African and dark-skinned Tunisian students suffer racism every day through words or other painful behavior. She said one of the most important problems is that people face racism with silence or denial, making it even more difficult to eliminate.

Thabet said African students have difficulties renting houses and in many other aspects of their daily lives, and she called for better, long-term education to eliminate racist tendencies.

Tunisia is only the second African country, after South Africa, to issue a law criminalizing racial discrimination; it was ratified by the Cabinet on Oct. 9, 2018, and includes 11 chapters.

According to Chapter 8 of this law, the perpetrator of the violation or crime is subject to imprisonment for a period ranging from one month to three years, and the fine ranges from 500 dinars ($185) to 3,000 dinars ($1,110). Also, institutions and associations that commit these crimes can be subject to a fine ranging from 5,000 dinars ($1,190) to 15,000 dinars ($3,350).

For his part, Masoud al-Ramadani, former head of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an independent nongovernmental organization that aims to defend economic and social rights at the national and international levels, told Al-Monitor that many still use abusive words against black people in Tunisia such as "kahlouch" (blackie), noting that some cab drivers refuse to pick up dark-skinned passengers and some stores will not serve dark-skinned people. Some Tunisian families still reject mixed-race relations.

Ziad Rouen, the general coordinator of Mnemty, an association active in the fight against racism, told Al-Monitor that racism is still rooted in the daily practices of some Tunisians. Rouen said the state has not addressed cultural and social problems, as people of color seem absent from the cultural scene and are completely absent from the societal and general fabric of the country and from decision-making centers.

Rouen called on the state to thoroughly address the issue of racism by raising public awareness among Tunisians on the necessity to combat this phenomenon, adding that public awareness must begin at childhood.

Noteworthy is that there is only one female black parliament member, Jamila Ksiksi, in Tunisia’s Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Ksiksi — at the beginning of the current parliamentary period on Dec. 4, 2019 — was subject to a racist online campaign by activists supporting the Free Destourian Party following an argument in the assembly between Ksiksi and the head of that party's bloc, Abeer Moussa, because of her skin color.

Another flagrant aspect of racism in Tunisia is the allocation of separate buses to transport black people in the Kasba area and Sidi Makhlouf from the southern governorate of Medenine in order to avoid the daily quarrels and differences between black and white people there.

Discrimination does not end there, as separate cemeteries are allocated to black people on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba, located on neglected land and known as the slave cemetery. Meanwhile, light-skinned people have two cemeteries in two different locations, with no regard to the ill treatment and discrimination suffered by Africans in Tunisia.

Mehdi Mabrouk, a specialist in sociology and former minister of culture, told Al-Monitor that Tunisia was one of the first countries to abolish slavery and the slave trade in 1846 (before France did in 1848 and the United States in 1865). Mabrouk said there is no discrimination on the ethnic level or skin color in the Tunisian Constitution, adding, “We must work more on the social level to avoid these problems in some of these behaviors that especially emerge when it comes to [mixed] marriage.”

Article 21 of the Tunisian Constitution states that “all citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.”

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