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It's time to pass the mic to Tunisia's Black community

It's time to pass the mic to Tunisia's Black community
6 min read

Tharwa Boulifi

15 March, 2023
Racist comments by the Tunisian president have sparked outrage and protest across the country, but more priority needs to be given to centring Black Tunisian and migrant voices that have been historically silenced, writes Tharwa Boulifi.
Tunisians took to the streets to protest against President Saied's racist remarks about African migrants on 25 February 2023. [Getty]

During his address on Tuesday, February 21st, Tunisian president Kais Saied made anti-African remarks and shared conspiracy theories calling migration a “criminal plan” to change Tunisia's demography and make it solely African.

Saied’s statements prompted a polarised response among Tunisians; his supporters, as usual, backed him up on this, while his opponents, although familiar with his authoritarian rule since July 2021, were unprepared for this racist turnout.

Over the next few days, Sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers across the country reported being victims of physical violence and verbal harassment. Many were fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes by their landlords, and some even took refuge in their embassies and international organisations. 

As a reaction to increased levels of recent racist violence, which also affected Black Tunisians who were mistaken for Sub-Saharan Africans, Tunisian civil society quickly formed an antifascist front, which included many prominent human-rights organisations.

On February 25th, the Tunisian antifascist front organised an anti-racism protest in downtown Tunis, to denounce the state’s anti-Black policies. Activists, most of whom were non-Black, took to the podium to express their resilience in the face of the state’s Afrophobia.

Although solidarity is certainly appreciated during such challenging times, in moments like these it is especially important for Tunisian civil society to prioritise the voices of the country’s Black community, giving them centre stage to speak on their lived experience with race and identity.

Today, it’s not acceptable to speak on behalf of this community, which has been historically marginalised and discriminated against. Providing safe spaces and platforms for Black Tunisians and migrants living in the country to be seen and heard is crucial in the anti-racist struggle.

To better understand Black activism in Tunisia, I spoke with Black Tunisian researchers Maha Abdelhamid, who specialises in minorities across MENA, and Huda Mzioudet, who is currently writing a book chapter on transitional justice in Tunisia.

Abdelhamid explains the silence of the Black community in Tunisia through the historical reality of slavery.

“Slavery is a burden Black Tunisians are still carrying,” she told me. “It refers subconsciously in the Black community’s minds, to the subordination and inferiority of the slave, who doesn’t have the right to express their opinion.”

For Mzioudet, making Black Tunisians invisible has been a state policy since Bourguiba’s era after Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956.

“Bourguiba wanted to be very close to Europe while denying the African identity of Tunisia,” she shared. “From Bourguiba to Ben Ali’s era, there has been a progressive erasure of Tunisians’ black identity.”

Even today, growing up as a Gen Z Tunisian, there wasn’t nearly enough representation of Black Tunisians in media, the entertainment industry, or politics. I learned about anti-racism advocacy mostly through the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

Domestically, discrimination based on skin colour was rarely a topic of social and political debate, even after the 2011 Revolution. Tunisian political leaders would only tackle this issue when meeting their Western counterparts, as a way to polish their image and attract new sponsors.

In my country, Black Tunisians have been made so invisible to the point where many reported being asked to return to Africa by their non-Black fellow citizens or arrested by the police who thought they were Sub-Saharan migrants in the aftermath of Saied's racist comments.

In this context, Tunisian Black women, including Abdelhamid and Mzioudet, tackled this issue with humour and participated in the #فوقي_وراقي_على_ماياتي ( “Carrying my papers just in case”) campaign on Facebook, making their passport and ID visible on their clothes to prove they’re Tunisian.

Mzioudet told me that the Tunisian state doesn’t even have official numbers when it comes to Black Tunisians.

“Black Tunisians unofficially count around 10 to 15% of the Tunisian population, which is more than African Americans in the US,” she says.” Denial of a community’s presence and its invisibilisation are more violent than racism itself.”

Abdelhamid explains that this silencing is in part due to the marginalisation of the southern regions, where Black Tunisians are mostly concentrated.

“Besides, non-Black Tunisians are those who’re dominating the decision-making centres in the South, which adds more intimidation.”

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Racism in Tunisia can also be seen in systemic forms of discrimination. According to a field study led by Abdelhamid for her book, most Black people in Gabes didn’t finish high school. In fact, among the roughly one million Black Tunisians, 90% never graduated high school. This systematic discrimination and social marginalisation discouraged Black Tunisians from speaking out.

In the north, especially in Tunis and Carthage, there is a higher level of awareness about racism, but non-Black Tunisians often only remember their Black fellow citizens and speak about racism on their behalf during electoral campaigns, or to look politically progressive in the eyes of Western powers. 

In this same sense, Abdelhamid explains that the racial issue mushroomed only when non-Black Tunisians joined the anti-racism movement. Now, their overwhelming presence leaves little room for Black Tunisians to express their thoughts or lead the movement.

“Black Tunisians, when they’re alone, don’t get heard,” she says. “During the first five years, we fought alone; the non-Black activists were in denial and refused to acknowledge the problem.”

Non-Black Tunisian activists shouldn’t confront racism to be trendy, when they want to score a point in the activism field, to be more popular on social media, or gain recognition from human rights organisations.

Racism is a historical and social struggle for Black people, who should always be given the priority to talk about their experiences before anyone else. Non-Black Tunisians can only try to be the best ally for their fellow citizens, by giving them more visibility, providing them safe environments to express themselves, and remembering to always pass the mic.

Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.

Follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.