Tunisian Black Women Speak Out Via New Collective

Maha Abdelhamid, one of the founders of Voices of Tunisian Black Women, speaks to media in 2015. Photo taken from a photo shared publicly by Abdelhamid on Facebook, used with her permission.

On January 23, 2020 – the 174th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Tunisia – seven women founded the group Voices of Tunisian Black Women (formerly known as Amber), the first initiative in the country dedicated specifically to issues affecting black women. Its primary goal, according to one of its founders, is to give voice to the experiences of black women through personal testimonies and scientific research about black women and their social conditions.

“The problem is so deep and that’s why we wanted to talk about it loudly, because we don’t talk about the problem,” said Khawla Ksiksi, one of the group’s founders. “When we start talking about the problem, the first reaction is people start saying we are paranoid or hysterical or sick.”

Ksiksi explained that while both black men and women face discrimination in Tunisian society, black women in particular are subjected to a mixture of racism and sexual aggression that is unique. Black people make up about 15 percent of Tunisia’s population, according to another member of the collective.

“Our goal, of course, is to give Tunisian black women validation, to get rid of marginalization and the invisibility [of their problems], and to fight against the violence of society, but also to create a dynamic in the Tunisian feminist sphere that has no sensitivity to intersectionality,” Maha Abdelhamid, one of the group’s founders who is a historian specializing in social geography and black women’s issues, told Meshkal in an email. “We black women must come together and feel the peace. We need to know one another closely.”

Ksiksi said she was inspired to create the group after she received many negative reactions to a post she made on the #EnaZeda (#MeToo in Tunisian dialect) Facebook group, which is described by its moderators as a safe space to address personal encounters with sexual harassment, abuse, and violence.

The women’s rights organization Aswat Nissa [which means “Voices of Women” in Arabic] created the #EnaZeda Facebook page on October 15, 2019 for people to share their personal testimonies. The group has quickly grown in membership, with dozens of testimonies posted each day from among its 34,000 members.

“I wrote this thing, and everyone was against me,” she said. “They were telling me that I like playing the role of victim, [racism] doesn’t exist in Tunisia, [what I wrote] is not true, and I just want to show off with all of the things that I wrote.”

Black women are often the targets of particular forms of sexual harassment. Although there are no statistics demonstrating so, many black women in Tunisia are domestic workers. According to a 2006 report by the International Labor Organization, a UN agency whose goal is to promote decent work and social justice, migrant and domestic workers are two groups with a particularly high risk for workplace violence and harassment. These issues are compounded by prejudicial stereotypes such as an association between black women and sex workers and a bizarre myth in Tunisia that sleeping with a black woman can cure disease, according to the women Meshkal spoke with.

“We have this sexual aggression because we are linked to an image of sex workers and easy women and they think that they can just ask for us and we will follow them,” said Ksiksi.

Though Ksiksi received support from some commenters in her post on Ena Zeda and the negative reactions were eventually removed by the page’s moderators, Ksiksi said the incident demonstrated the need for a more specific forum where black women could share their accounts of racism without facing judgment or criticism.

While Voices of Tunisian Black Women is not registered as an association and currently has no outside funding, it plans to work on a volunteer basis and will soon launch a website where members will publish articles and audiovisual stories about issues specific to black women translated in French, Literary Arabic, and Tunisian dialect to create the largest possible reach. The group’s founders are also planning to make available their personal archives on black women’s issues to readers of the site, according to Abdelhamid.

“The website will be a space for writing and self-expression for all Tunisian black women who wish to write and express themselves socially and politically,” Abdelhamid said in an email. “We want the site to be an echo of the voices of Tunisian black women.”

Voices of Tunisian Black Women is also partnering with lawyers and notaries who have volunteered to provide pro bono legal support to victims of racist attacks and harassment by filing suits against aggressors under an anti-discrimination law passed in October 2018 (organic law no50/2018).

The law was the first in Tunisia to address racism and discrimination explicitly and set specific penalties for racist acts. It was passed almost unanimously with 125 members of Parliament voting in favor, one against and five abstaining.

Under the law, a person convicted of making racist remarks can be fined up to 1,000 dinars and imprisoned for up to a year. These penalties are doubled if the victim is in a vulnerable position as a result of old age, pregnancy, disability or if they are a child or immigrant as well as if the perpetrator has a position of power over the victim or acts as a part of a group. For racially-motivated threats, participation in racist groups, or for the incitement of hate or violence based on race, the penalties can rise as high as 5,000 dinars for regular citizens – 15,000 dinars for legal entities – and up to three years in prison.

The law does not explicitly punish racially motivated violence or physical aggression itself, meaning that those offenses would carry no greater punishment than any other assault. Article 2 of the law also makes an important exception allowing preferences to be given to Tunisian citizens over foreigners, provided that they do not target specific nationalities.

The passage of the law followed advocacy and lobbying for it by civil society organizations including most prominently Mnemty, an association that says it aims to fight all forms of racial discrimination in Tunisia.

Ksiksi, who was a part of Mnemty during the lobbying efforts, said that the version that the group proposed was stronger than the one that passed.

Several high profile, apparently racially-motivated attacks in the country in recent years seem to have helped inspire politicians to pass the law, including a case in which three Congolese students were non-fatally stabbed in Tunis in December 2016 as well as an incident earlier that year in which a black woman suffered verbal harassment on Avenue Habib Bourguiba and was told by police that they could not help her because there was no specific law against the behavior. In a similar incident, when Jamel Ksiksi, then a customs agent, was assaulted by a server at a hotel in Mahdia in summer 2016, police said they could not charge the aggressor with a form of racial discrimination because of a lack of legal standing.

Former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed spoke just two days after the attack on the Congolese students at the National Conference Against Racial Discrimination where he called for the drafting of a law criminalizing racial discrimination, becoming the first senior Tunisian official to support such a measure.

“He said there is a lot of racism, he admitted that there is racism in Tunisia,” said Ghofrane Binous, the former vice-president of the Mnemty group, who said it was the first time that she had heard a politician speak so clearly and honestly about racism in the country. “He said that racism exists in Tunisia and in fact that the state is racist.”

While the law was a step in the right direction according to many activists and politicians, it has also faced criticism for being difficult to enforce, especially for those without the money to hire a lawyer.

“I’m glad that there is a law now, but for me, the law is not enough,” said Binous, who is also a former stewardess for TunisAir who was subjected to racist harassment from a passenger in 2018. “A law is not enough to do away with the racist remarks or the racist mentality that has taken root in their heads.”

Binous was verbally attacked by a passenger aboard a flight from Tunis to Istanbul in May of 2018, about six months before the passage of the anti-racism law. The crew and captain of the flight supported her in that instance and had the passenger removed. But, she said, the attention she got as an activist as a result of the incident led the administration of the airline to make her job more difficult for her until she decided to quit. She now works as a member of the political office of the Tahya Tounes party, led by Chahed.

There is little evidence to show that racially motivated crimes have decreased in frequency or intensity since the passage of organic law no50/2018.

In December of 2018, more than two months after the passage of the law, an Ivorian man named Falikou Coulibaly was stabbed to death during a street robbery in La Soukra, sparking protests from the Sub-Saharan African community in Tunis.

One year later, in December 2019, a controversy arose in Tunisia’s Parliament when the leader of the Parti Destourien Libre (PDL party), Salah Neji, published a racist Facebook post attacking Jamila Ksiksi, the only black woman serving as a member of Parliament and a member of the Ennahdha party. The post included a photo of Ksiksi next to that of a gorilla and described her using the words “monkey,” “ugly” and “slave.” Ennahda announced days later that it would seek to press charges against Neji for the incident.

Abdelhamid pointed to the incident as one of the events that, for its founders, confirmed their need to set up Voices of Tunisian Black Women.

Khawla Ksiksi, who is the daughter of Jamila Ksiksi, said that she tried to use the law personally and found that the costs were too expensive for all but the very rich, explaining that notary and lawyers’ fees would add up to over 1,000 dinars just to file a suit. Beyond the financial obstacles to invoking law no50/2018, it is very difficult to prove that you have been discriminated against on the basis of race unless it was done in writing, Ksiksi said.

Even when there is concrete proof of racist behavior, Ksiksi explained, often it is difficult to pursue a person legally because of their status in society or because of the culture in the region where the incident occurred.

In a recent instance, Farhat Rajhi, a judge and member of parliament from the Courant Démocrate party repeatedly used the word “oussif,” meaning “slave,” to refer to black people generally while speaking in front of Parliament and was recorded on video doing so. According to Ksiksi, Rajhi refused to apologize for the incident when asked to do so.

“We recorded everything, and we will pursue him for this even if he has parliamentary immunity,” she said. “But it will be symbolic to tell people that we are here, and we are following everyone who will make some violence based on color.”

She also said that it would be very difficult to win a case under the anti-racism laws in the south of Tunisia because of the close-knit nature of the communities there.

“I think it’s so difficult to do it in Medenine because everybody knows each other, and you cannot put your neighbor in jail with this culture of the country and the normalization of racism there,” Ksiksi, herself originally from the south, explained. “The victim will be judged even more than the racist act on itself.”

That presents a major problem for the application of the law as a large percentage of black Tunisians live in such communities, according to Ksiksi, although no official statistics exist on the population of black Tunisians either regionally or nationally.

According to Abdelhamid, though, it is still important to use whatever legal means are available to prosecute crimes of racism, even if the laws are expensive to use and have not been applied effectively thus far.

“Of course it is important to pursue those guilty of racism,” she wrote. “I think it will require associations that fight for human rights and volunteer lawyers to mobilize to stand up to these racist crimes.”

In addition to regional differences in the perception of racial issues, economic class also seems to have an effect on the way people treat minorities, according to Binous.

“Actually, in working-class neighborhoods there is less racism than there is where rich people live,” she said. “Not the bourgeois, but the aristocrats, they don’t want black people around because black people aren’t like the other citizens [around them]. Despite that they’re cultured and well educated, studying in the United States or Paris or wherever. Despite all that, they are racist.”

Binous believes that truly stopping racism in Tunisia may take many years and will likely have to start with changes in the way black people are portrayed in the media and even in educational materials.

“In the textbooks, when it comes to education, why are the little girls and boys always white with blonde hair and blue eyes?” she said. “We are not in a Scandinavian country. We are in a part of Africa… In fact, white people with green eyes are minorities just like us but in books you just see white people; you don’t find black people.”

Ksiksi said that she is often stopped in the street by women who tell her: “It’s so bizarre, you are beautiful,” as if they are giving her a compliment because they are so surprised that a woman could be both beautiful and black. Similarly, she says, many of the people she meets with professionally ask her where her colleague is when they first meet her, assuming she is only a secretary or assistant.

“The act of laying out the problem of racism in Tunisia, for me is a solution,” said Binous. “The act of someone, a woman saying that, ‘I’ve been subjected to racism,’ or a man who has been subjected to racism. It’s very important to speak. Because someone who is 30 years old and has never spoken about racism but has lived it, they hide it and hide it and hide it and one day they will explode. So, we must encourage them so that they speak.”

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.