Tunisia Is The First Arab Country To Criminalize Racial Discrimination

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Written by Dana Sanchez

In Tunisia, where 10-to-15 percent of the 11.5 million population unofficially identifies as Black but few are represented in politics or media, the parliament voted to criminalize racial discrimination — a vote hailed by activists as historic in the North African country.

The law will make Tunisia the first Arab country, and the second in Africa after South Africa, to make racial discrimination illegal.

However, some activists say the law doesn’t go far enough, Al Jazeera reported:

“The law will not change anything. We need a cultural revolution,” said Hamza Ben Achour, a Black Tunisian music artist whose rap song “Kahlouch” caused an uproar in 2015. The song explored how Black Tunisians are treated as second-class citizens. In its wake, many Tunisians denied there was a racism problem, and accused the artist of “inciting civil strife; of being sick; of being selfish”, he said.

The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Act, passed almost unanimously by the Tunisian parliament on Oct. 9, is an important step forward in defending the rights of Black Tunisians and the country’s 60,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants, Brookings reported:

“In part because the state has never recognized race, there are no official statistics on the number of Black Tunisians, their socio-economic status, or the extent of racial discrimination.”

An Afrobarometer survey conducted in April-May 2018 for the first time recorded respondents’ race. About 8 percent were Black. The data suggest that Black Tunisians are socio-economically worse-off than other Tunisians and about twice as likely to be unemployed (42 percent) than other Tunisians (25 percent).

Source: Brookings

Under the new law, someone convicted of racist speech could face one month in prison and a $350 fine. Incitement to hatred, making racist threats, or belonging to an organization that promotes racism can result in one to three years in prison and fines from $185 to $1,110.

Tunisia has just one Black member of parliament and got its first Black news anchor in May. Yet rights activists say many light-skinned Tunisians do not believe the country has a problem, Al Jazeera reported:

“Tunisia was the first Arab country to abolish slavery in 1846, but Black Tunisians remained marginalized socially, economically and politically in the subsequent decades, while racist speech and conduct was passed on from generation to generation. In Tunisia, the words ‘kahlouch’, a pejorative term for ‘Black’, and ‘woussif’, which translates to ‘slave-servant’, are widely used to identify a Black person.”

The new anti-racism law is intended to address discrimination against Black Tunisians and immigrants, but its most important impact may be to officially recognize that racism exists in Tunisia, according to Brookings.

The importance of the bill is to put an end to the denial of this crime, said the president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights — “a turning point in Tunisia, as important as the decree abolishing slavery.”

“Tunisia should serve as a model for the region,” wrote Sharan Grewal, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, in a Brookings.edu blog. “The Gulf, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab countries would do well to address discrimination of their racial minorities as well.”


About Dana Sanchez

Dana Sanchez was born in South Africa and is a U.S. citizen. After working in advertising, she went back to school and earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of South Florida. As a business writer, she won regional and national writing awards. As editor of a daily newspaper, she coordinated staff writers, freelancers and photographers in the fast-paced environment of daily news. Dana was an editor at Moguldom Media Group for four years, helping to build and manage a team of staff and freelance writers. She works now on Moguldom.com for Nubai Ventures. A long-distance hiker and cyclist, she writes about the business of technology.