Tunisia is historically a trailblazer in matters of civil rights yet the country has taken a notably long time to tangibly protect black Tunisians and black foreigners who suffer constant racial abuse and discrimination. The North African country abolished slavery in 1846, a full 135 years before Mauritania, the last country to do so. Despite this progressive step, traces of the slave trade’s legacy linger to this day. This is especially the case in the country’s southern region, where, according to Al Jazeera, many black families still bear the names of their former slave owners, preceded by the term “Atig”, meaning “freed from”.

According to activists this shows that although Tunisians are an ethnically diverse people with a significant black minority of about 15%, racism remains deeply ingrained throughout the country. In fact, civil society groups have been agitating for legislation to protect racial and ethnic minorities since 2011 but only started gaining traction in 2016, after a series of racially motivated assaults.

These assaults did not ebb and can be documented as recently as August this year, when three Ivorians were beaten on the streets of Tunis for defending a pregnant woman from Côte d’Ivoire at whom a group of young adults had been throwing stones.

“I cannot keep track of the spitting and the racist insults that are poured on us all the time,” Samuel*, a Cameroonian migrant currently living in the Tunisian capital, told InfoMigrants. “I had to stand on the train even though there were empty seats because the Tunisians did not want a black man to sit next to them,” he added.

In 2016, an Al Jazeera investigation, titled “Tunisia’s dirty secret”, found that in the Tunisian town of Sidi Makhlouf separate buses were used to transport white and black children to school in a bid to keep the races from intermingling.

Hope for change

The Tunisian parliament’s vote to criminalise racial discrimination for the protection of minority rights is a huge step forward for the country.

Under the “Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination” Act, people convicted of using racist slurs could face one month imprisonment or a US$350 fine. Those found guilty of inciting hatred, making racist threats, spreading and advocating racism or belonging to an organisation that supports discrimination could face one to three years in prison or a US$1 050 fine. Even steeper fines will be levied against institutions and associations found to have engaged in discriminatory practices.

In response to the monumental enactment of this law, Messaoud Romdhani, the head of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, was reported as saying, “This is a very important turning point in the history of Tunisia, equivalent to the abolition of slavery.”

“It is a giant step, but there is still a lot of work to be done to make this law a reality in a society where there is racism against the 10 percent of black Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans who suffer from insults and sometimes violent attacks,” he concluded.

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However, Tunisia’s activists feel civil society, not the government, deserves credit for the law finally being passed.

“For years, we have held many protests, we have held many sit-ins, including behind the doors of parliament. We have organised a lot of marches on the streets, and we have held many cultural events and campaigns to raise awareness,” Belhaj Romdhane, a Tunisian activist, told Al-Monitor. “Without the presence of civil society, none of this would have happened.”

She added, “Today, we are very hopeful. We are very excited, and we are very proud of our country, but this is only the beginning. We cannot say that racism or discrimination will stop immediately because of a law. This is only the key to opening the door.”

Romadhane went on to elaborate that although legislation should help the situation, many laws are not enforced. Instead, a cultural shift is needed for permanent change. “Racism is a universal illness that you can find everywhere,” she said. “We just need to talk about it, because denial is always a problem. We want this country to become fully democratic, so that it can be an example for other countries in the region, a country that leads on human rights, that leads on diversity and that accepts all people.”