Despite the bitter fights between parties and the confusion that dominates the political landscape, the Tunisian transition marked a new milestone on Tuesday night: the approval of a law that punishes all types of racial discrimination. The legislation, which has almost unanimously prompted Parliament, is an old vindication of black Tunisians and civil rights organizations, who have had to fight for years against the opinion of a large part of society that denies the existence of a serious problem of racism. As happens with other laws defined as historical or pioneering, such as that which punishes gender violence, now the challenge will be its true application.
"Today is the happiest day of my life since the Revolution. It is the first step to compensate decades of discrimination against the black minority in Tunisia, "says Huda Mziudet, a Tunisian journalist and researcher who has had to bear the double stigma of being a black and veiled woman. "I've been fighting against denial [a la existencia de racismo] from my years in the university, in the nineties, during the Ben Ali dictatorship, when criticizing this situation was considered a subversive act, "adds Mziudet. Although there are no official statistics, some estimates estimate that approximately 15% of the Tunisian population is black, and most reside or have their origins in the south of the country, near the Libyan border. In addition, we must add the existence of thousands of sub-Saharan workers and students.
According to article 2 of the law, racial discrimination is defined as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, origin or ancestry or any other form of racial discrimination admitted by international standards." The most serious punishment included in the legislation, which ranges from one to three years in prison, corresponds to acts of incitement to hatred, violence or segregation on racial grounds, as well as belonging to or support for organizations with a racist ideology. As for insults or derogatory comments, the most common aggression will be punished with between one month and one year in prison and a fine of between 500 and 1,000 dinars (between 155 and 310 euros).
"Although it is improvable, the law incorporates the main demands of civil society, and is comparable to international standards. It is a very important step forward, "says Jamila Ksiksi, deputy of the Islamist Ennahda party, and the only representative of the black minority in Parliament. Among the shortcomings of the text that the activists point out, and that they expect to be corrected in the decree of deployment of the norm, is the fact that it only allows the victim to present a complaint, and not to third parties, such as associations or relatives. The law establishes the creation of a National Commission against Racial Discrimination, which will be responsible for designing campaigns to raise awareness in society and to ensure its application in the administration itself.
The anti-racist mobilization in Tunisia experienced a turning point at the end of 2016, after three Congolese citizens were stabbed in the center of the capital. In full social commotion, the prime minister, Yusuf Chahed, promised to take action on the matter. And, in fact, the text approved on Monday was presented by the Government itself. Although aggressions of such severity are not habitual, they are insults and discriminations of all kinds. "Because of the racist attitudes, which are manifested in a more unconcealed way after the Revolution, the number of sub-Saharan young people who come to study in Tunisia has been cut in half," says Blemassi Touré, a veteran leader of a sub-Saharan association in the Maghrebi country.
Tunisia has become the second country on the continent after South Africa and the first in the Arab world to have legislation against racial discrimination. "In other countries in the region, such as Lebanon or Morocco, the problem of racism is much worse. The difference is that in Tunisia there is a civil society aware of the problem, "explains Omar Fassatoui, head of the Tunis office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, an institution that has advised the Tunisian authorities in the process of approval of the law.
Racism in many Arab countries has deep historical roots, as for centuries people from the sub-Saharan region captured on military expeditions were used as slaves. In fact, derogatory words or expressions that were used to address slaves, such as wasif (servant). Interestingly, Tunisia was already the first country in the area to abolish slavery, in 1846, advancing to many Western countries. Although this milestone is a source of pride among many Tunisians, and is part of the story projected by the State of a country endowed with a secular reformism, the mentality linked to that inhuman system of exploitation is still present. To change it will be the main challenge of the new law.