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Tunisia’s pioneering black women: The fight for emancipation amidst racial backlash

Middle East & North Africa

In July 2004, the Pan-African, French-language monthly Jeune Afrique published a column by Affet Mosbah entitled “Being Black in Tunisia.”[1] Hailing from a family of black rights’ activists—Mosbah’s sister, Saadia, is a long-time organizer in Tunisia and her brother, Salah, is Tunisia’s most famous black singer and a strong advocate for the black community in his own right[2]—Mosbah’s article considered the taboo of anti-black racism in Tunisia, recounting the banality of discrimination that black Tunisians and black Africans, especially students, had come to know so well. Appropriately, it was published shortly after the African Development Bank (AfDB) decided to relocate its headquarters from war-torn Abidjan to Tunis, a move meant to signal Tunisia’s inseparability from Africa. The first major public intervention on what was (and is) one of Tunisian society’s dirty secrets, “Being Black in Tunisia” failed to sneak past the censors of the Ben Ali regime. It was only with the 2010-2011 revolution that it became readable online.[3]

Naturally, the revolution delivered more than access to information, the writings of Affet Mosbah included. For Black Tunisians, it also opened a new era of opportunity and risk. On risk, the deep and non-reflexive character of anti-black racism in Tunisia meant that the condition of black Tunisians and black Africans would not immediately change: local newspapers and television remained inhospitable to black voices and black issues, and a great many black people faced abuse, both physical and verbal, throughout the democratic transition. At the same time, the post-2011 political, social and legal environment did allow black activists to push their cause as never before.

The un-silencing of black Tunisian activism 

Just as social media came to host an enlivened discourse on black rights in Tunisia, the post-2011 liberalization of regulations on civil society activity facilitated the emergence of a new network of non-government organizations (NGOs) focused on similar issues. After seeing her requests to register a non-profit organization rejected many times over by the overseers of the Ben Ali regime on the grounds that Tunisia did not, in the eyes of officialdom, have any problems with racism—and after being accused of stirring racial strife[4]—Saadia Mosbah, sister of the aforementioned Affet Mosbeh, launched one of the main NGOs in this network. The organization, named M’nemty, swiftly grew into a pillar of black civic life. The same could be said of a second anti-black racism organization founded by Maha Abdelhamid and a number of other black Tunisian activists called Adam.

Helmed by these two tireless women, Mnemty and Adam did more than force the issue of racial discrimination to the fore as Tunisia’s transitional democracy struggled for its footing. Supported by Tunisia’s first ever black female Member of Parliament (the late Jamila Debbech-Ksiksi), they also granted black women a level of public visibility never before enjoyed while drawing attention to the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and classism. Operationally, the organizations engaged Tunisian society through a multiplicity of means, including event and conference organizing; the lobbying of both the National Constituent Assembly and the Assembly of the Representatives of the People; and speaking and marching tours across the Tunisian south. Pertaining to the latter, Abdelhamid, organizing alongside other black Tunisian activists, mobilized a 2014 march across many of the sites once at the heart of the trans-Saharan slave trade. Gathering hundreds of black people in a joint action ultimately stretching from the island of Djerba to the cities of Zarzis, Medenine, Gabes, Gibili and Sfax, at one and the same time, the march demanded that historical injustices and their contemporary legacies be addressed. Just as importantly, across the same years in question, Mnemty and Adam also helped integrate Tunisia within international and transnational communities of black solidarity. Tunis’ hosting of the World Social Forum in 2013 and 2015 were critical in these regards. Bringing members of Tunisia’s black community face to face with human rights leaders and representatives of indigenous and black minorities from around the globe, the forums wound up yielding resilient alliances connecting Tunisians with partners from Brazil, the United States, and France.

Such efforts did not suffice to transform Tunisian society and culture overnight, of course. Outside major urban centres like Tunis and Sfax, racial discrimination still struggles to gain traction as a policy issue. The prevalence of racist attitudes in the south, where the largest populations of black Tunisians concentrate, cannot be said to have diminished much as yet, either. Saliently and despite all the energies invested, Mnemty, Adam and their allies also failed to get racial discrimination expressly outlawed within the constitution in 2014.

That all said, the labors of these activists did not pass without bearing significant legal fruit: In 2018, Tunisia became the first country in the MENA region to codify a law against race-based discrimination. This was a massive victory. Prior to the passage of Loi 50-2018 (the law in question), black Africans and black Tunisians had no legal recourse when subjected to expressly racist forms of discrimination, be it in the workplace, at school, or in a public institutions. And Loi 50-2018 did more than correct this glaring wrong: it also provided the standing required to pursue symbolic but undeniably meaningful satisfaction for past wrongs. Indeed, it was by the law’s provisions that a black Tunisian citizen from Djerba was cleared to finally exact a part of his last name that had been inherited from his family’s enslavement.[5]

A black renaissance begets an anti-black racist backlash

On May 6th of this year, Saadia Mosbah was arrested by the Saied regime. She is being investigated by the judicial authorities, rather ludicrously it should be said, for money laundering. One can only help but notice, as Bassem Trifi, President of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights did, that all this transpired after Mosbah made a number of social media posts where she detailed that racism she has experienced in her advocacy work—and after Kais Saied denounced the humanitarian organizations aiding Sub-Saharan migrants in a National Security Council meeting, asserting that they are the paid agents of foreign powers and “traitors” to Tunisia. Held for ten days while the investigation proceeded, Mosbah was brought before a judge on May 16th and is in pretrial detention at the time of writing.[6]

Mosbah was not the only individual involved in migrant and racial justice issues arrested in early May. Four other persons employed by Mnemty, the Tunisian Refugee Council, and Terre d’Asile Tunisie were also detained, and even Mosbah’s son was briefly taken in by the police. As this reveals—and as Kais Saied’s racist speechifying in February 2023 forewarned—a new and deeply troubling day has dawned for black Tunisians and black Africans. Anti-black and anti-immigrant violence is on the rise, administered both by the state and by organized civilian groups. And though Loi 50-2018 is likely to survive, it is being targeted by the Tunisian Nationalist Party, which claims the law is part of “the colonialist agenda of Sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia in wanting to change the demographic makeup of the Tunisian population.”

The response from a number of corners to these developments has been somewhat encouraging. Within Tunisia, a number of organizations involved in the defense of human rights—inclusive of the Committee for Justice, the Human Rights League, and Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights—denounced Mosbah’s arrest. A wider mobilization against the Saied regime’s crackdown on journalists, bloggers, and free expression—a crackdown legally facilitated under the terms of Décret-loi 542022, which subjects those convicted of disseminating “fake news” to a maximum of five years in prison—has also gathered momentum, most recently through a May 24th protest in downtown Tunis. Internationally, meanwhile, though the diplomatic response has been tepid, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights did go on the record condemning the Saied regime’s latest escalation. Nevertheless, on balance, the climate at the time of writing is one as hostile to the cause of black Africans and black Tunisian activists as anyone can remember. Offering a testament to how dark things have gotten since July 25th 2021 is a debate currently playing out in parliament: In one camp are two members requesting that the Speaker institute a policy allowing black African migrants to be contracted for twenty years of menial subcontracting work under terms akin to indentured servitude. Opposing them is Sfax MP Fatma Mseddi, proud advocate of Great Replacement Theory, who contends this is a backdoor means for advancing the colonization of Tunisia by black Africans.[7]

In this climate, Europe’s enduring support for Kais Saied—emanating from a desire to curtail cross-Mediterranean crossings—is especially destructive. At the center of this story remains the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Her “Mattei Plan for Africa”, announced during the Italy-Africa Summit held this past January, is expressly designed to formalize the kind of pay-for-patrol scheme which invites the abuse of black Africans: investment flows from Italy, the developmental value of which is uncertain, in exchange for beneficiaries’ dutifulness in guarding the seas. Laying bare the realities of the EU’s footprint today, Meloni’s visit to Tunis in April corresponded with the security forces’ sweeping of Sfax for irregular black migrants.

By engaging Saied as a partner of its migration strategy, Rome and Brussels have greenlit, tacitly and explicitly, Carthage’s broadening campaign against the Tunisian public. One of the rationales the President most frequently references as he withdraws civil freedoms and criminalizes dissent, after all, is the need to preserve Tunisia for Tunisians, i.e., the need to stop the same migratory waves which Europe has rendered the great scourge of our age. If it is the Tunisian judicial authorities which arrested former president of the Tunisie Terre d’Asile organization, lawyer Sonia Dahmani, TV host Borhen Bsaiess, and journalist Mourad Zeghidi over the past few weeks, then, it is Europe and the United States which sponsor or, minimally put, co-sign, these actions.

The consequence of all this is to be felt first by black Africans but by black Tunisians and the general population shortly thereafter, as the aforementioned arrests make plain. The struggle for black rights in Tunisia, elided by history despite proceeding for centuries, will need continue.  

[1] Affet Mosbah, “Etre noire en Tunisie”, Jeune Afrique (July 12, 2004).

[2] See: Fatima-Ezzahra Bendami, “Black Tunisians breaking taboos”, Africa is a Country (March 2021).

[3] On the endurance of this dirty secret, see: Nada Issa, “Tunisia’s dirty secret”, Al Jazeera (March 17, 2016).

[4] Stephen King, “Democracy and progress toward racial equality in Tunisia: Interview with Zied Rouine”, Blog post: Arab Reform Initiative (March 26, 2021).

[5] Staff Writer, “Man can drop part of name denoting slave ancestry, Tunisian court rules,” Reuters (October 16, 2020).

[6] Staff, “Tunisia: Deepening Civil Society Crackdown: Authorities target refugee and migrant rights groups, activists, and journalists”, Post: Human Rights Watch (May 17, 2024).

[7] See: Facebook page of Fatma Mseddi