Tunisia joins George Floyd protests to say 'no' to racism

Tunisians rallied on Saturday in support to the Black Lives Matter movement, decrying anti-black racism and raising awareness about racial discrimination in the North African country. Alessandra Bajec reports from Tunis

By Alessandra Bajec

On 6 June, around 100 people gathered outside the Municipal Theatre in the Tunisian capital in a show of solidarity with U.S. protests over the tragic death of George Floyd on 25 May after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.  

Protesters denounced discrimination and systemic violence in the United States and in the world, and called for a Tunisia free from racism and human rights abuses. The crowd held banners aloft bearing messages such as "We all bleed the same colour", "If you sow racism, you reap revolution", "No freedom till we're equal" and "Your fight is my fight". Chants of "I can’t breathe!", "Black lives matter", and "No justice, no peace" could be heard throughout.

Sitting on the stairs at the bottom of the theatre, four young women held two placards between them. One read "I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you". The other was the equivalent written in Arabic.

Racist speech and conduct deep-seated in Tunisia

One of the women – Malek – pointed out that racist speech and conduct have been passed down through the generations and remains deep-seated in Tunisian society. "People use discriminatory and offensive words against black people on a daily basis without even realising," she pointed out. Black Tunisians are regularly called kahlouch (a pejorative nickname for "black") and woussif (slave-servant).

Meriem, another of the group, said that often racism is not vocalised, but take the form of hostile attitudes and stances. Everyday occurrences of racial discrimination in Tunisia include taxi drivers not picking up black passengers, shopkeepers choosing not to serve black customers, or families disapproving of interracial relationships, let alone marriage.

Anti-racism protesters on the streets of Tunis on 06.06.2020 (photo: Alessandra Bajec)
The overlooked fifteen percent: dark-skinned Tunisians are exposed to racism – in the form of verbal, and sometimes even physical abuse – on a daily basis. As one anti-racism protester put it, "We need to erase from our minds the racist beliefs and prejudices that we have been taught since our childhood. It’s about changing the way we think and behave with other racial groups, changing mentalities"

She added that a lot of light-skinned Tunisians do not believe the country has a problem, despite it being all pervasive. "We are here today to demand that racism be acknowledged as a problem in Tunisian society", she insisted. "But to eradicate a problem, you first need to acknowledge it."

Speaking up in the small group of girls, Emna voiced that the change needs to happen at a societal level. "We need to erase from our minds the racist beliefs and prejudices that we have been taught since our childhood," she highlighted. "It’s about changing the way we think and behave with other racial groups, changing mentalities."

Tunisians with darker skin tones are often the victims of verbal abuse and sometimes of physical attacks. Fifteen percent of the country’s population identify as black, based on unofficial estimates.

The protest was organised by anti-racism association Mnemty and the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities (ATSM), with the support of other civil society organisations. "We are here today to say 'no' to racism in U.S. and everywhere in the world," Zied Rouin, Mnemty’s project coordinator, announced.

"We call on the Tunisian state to put into place strategies and action plans aimed at fighting racial discrimination and xenophobia," Rouin continued. He also called attention to racism in the MENA region, which has always existed and affects black people and other minorities daily.[embed:render:embedded:node:29662]

A group of sub-Saharan African students stood at the feet of the theatre. Some of them staged representations on the suffering of victims of police and social violence, including the circumstances of George Floyd’s death. Among the group members was Basile Yao, an Ivorian young man who coordinates sub-Saharan African residents in Le Bardo, a district in the capital Tunis. He brought a message of peace and coexistence, showing support to black Americans and black people all over the world.

"I think this is a decisive moment that will help open the eyes of some world leaders," he said hopeful. "Everyone has to learn to accept each other; we have to learn how to live together." In addition, Yao appealed to the Tunisian state to recognise rights for sub-Saharan migrants.Anti-racism legislation exists in Tunisia, but what about its implementation?

The North-African country has long been a regular destination for students from sub-Saharan Africa, counting 4,200 asylum seekers and 7,000 students, according to the National Observatory for Migration. Besides experiencing verbal and physical aggression in the country, Sub-Saharan African students face institutional racism, which includes delays in obtaining visas and issues in gaining access to healthcare and jobs.

In October 2018, Tunisia became one of the first African or Arab countries to adopt a law criminalising racial discrimination. The law was passed following pressure by Tunisian civil society, most prominently by the anti-racism advocacy group Mnemty. Under the legislation, individuals using racist language, inciting hatred or making racist threats, or advocating racism can face up to three years in prison and fines of as much as $1,050.

But implementation of the anti-racism law remains slow. As of today, there has been just one court ruling in favour of a victim of discrimination. In February 2019, a woman in the city of Sfax received a suspended sentence of five months in prison for allegedly attacking – verbally and physically – a primary school teacher over the colour of his skin, after he threw her daughter out of class.

Mnemty’s coordinator noted that there has been little state progress in implementing key provisions, including the running of training and awareness sessions in the educational and media fields, as well as within the police and judiciary.

Tunisians respond in solidarity

Tunisia was the first country in the Arab region to hold a demonstration in solidarity against the treatment of African Americans by police in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy.

Support for the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States has also been seen in other MENA countries, with some movements dovetailing George Floyd with their own protest motivations relating to police violence.

Meet the Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun, who painted a mural of #GeorgeFloyd against the backdrop of #Idlib’s ruins https://t.co/yaarLPkzx3 pic.twitter.com/9t5dEAOIWx

— Arab News (@arabnews) June 3, 2020

In Israel, for instance, Palestinian and Jewish Israelis rallied following the deadly Israeli police shooting of an autistic Palestinian man, Iyad Hallak, at the end of May. Demonstrators raised signs reading 'Palestinian Lives Matter' in a clear reference to the killing of George Floyd that sparked protests in several U.S. cities.

Last week, a protest against police violence took place in Turkey where some activists carried posters of George Floyd. Moreover, in Syria’s Idlib province, artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun recently joined the U.S. protests by painting a mural depicting Floyd’s face on the remains of a destroyed building, along with the words "I can't breathe" and "No to racism". Photos of the mural subsequently went viral on social media.

In Lebanon, anti-government protesters turned to social media in an expression of solidarity using the hashtag #Americarevolts in Arabic after protests broke out in the United States. Within 24 hours, the hashtag became the number one trending tag in Lebanon.

Alessandra Bajec

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