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The Amazighs originate from North Africa. In Tamazight, the language spoken by the Amazighs, Imazighen is the plural form, meaning ‘free people‘. They are also known as Berbers, deriving from the Greek for “stranger, non-Greek, barbarian”, although this term – widely used by invading forces and colonial authorities – is widely rejected by the Amazighs themselves. because of its negative connotations.
Compared to Morocco and Algeria, Tunisia today has a very small community of Tamazight speakers. However, taking language as the only index of belonging has a significant impact on the figures. For instance, shilha, a variant mostly spoken in Tunisia, is classified as an endangered language and is now spoken by only about 50,000 people in the governorates of Médenine, Gabès, Tataouine and Tunis, according to local sources (but UNESCO speaks of 10,000 remaining speakers). Other languages suffered a similar decline. A 1911 study of the language of the Sened (Tamazirt), in Gasfa Governorate, reported that the entire town spoke the language; today, however, this regional variety of shilha is virtually extinct. There are of course many similarities between the Tamazight spoken in Tunisia and the variants spoken in other North African countries. Some can communicate more easily with each other using Tamazight than through the different varieties of Arabic spoken in their respective countries.
As a result, after centuries of assimilation, many Tunisians can identify as ethnically and culturally Amazigh, despite not speaking the language, thus increasing the number of the total population identifying as Amazigh. In Sened today, for example, there are no official figures available on the proportion of the more than 20,000 inhabitants who are Amazigh. However, if one uses surnames as a means of identifying their origins, it would seem likely that the vast majority of the population have Amazigh roots. Most of these families, having moved from the mountain villages to the Sened, no longer speak Shilha themselves. However, their speech may still bear traces of the language, such as in the pronunciation and in the usage of some shilha words among otherwise dominant Tunisian Arabic.
The indigenous lands of the Amazighs, also called Tamazgha, encompass Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, Mauritania, the Canary Islands and parts of Egypt, Mali and Niger. This region is said to have been inhabited by the Amazighs since 10,000 BC. Their territories were later occupied during the Arab conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries AD and the majority of the population converted to Islam.
Tens of thousands of Arabs settled Ifriqiya and married with the local people. Most Amazighs, since they are an indigenous people, do not wish to be labeled as a minority and some use the French expression instead minority groupthat is, a group that has been “minorized”.
It was forbidden to speak Shilha in the Bourguiba era. Today, although these restrictions are not enforced as strictly, the language is still under threat. A problem is that most of those who know the shilha are barely able to speak it: only a small number can also write it, using the system used in Morocco or Algeria. This poses significant challenges to the integration of shilha teaching into the school system.
Until July 2020, the use of non-Arabic names was prohibited by Decree-Law no. 59-53 of 1959, which in practice meant that parents could not register Amazigh names for their children. This decree was repealed by the Ministry of Local Affairs, but not all municipalities are aware of this change and can still refuse to register Amazigh names.
There have been several cases in recent years of people who wanted to register their children with Amazigh names and were prevented from doing so due to Decree Law no. 59-53 of 1959. This decree was legally abolished in 2020, allowing the Amazigh community to legally use their names, although at the time of writing it is too early to assess whether this is being implemented: municipalities appear to be evaluating these cases on an ad hoc basis and may not have been informed of the repeal of the decree. Although the situation has improved since the 2011 revolution, the fact remains that many Amazighs in southern Tunisia face considerable pressure to conceal not only their language but also other aspects of their culture, such as than traditional clothing, to gain employment and social acceptance. In this context, aspects of their heritage are now under threat, including the traditional Amazigh style of house design. Although better suited to the local environment and temperature, their value is not widely recognized and many opt for modern housing instead. In the 1960s, the Tunisian government began building new villages in the valley as a strategy to encourage members of mountain communities to resettle there. Many started to leave villages like Zraoua (a small village in Gabès governorate) because there was no access to water, electricity and other services. This has resulted in the abandonment of many Amazigh villages and the deterioration of the remaining traditional architecture. Only a few popular tourist destinations are preserved, such as Houmt Souk on the island of Djerba.
The Tamazight language is also endangered, with UNESCO listing it as critically endangered, with only around 10,000 speakers remaining (although local sources speak of 50,000 speakers). There are currently six varieties of the language spoken in six regions of southern Tunisia: Sened (extinct), Tamazret, Taoujout, Djerba, Zraoua, Douiret and Chenini/Tataouine. Many children in these regions have only ever spoken Tamazight at home. This means that when they reach school age, where Arabic is the main language of instruction, many are faced with a language they don’t even understand. In many cases, teachers do not speak Tamazight themselves as they are often sent from other regions to teach.
Nevertheless, in other respects there have been encouraging developments in recent years. Representatives of the Amazigh community highlighted how, although many issues remain unresolved, the space available for activists to speak freely in public has expanded significantly. As a result, a number of Amazigh movements emerged in the wake of the revolution, boosted in particular by young activists keen to revitalize their Amazigh culture. The places where Amazigh movements are strongest are those where the language is still spoken, such as Djerba and Douiret. Some also try to encourage the revitalization of Amazigh heritage for economic reasons, seeing it as a potential opportunity to support the general development of the community through tourism, crafts and clothing.
There are today some 13 Amazigh associations in Tunisia, all founded after the revolution, and their activity is increasingly important at the international level. In October 2018, for example, the World Amazigh Congress (CMA) held its eighth meeting in Tunis, the second time the congress was held in Tunisia (the first time was in Djerba in 2011).
An underlying obstacle for Amazighs is their lack of political representation. There was no Amazigh representative in the Constituent Assembly when the new Constitution was drafted, for example, and their call at the time to institutionalize Amazigh cultural rights was only supported by two of the 217 deputies. . Accordingly, there is no mention of the Amazighs or their problems in the Constitution. To date, the main push for greater Amazigh rights has come from civil society rather than policy makers or civil servants. Regarding the teaching of the Amazigh language, some associations in Matmata and elsewhere have launched private lessons. The teaching of Amazigh is therefore not banned, but the lack of public funding means that sustained action is a challenge. Activists are currently focusing on raising awareness within the community of their rights in order to mobilize them. These movements are generally conducted within a framework of national unity and draw on Tunisian heritage. Some, however, complain of a relative lack of female participation, as well as a lack of coordination between the different movements.
Updated November 2021