Black Lives Matter protests strengthen anti-racist movement in Tunisia

As uprisings for the life of blacks spread around the world following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in late May, dozens of people also took to the streets of the Tunisian capital to protest anti racism. -black – a long time taboo in the country. Black Tunisian activists have taken to social media since the Black Lives Matter protests began to express their solidarity with black communities in the United States and their fight against police brutality, but also to draw attention to their own fight against discrimination and marginalization by the Tunisian state.

The June 6 action brought together representatives of 31 Tunisian groups, with Mnemty, the most prominent black Tunisian organization, among the main organizers. It was significantly more diverse than previous anti-racist protests in the country, attracting many non-black participants to support black Tunisians, including some descendants of slaves, and sub-Saharan Africans. He also stressed the need to ally so that black Tunisian activism would gain momentum if it was to become a force for change to be reckoned with, and nurtured the hope of dignity of many black Tunisians in the country. Post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Nonetheless, some black Tunisian rights activists generally believe that black Tunisians did not fight enough for their rights and recognition as equal citizens. There is no single explanation for the reluctance to respond to systemic violence and racism directed against blacks in Tunisia, as well as in the rest of the Arab world.

A significant complicating factor, however, is the history of slavery in the region, which remains a highly controversial social and political taboo. Slavery was abolished in what is now Tunisia – then a regency under Ottoman rule – in 1846, making it the first Muslim country to do so. Yet the Tunisian regency failed to integrate black Tunisians as full citizens. Freed slaves, mainly in the south of the country, continued dealing with discrimination and social and economic marginalization – a legacy that persists today, with the disproportionate presence of black Tunisians holding jobs for the most part subordinate, and subject to a system of patronage under the descendants of their former masters.

Even after Tunisia gained independence from French colonial rule in 1956, subsequent governments continued to deny racism – an attitude that continues to be the norm. Since the Tunisian revolution of 2011, during which demonstrators overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many black Tunisian activists have mobilized to reaffirm their citizenship and their racial heritage in a country that has often made them invisible in the world. ‘public space.

Despite this legacy, and although resistance may not have taken the form of a structured grassroots organization, black Tunisians have often lobbied for some form of visibility, especially through culture.

As with the use of spirituals by African Americans – a religious musical genre with roots in slavery-era South America – to resist the power of the oppressor, black Tunisians have musical traditions of long standing who represent their cultural experience – among them Stambeli, Abid Ghbonton tayfa band, the Djerba drum orchestras, the Sufi-inspired Banga and Issawiya rituals in the southwest oasis towns of Kebili and Nefta, and the dance troupe of the drum of Gougou Zarzis.

These cultural forms find their origins either in the slavery past of black Tunisians – such as Stambeli and Banga, two highly spiritual ritual dances with West African origins (Central Africa, Nigeria, Niger) – or among the indigenous black Tunisians of the area. oasis near the Algerian border on the edge of the Sahara Desert, where the dark-skinned Tuaregs and their predecessors lived for at least 10,000 years.

Stambeli dancers in Tunis, Tunisia, May 30, 2015 (Amine Ghrabi / CC BY-NC 2.0)

This past is also invoked in the language used in some of these musical forms. For example, Stambeli trance dancers sing in a non-Arabic language known as ajmi, referring to the languages ​​spoken by West African slaves in Bornu, and the Hausa and Kanuri languages ​​of Nigeria. The use of alternative languages ​​also represents a form of resistance, with a powerless group using codes to make their actions invisible or unintelligible to their oppressors.

Slah Mosbah, Tunisia’s most famous black Tunisian singer – who is popular throughout the Middle East – has been a symbol for many in the country, with songs focusing on love of the homeland and other patriotic themes . Despite this status, however, Mosbah expressed bitterness at the racism he had faced during his artistic career, pointing out that he had been discriminated against or “exoticized” because of his skin color.

He also denounced the racist attitude of the media and Tunisian society in his songs, while being often accused of being “paranoid” and “arrogant”, and of “suffering from a minority complex”, according to the anthropologist. Italian Marta Scaglioni in her recent book, “Becoming the Abid: Lives and Social Origins in the South of Tunisia”. During the Tunisian revolution, Mosbah protested in front of the Tunisian Interior Ministry, calling for the departure of then President Ben Ali; he later recounted being beaten by police and racially abused.

Mosbah’s son Sabry followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a singer in France and performing in front of audiences in Europe and North America. Black Lives Matter Tunisia a called his songs “a cry in the face of oblivion and racism”.

Other examples of cultural resistance include the work of Tunisian black slammer Anis Chouchene, rapper Hamza Ben Achour and graffiti artist Jawher Soudani, all of whom rose to prominence after the 2011 revolution, and who represented the repressed voices of black Tunisian youth.

Although the pace of change has been slow, the long history of black Tunisian cultural resistance, as well as grassroots pressure, has made some headway against racism – the most visible of which is the push by civil society to embrace it. 2018 led the Tunisian parliament to to pass a law criminalizing racial discrimination, first such legislation in the Arab world.

The recent BLM protests are the latest example of how post-revolutionary black Tunisian activism has brought to the surface repressed issues of race and racism. Today, the work of urgently integrating the fight against racism into the civil society agenda continues – as part of a larger struggle to ensure Tunisia’s ongoing transition to a more democratic society. and egalitarian in which equal rights for minority populations (including Jews, Amazighs, LGBTQIs and other groups) are maintained.

About Wesley V. Finley

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