The growth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, USA, has reopened a much-needed debate in American society about the persistence of structural racism. Ethnic or racial discrimination, however, is a global phenomenon, present in virtually every corner of the globe, and the Arab world, with its long tradition of slavery, is no exception. The huge fallout from the protests in the US has provided equality activists in the Arab world with a chance to tackle a serious taboo in the public arena: racism towards Black people.
Once again, Tunisia has been at the vanguard in the region. At the beginning of June, hundreds of people gathered in the centre of the capital to show their solidarity with the BLM movement and to denounce the mistreatment and abuse of the Black community in the country. It was the only demonstration in support of BLM in the whole Arab world. The local activists were spurred by the news coming out of the USA, as Ines, creator of BLM Tunisia on Instagram, explains: “We decided to create it because the whole world was saying enough is enough. Our aim is to document wrongful acts against Black people and to raise public awareness.”
At the end of 2016, a racially motivated crime shook Tunisian society and forced the authorities to take action. Three Congolese students were attacked with a knife in the centre of Tunis for no apparent reason.
Just over a year later, the Tunisian parliament passed the first law against racial discrimination in the Arab world, a law long called for by the country’s leading anti-racism organisation, Mnemty (‘My Dream’, in Tunisian Arabic), set up following the 2011 revolution.
Under the new legislation, insults or derogatory remarks are punishable by between one month and one year in prison, as well as fines of up to the equivalent of around €350 (about US$410). “It’s essential that we have a law that allows us to report offences. Unfortunately, it isn’t being applied much. We need to educate people about their rights, as well as the institutions, especially the police,” notes Rania Belhaj, a longstanding Mnemty member and campaigner.
A small but “historic” step in this framework, according to the human rights NGO Minority Rights Group International and Mnemty, occurred in mid-October when a court in the Tunisian city of Medenine ruled in favour of Hamdane Atig Dali, an 81-year-old citizen who requested to remove ‘Atig’ (literally ‘freed by’, a remnant of slavery in the country) from his name on all his official documents, for perpetuating discrimination, humiliation and insulting human dignity.
A virtually silent issue – except on social media
“Racism is a serious problem in all Arab countries, but it is perhaps more acute in North Africa because of the greater historical weight of the enslavement of people from Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Marta Scaglioni, a researcher at the University of Milan who has recently published a book on the subject. “It has, however, traditionally manifested itself differently than in the West. Discrimination is not so much based on people’s skin colour as the fact that they come from a lineage of slaves. If you are dark-skinned but your genealogy is Arab, there is no stigma,” adds Scaglioni.
In his book L’Esclavage en Terre d’Islam (Slavery in the Land of Islam), Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel wrote that “from one dynasty to the next, from one century to the next, slavery became a Muslim reality”. Tunisia was the first country in the Arab and Muslim world to abolish slavery, in 1846, before some Western countries (such as the USA). In Morocco, however, it was legal until 1922, and was still tolerated until the middle of the 20th century. “There are no official figures in any country, but in Tunisia, activists estimate the Black population at between 10 and 15 per cent of the [total] population. In Morocco, it could be more,” Scaglioni points out.
Given the lack of freedoms in most Arab countries, the debate on racism has mainly been held on social media. In addition to the posts by activists and NGOs, the issue has gained considerable visibility thanks to the positions voiced by a number of Black celebrities, such as the Saudi model Abeer Sinder or the Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan. First-hand accounts posted on social media are very similar across the region, and some have given rise to a multitude of hate messages.
In a video that amassed more than two million views before being removed, Palestinian actress Maryam Abu Khaled denounced the derogatory remarks she had heard about her appearance since she was a child, and recalled how, during her childhood, some of her friends’ mothers would tell their children to stay out of the sun or they would “end up burnt and look like Maryam”. In Tunisia, Belhaj is also tired of hearing negative remarks about blackness and its association with dirtiness or ugliness: “It is very common for people to address us using the term ‘abd’ [slave in Arabic], ‘wassif’, a name slaves used to be called by, or ‘kahlouch’, which means ‘black’ in our dialect.” The line is often crossed into violence. “I had a boyfriend who was white, and his brother made very serious threats against me, even threatening to kill me if I didn’t end the relationship,” she says.
Born to a white Moroccan mother and a Central African father, Sophie Griss Bembe has experienced the stigma surrounding mixed couples first-hand. “My mother’s family never accepted the marriage, and it was a source of conflict during our trips to Morocco for years. This racism is also reproduced within the communities that migrated to Europe,” says the young woman, now a resident of France, who has created the Mazeej (“Mixed”) project to reflect on African-Arab identity.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, most people in Arab countries refuse to admit there is a racial discrimination problem. It was on these grounds that the Moroccan government refused, in 2012, to give the authorisation required for the establishment of an organisation to combat racism towards Black people, and that various legislative initiatives to punish discrimination have not prospered.
“The dominant narrative is that, in Islam, we are all brothers and sisters and there is no discrimination. And when you explain how often you’re called ‘kahloucha’ or ‘wassifa’, they argue that they are terms of endearment, but they clearly are not,” says Belhaj.
“Over recent decades, a new type of racism based on phenotypic traits has emerged, like the racism based on skin colour in the West, especially in the major cities, and this has been reinforced by the arrival of thousands of foreign migrants,” says Scaglione. In many Arab countries, racism overlaps with class prejudice, based on legal systems that do not protect refugees or migrants, like the kafala or ‘sponsorship’ system, prevalent in the Gulf region and Lebanon. The kafala system gives employers control over migrant workers’ legal status, which facilitates abuse and exploitation, including racism… Racial discrimination is clearly linked to class discrimination,” says Rothna Begum, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
For Nour Khalil, an Egyptian consultant specialising in the rights of migrants and refugees, these groups face the most violent racist conduct. “In my work, I have not yet found a refugee or asylum seeker who has not been exposed to racism, at least verbal. Children are the most vulnerable and suffer it on a daily basis on the street,” she explains in an email. They are often the victims of physical attacks that can result in serious injury or even death. In Libya, a country submerged in chaos, trafficking in people, mostly Black Africans, is a real scourge.
Activists and experts insist on the need for laws that actually prosecute and punish these crimes. “Although the Egyptian constitution of 2014 forbids discrimination of any kind, the Penal Code does not define these crimes or set out any penalties,” Khalil points out. Action is also needed to create awareness, as the Tunisian example suggests. “The law is not enough,” says Ines of BLM Tunisia. “Education about racism needs to start at a very early age at school. The media also needs to deal with this subject, and the presence of more Black people in journalism, politics, academia, etc., needs to be promoted.”