As they celebrate slavery abolition anniversary, Tunisians fight racism

Friday 12/02/2016
A 2014 file picture shows anti-racism demonstrators in Tunis holding a placard reading in French “We are all Children of Earth”.

Tunis - In late January, Tunisia com­memorated the 170th anniver­sary of the abolition of slavery through events and activities drawing on the importance of ending racial discrimination.
In a recent speech Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said Tunisians must follow the “daring initiative” of January 23, 1846, with “effective ways to end all forms of discrimination based on race and colour”.
Husseinite dynasty ruler Ahmed Bey outlawed slavery in Tunisia in the mid-19th century, making it the first Arab and Muslim country to end enslavement. The Tunisian decree predated formal bans on slavery in the United States, France and Portugal.
The decree detailed moral and political grounds for the abolition of slavery. It instructed the courts to be a refuge for those fleeing slav­ery and public notaries to facilitate emancipation procedures. Viola­tions of the decree resulted in fines or prison sentences.
In recent years, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery became of particular significance to activ­ists fighting racial discrimination. Associations, such as M’nemty (My Dream) which was launched in 2013, were formed with the aim of eradicating racism and discrimina­tion.
“Despite the fact we were among the first countries to abolish slav­ery, we still suffer today from forms of racism. Today we have new forms of discrimination,” said Ra­nia Belhaj Romdhane, a M’nemty member.
The Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities also pointed out the importance of spreading awareness in Tunisia regarding rac­ism.
“Today, we would like to draw attention to the importance of the anniversary that marks the end of slavery in Tunisia. If we ask Tuni­sians about this date, most people would not know its significance,” Ghayda Thabet, an official with the association, said at a January 22nd news conference.
M’nemty called for the date of abolition of slavery to be decreed a national holiday.
“Since 2013 there has been a re­quest to include this date on the calendar of national holidays. We had a protest and a march to sup­port this request.
Yet, it was not taken into consid­eration even when we submitted a law proposal against all forms of discrimination,” Belhaj Romdhane said.
M’nemty put on an event to com­memorate the abolition of slavery and to sensitise people to the im­portance of putting an end to dis­crimination by means of education and art.
In addition to celebrating and commemorating the date of the abolition of slavery, the Tunisian Association for the Support of Mi­norities called for laws to penalise racism.
“Ever since 2013, we have been working on implementing these values. The constitution empha­sises the importance of equality in front of the law but, concretely, how can we implement this with­out a law?” Thabet asked.
“A law that penalises discrimina­tion should be implemented. Leg­islators should take this into con­sideration.
In December 2015, we submitted a law proposal to parliament after consulting with our legal team to penalise racism as the constitution guarantees equality to all citizens facing discrimination. However, we have not received a response yet.”
The Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities said it would monitor all racist incidents. “In the absence of a law that penalises dis­crimination, we have the role of an observatory providing a number for people to report discrimination and incidents of racism,” Thabet said. “We have received many cas­es so far. Racism exists but needs to be exposed.”
She added: “Facing this situa­tion, we are working on reporting these cases and at the same time we want to present the issues to public opinion. We listen to people express their anxieties and help them with their problems. We have a legal team to take care of the legal ramifications of any incidents.”