Tunisian family wins right to drop slavery reminder from name

Minority Rights Group International also hailed the development.“This decision is hugely significant,” said Silvia Quattrini, the group’s regional coordinator.
Saturday 17/10/2020
Tunisian men walk past shops on the resort island of Djerba, Tunisia. (AFP)
Tunisian men walk past shops on the resort island of Djerba, Tunisia. (AFP)

TUNIS – A Tunisian court has allowed an 81-year-old man to remove a word that marked him out as descended from slaves from his name, in the country’s first ruling of its kind, his lawyer said.

Hamdane Atig Dali,  just won a legal battle allowing the family to remove the word “Atig”, meaning “liberated by,” from its official documents.

“For the first time, I feel like a free citizen with the same rights as others,” said Karim, Hamdane’s son.

“It’s a real victory against racism and discrimination in Tunisia.”

Tunisian lawyer Hanen Ben Hassena said the association with slavery was an assault on human dignity and the man’s adult children had faced discrimination because of the family name, which had made it harder to get jobs.

“In ‘Atig Dali’, there is a certain humiliation because it is as if the person is not free – there is a discomfort for the family to live with this name,” she said after Wednesday’s ruling.

Part of black Tunisians are descendants of sub-Saharan Africans brought to Tunisia during the slave trade centuries ago.

Tunisia was the first Arab country to ban slavery, doing so in 1846.

Activists say they still face unequal job prospects and high levels of poverty.  By law, they are however full-fledged citizens and are protected against racial discrimination.  But undeclared social attitudes remain a handicap.

Jamila Ksiksi, a black member of parliament who played a role in passing an anti-discrimination law called law 50, said the court’s ruling was “exceptional and extraordinary.”

“Civil society started this battle after the revolution (in 2011) and now we are seeing the fruits of this and of the law 50, which facilitated this achievement,” she said.

And in October 2018, Tunis passed a law criminalising racist speech, incitement to hatred and discrimination, a historic move in a country with a significant black minority.

But activists say it has a long way to go in fully ending discrimination.

“The issue of discrimination against black people in Tunisia has never been a priority or put on the table by senior government officials, who are still in denial,” said Saadia Mosbah, head of minority rights group Mnemty, which helped the Dali family in their case.

Black Tunisians have historically been underrepresented in government.  The cabinet counts a black minister in the person of Kamel Deguiche in charge of youth, sports and professional integration. Taieb Sahbani, a black diplomat held the position of junior minister of foreign affairs in 1986.

Mosbah, who called on the justice ministry to create a panel to examine easing the process of changing names, said this week’s ruling marked “a turning point.”

Minority Rights Group International also hailed the decision.

“This decision is hugely significant,” said Silvia Quattrini, the group’s regional coordinator.

“Bearing such a name is a truly constant reminder of the legacy of slavery.”