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In First, Tunisia Proposes Anti-discrimination Law
Tunisians wave their national flag and chant slogans during a march against extremism outside Tunis' Bardo Museum on March 29, 2015. (Fehti Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

In First, Tunisia Proposes Anti-discrimination Law

The bill, which now heads to the National Assembly for approval, is being hailed as a victory for rights campaigners

[Tunis, Tunisia] — In mid-January, the Tunisian Ministerial Council approved a draft law against racial discrimination, a first for the North African country enmeshed in a process of democratization since its 2011 revolution led to the ouster of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The bill—which now heads to the National Assembly for approval—provides for sanctions against any person who incites racial hatred or perpetrates racial discrimination. Penalties for such infractions range from a $500-$1,200 fine to between a one-month and three-year prison sentence.

The bill also calls for psychological and health assistance to victims of racial violence and discrimination.

The proposed legislative framework has been hailed as a major victory for local and international non-governmental organizations. For the first time in Tunisia’s history, the law, if approved, could prohibit and punish a wide range of discriminatory acts.

The bill is the result of a lengthy lobbying campaign led by three civil society groups: Euromed Rights, the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, and the Committee for the Respect of Human Rights and Liberties in Tunisia.

Messaoud Romdhani, who heads the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, told The Media Line that Sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia—many of them students and workers—have in recent years endured daily discrimination in the form of verbal and physical aggression.

For example, in Djerba, a popular tourist destination in the country’s south, many residents continue to call Sub-Saharan Africans “atig,” the Arabic word for freed slave.

“We said enough is enough; it has to change,” Romdhani affirmed.

The Tunisian government views the bill as the actualization of a promise made by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on December 26, 2016, which has been designated as National Day Against Racial Discrimination.

In this respect, the proposed law would force the state to delineate public policies on, as well as raise awareness about, racial discrimination. A commission would be created and tasked with proposing strategies and actions to be implemented at the national level.

Around 10-15 percent of Tunisians identify as black and live and work in the country’s south.

Amine Ayari, 23, a history graduate, pointed out that while Tunisia was the first Islamic country to abolish slavery in 1846, the population nevertheless remains imbibed with a dark strain of racism.

“Racism is a fact. We see it among Tunisians who live in the coastal parts of the country and those living in the interior,” he explained to The Media Line.

Saadia Mosbah, who comes from the southern area of Gabes, lobbied strongly for the new legislation. She runs an association called M’nemti which was created in 2013 and boasts more than one hundred members.

“We are fighting racism and all of its associated forms,” Mosbah asserted to The Media Line. “We have been calling for such a law since 2012, but the government has not acted until now.”

In fact, she elaborated, the issue previously was not a priority for the government, which instead placed an emphasis on what it deemed larger economic and political problems.

It was only after headlines were made when a group of minority students from southern Tunisia were victimized—which prompted civic movements to up their calls for reform—that the government began preparing the anti-discrimination bill.

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