“I lost the will to leave my house”

According to a survey commissioned by BBC Arabic, 80% of Tunisians believe that racial discrimination is a problem in their country – the highest percentage in the Middle East and North Africa region. With black people making up 10-15% of Tunisia’s population, there are fears that the fight against racial discrimination is now at an impasse after parliament was suspended, the country’s first black MP has told the BBC.

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Lashad Karim loved his job and had spent 12 years at the same company, until he said he faced racism at the hands of a new manager.

“We were having a conversation when he suddenly swore at me,” she told the BBC.

Mr. Karim accuses the manger of using a term commonly used to demean blacks as servants: “That’s not an acceptable word, it’s hurtful.”

“I was in shock. Why? What is my fault? What did I do? I broke down.”

It shook his self-esteem, even today.

“I used to love being outside. Now I’ve lost the will to go anywhere beyond my front door,” she told the BBC.

New legislation, called Law 50, was introduced in 2018, making Tunisia the first country in the Arab region to ban discrimination specifically on racial grounds.

It was the culmination of a years-long campaign by activists emboldened by the 2011 pro-democracy protests that saw the ouster of longtime president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Under Law 50, those found guilty of racist language or acts can be jailed for up to three years. Authorities can also impose a maximum fine of 3,000 dinars ($950, £775).

So far it has succeeded in prosecuting some of those guilty of discrimination, including a case in the city of Sfax where a woman was found guilty of racially abusing her daughter’s Afro-Arab teacher.

But that was not the case for Mr Karim. His employer denied racism or fired him and his case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Mr Karim is one of many black people who say they are still victims of racism despite this relatively new legal deterrent, as the country’s first black MP explained.

“Almost every day, I get letters from citizens, especially black people. I get their messages. I get their complaints,” Jamila Xixi said.

He said that after parliament was suspended, lawmakers could no longer report to the channels of power the plight of constituents suffering from racism, nor scrutinize the government’s efforts to address it.

“The Tunisian people have no voice without a parliament,” he continued.

Tunisia’s ongoing social and economic crisis deepened last July after President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed the government.

President Saied had said his decision was the only way to reform the country and break Tunisia’s political paralysis.

The 64-year-old president last month ordered parliamentary elections following a referendum on a new constitution that gave him sweeping new powers.

According to Ms Ksiksi, Tunisia’s parliament used to have a central role in controlling the implementation of landmark anti-racism legislation, but this is no longer possible.

He fears that court cases involving racial discrimination will now take longer to be processed by the courts because of the political unrest.

“There is no entity helping to push or asking for the reasons behind the delays. The dissolution of parliament is a huge obstacle to people getting their rights.”

Ms Ksiksi is also concerned about what she sees as a lack of clarity about whether the new constitution will protect civil rights legislation, particularly Act 50.

BBC Arabic News has contacted a spokesman for the new government appointed by President Kais, but has so far received no response.

However, a prominent Tunisian politician and ally of the president denied that the fight against racism had been sidelined by recent events.

“The work of the judiciary has never stopped. They are still implementing Law 50,” said Amal Hamrouni of the El-Tayyar El-Chaabi party.

Regarding the control of the work of the government, Ms. Hamrouni said that President Kais had no choice but to suspend the parliament.

“The legislature was not doing its job. It was mired in infighting. It was right for the president to suspend it,” he said.

The scope of Law 50 is not only to address individual incidents of racism, but also to address a legacy of discrimination in Tunisia.

Kamal Atig Zeiri, a taxi driver, said he has faced racism throughout his life and wants to drop “Atig” from his surname because of the word’s history, describing it as “shameful”. Atig means “released from”.

His ancestors were among the millions of black Africans sold into slavery throughout the Arab world over the centuries. Tunisia became the first Arab country to abolish this trade in 1846.

“It worries me a lot and I won’t rest until I get it off my surname,” Mr Atig Zeiri told the BBC. “That word has caused me a psychological problem,” he continued.

In theory, Law 50 should give Mr. Atig Zeiri the freedom to change his name, however, he is still waiting for the courts to approve his request. His daughter, Lena, managed to change her last name.

You can watch the BBC Arabic documentary “Black & Arab: The Hidden Reality” here

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