In Tunisia, a family allowed to change its name to no longer suffer discrimination

Two young black Tunisians in Gosba, in south-eastern Tunisia, in 2018.

Hamden Dali, 81, and his son Karim, 39, from Djerba, could not believe it when they heard the judge’s ruling. “It was a huge joy, my father cried”, Karim breathes. According to this historic decision taken on October 14, their last name will now be Dali and no longer Atig Dali. “Atig”, which means “freed by”, is a direct reference to slavery in Tunisia, despite its abolition in 1846. In southern Tunisia, some black families still bear this surname or that of Chouchan (“freed from”) .

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And the stigma is passed on from father to son, according to Karim Dali, an employee in the hotel industry. “I understood what my name meant when my father told me that at one time there was a distinction between white Djerbians and black Djerbians. The blacks bore the name of their master. I was born free but at school, at work or when someone is looking at your papers, you are always made to feel that you are not like other Tunisians “, he said, without wanting to say more about these still painful memories. Father of two daughters; Karim did not want to perpetuate this pejorative connotation associated with the name. He made a first request in 2017, but it was rejected because Tunisia did not have the adequate legal framework.

In fact, the court decision of October 14 is based on a law against racism passed in 2018, known as “law 50”. This judgment will now set a precedent and could encourage other Tunisians. The Dali lawyer says she has received two similar requests.

“Whose negress are you?” “

According to Saadia Mosbah, president of the Mnemty association which has fought against racism since 2013, the family name affair is linked to a lack of recognition of the slavery heritage in Tunisia. In 1986, while working in Djerba, a woman threw him into a hammam, after a dispute: ” Who are you negress? “There was this common thought that if you are black, you must still be someone’s slave”, she describes. Saadia Mosbah considers that the history of the Dali must lead to a national awareness, with the creation of a special commission of the Ministry of Justice to abolish these surnames or the promulgation of a presidential decree.

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But to change racist behavior and not just names, the time is long. In Tunisia, complaints of racial discrimination are still few compared to the recurrence of attacks. The NGO Minority Rights Group International, which supported Hamden Dali, works for the implementation of the law through the creation of a “legal clinic”: with Tunisian associations, it has trained nearly 160 lawyers, and fourteen complaints for racial discrimination were filed in 2020. “Law 50 provides for a committee to combat racial discrimination, whose task is to collect statistics, train judges and the police. It has to be in place “, insists Silvia Quattrini, project coordinator at Minority Rights Group.

“The law is not yet really applied, because the police are not trained in it and confuse racist acts or discrimination with verbal or physical violence punishable by the Penal Code”, explains Heyfa Abdelaziz, one of the lawyers at the legal clinic.

Daily insults

In a 2019 report on discrimination of all kinds in nine governorates of Tunisia, the NGO identified 76 cases of racial discrimination (24.6% of the total), including 66 on the basis of national origin, nine on skin color and a case of mixed marriage refusal. Sub-Saharan migrants in an irregular situation, the main affected by these statistics, do not dare to file a complaint for fear of being asked for their papers in the police stations.

In the case of black Tunisians, some cases resulted in favorable judgments for the complainant. In 2019, a teacher from Sfax denounced the racist remarks made by a female student against him. She was sentenced to a five-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 300 dinars (91 euros). Other cases are still pending, such as that of Joséphine Sallah, a Briton living in Tebourba, 30 km from Tunis. This Tunisian mother of three children was verbally and physically assaulted by neighbors in the street in the presence of her daughter.

She says she is tired of the insults she suffers on a daily basis, with qualifiers such as “Kahla” (pejorative term for color), “Ebola”, “Didier Drogba”. “Sometimes on public transport people pinch their noses in front of me. The law needs to be applied more firmly so that it is not just a cosmetic measure “, Joséphine Sallah concludes.

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