“My skin color says I don’t belong”

A photo of Khawla Ksiksi

Khawla Ksiksi says she is sometimes made to feel like a foreigner and not Tunisian

Black Tunisian women say they face more cases of racism after the country’s president criticized sub-Saharan migrants.

“People in Tunisia always question the fact that I am Tunisian,” says activist Khawla Ksiksi, a black Tunisian citizen.

In February, President Kais Saied ordered “urgent measures” against sub-Saharan migrants, accusing them of a “criminal conspiracy” to alter the country’s demographics and cultural identity.

He went on to say that the immigration stemmed from “a desire to make Tunisia just another African country and not a member of the Arab and Islamic world”.

There has since been an increase in violence against black African migrants, according to Human Rights Watch, and the statement only worsened the situation for black Tunisians, who make up between 10 and 15 percent of Tunisia’s population, according to official figures.

This number includes some descendants of sub-Saharan African slaves – the slave trade was abolished in Tunisia nearly 180 years ago – while others trace their origins much further back.

Ms Ksiksi tells the BBC she feels invisible: “Sometimes I speak in Arabic and they respond in French because they don’t want me to be part of Tunisia.”

Arabic is Tunisia’s official language, but Ms Ksiksi says she is often shunned when she speaks it because others don’t want to acknowledge a sense of kinship with her.

Although French is associated with privilege and education, it is also the language of “outsiders”, and so when people use it to respond to her, they make it clear to her that they don’t think she is. is Tunisian.

Members of rights groups carry banners during a protest, after Tunisian President Kais Saied ordered security forces to stop all illegal migration and deport all undocumented migrants, in Tunis.

Hundreds of people took to the streets of Tunis following the president’s remarks

Ms Ksiksi, who is co-founder of the collective Voices of Black Tunisian Women, wants to challenge the misconception that black Tunisians do not exist.

“I feel like I belong in Tunisia even though it’s so violent towards me [and people who look like me]“, says the 31-year-old player.

“They don’t treat us like Tunisians and treat themselves like non-Africans.”

She argues that despite independence from France in 1956, Tunisians want to be seen as belonging to Europe, and the colonial view that black Tunisians are “dusty and impure” persists.

“That’s why we have a huge identity crisis in Tunisia. We had independence on paper, but the colonial policy is still there.”

A lack of black representation in places of social and political power, she believes, reinforces the idea that there are no black Tunisian citizens.

“My skin color indicates that I don’t belong, so as black Tunisians we have to constantly prove that we are enough,” says Ms Ksiksi.

For black women, it’s even harder, she adds: “At school, I always had to get the best grades because all the teachers thought I would cheat because in their heads black people are not very smart.”

The activist says she had the financial means to get a good education, but this privilege often left her isolated: “The fact that you are always the only black person in the room makes you feel excluded and alone.

“I always feel like everything is white and I’m the black dot.”

A photo of Houda Mzioudet

Houda Mzioudet says the legacy of slavery lives on even though it was abolished in the 19th century

Like Ms Ksiksi, Houda Mzioudet says the problem is that Tunisian society has been built on a “homogenized nation” that does not allow discussion of racism.

“What is much more violent in Tunisia is not racism itself, but racism denial, where you deny your own horrific experience of racism,” says the 46-year-old university researcher and teacher.

In response to the president’s statements, some black Tunisian women, including Ms. Mzioudet, took part in the “Carry my papers just in case” trend on Facebook.

They wore their passports and identity documents visibly on their clothes to show that they were Tunisian but also in solidarity with migrants.

Ms Mzioudet was born in the capital, Tunis, but grew up in the south of the country where she witnessed a “de facto form of slavery and apartheid” in the 1980s.

The slave trade, which involved the sale of black Africans, was abolished in Tunisia in 1846, but its legacy lives on.

“There was a continuation of domestic slavery, although they no longer called black people slaves but rather servants – hence the Tunisian Arabic word for a black person is ‘wessif’ meaning ‘servant’ “, explains Ms. Mzioudet.

Despite her privileged background, she discovered in school that career expectations for black women tended to be things like dancing or singing – “or something like prostitution.”

“Growing up in an environment where black women have always been objectified and sexualized, it was very difficult for me to break free from that image,” she says.

For Ms. Mzioudet, the president’s statements on sub-Saharan migrants were a backlash against the Arab Spring and what it meant for black Tunisians.

In 2011, longtime president Zine al-Abidine Ben fled the country amid an unprecedented wave of street protests. The subsequent introduction of democracy after decades of dictatorship created an opportunity for black Tunisians to be visible in society.

Black Tunisians began to demand greater equal treatment, and Ms. Mzioudet felt more comfortable describing herself as black.

A person holds a placard during a demonstration in Tunis to protest against racism and President Saied's latest comments on the urgency of tackling illegal immigration in the country.

Tunisia criminalized racial discrimination in 2018, but some say it hasn’t changed people’s experience

In 2018, Tunisia passed a landmark law to criminalize racial discrimination, specifically anti-black racism against black Tunisians and black African migrants. It became the first country in the Arab region to criminalize discrimination specifically on the basis of race.

Ms. Ksiksi and Ms. Mzioudet say that despite these laws, the government has allowed the discrimination and inequality faced by black Tunisians to flourish.

In February, hundreds of people took to the streets of Tunis to support black African migrants and black Tunisians, a positive sign that there is hope that the younger generation wants to see change, Ms Mzioudet says.

“I was moved to tears seeing one of the biggest marches in downtown Tunis, made up mostly of non-black Tunisians saying black lives matter,” she says.

“And that it’s not a black issue but a human rights issue.”

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