• Indigenous peoples in Tunisia

    Indigenous peoples in Tunisia

    The Amazigh peoples are the indigenous peoples of Tunesia. Although Tunesia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Tunesian government does not recognise the existence of the country’s Amazigh population.

Indigenous World 2019: Tunisia

As elsewhere in North Africa, the Amazigh are Tunisia’s indigenous population. There are no official statistics regarding their number in the country, but Amazigh associations estimate that there are around 1 million speakers of Tamazight (the Amazigh language).

This is approximately 10% of the total population. It is in Tunisia that the Amazigh have suffered the greatest forced Arabisation. This explains the low proportion of Tamazight speakers in the country. There are nonetheless many Tunisians who, while no longer able to speak Tamazight, still consider themselves to be Amazigh rather than Arab.

The Amazigh of Tunisia are spread throughout all of the country’s regions, from Azemour and Sejnane in the north to Tittawin (Tataouine) in the south, passing through El-Kef, Thala, Siliana, Gafsa, Gabès, Djerba and Tozeur. As elsewhere in North Africa, many of Tunisia’s Amazigh have left their mountains and deserts to seek work in the cities and abroad. There are thus a large number of Amazigh in Tunis, where they live in the city’s different neighbourhoods, particularly the old town (Medina), working primarily in skilled crafts and petty trade. The indigenous Amazigh population can be distinguished not only by their language (Tamazight) but also by their culture (traditional dress, music, cooking and Ibadite religion practised by the Amazigh of Djerba).

Since the 2011 “revolution”, numerous Amazigh cultural associations have emerged with the aim of achieving the recognition and use of the Amazigh language and culture. The Tunisian state does not, however, recognise the existence of the country’s Amazigh population. Parliament adopted a new Constitution in 2014 that totally obscures the country’s Amazigh (historical, cultural and linguistic) dimensions. In its recitals, the text refers to the Tunisians’ sources of “Arab and Muslim identity” and expressly affirms Tunisia’s membership of the “culture and civilisation of the Arab and Muslim nation.” It committs the State to working to strengthen “the Maghreb union as a stage towards achieving Arab unity […] ” Article 1 goes on to reaffirm that “Tunisia is a free State, […], Islam is its religion, Arabic its language” while Article 5 confirms that “the Tunisian Republic forms part of the Arab Maghreb”. For the Tunisian state, therefore, the Amazigh do not exist in this country. On an international level, Tunisia has ratified the main international standards and voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. These international texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens and legal professionals, however, and are not applied in domestic courts.

Law on racial discrimination

Following recommendations made to the Tunisian government by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2009 and by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in 2016, Tunisia adopted Law 50/2018 of 23 October 2018 on “eliminating all forms of racial discrimination”.1 The stated aim of this law is to “eliminate all forms of racial discrimination and its manifestations and protect human dignity, ensure equal enjoyment of rights and fulfil [the State’s] duty in line with the Constitution and international treaties ratified by Tunisia”. This law understands discrimination as being “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, national or ethnic origin or any other form of racial discrimination, within the meaning of internationally ratified treaties, that is likely to obstruct or prevent the exercise of equal rights and freedoms, and which requires additional tasks or responsibilities”. The law also anticipates that the State will “undertake to disseminate a culture of human rights, equality, tolerance and acceptance of the other among the different components of society”. This law was welcomed as a step in the right direction towards fighting racial discrimination, but it will be difficult to apply for the Amazigh, above all because the Constitution denies their existence. Amazigh organisations are therefore demanding a reform of the Constitution to include recognition of their community. The new law on the elimination of racial discrimination could help them achieve this objective but only if these organisations dare take the issue to court.

Intolerance of Amazigh cultural identity

In Tunisia, as long as Amazigh’s cultural expression remains confined to the family sphere or is presented as a matter of local folklore, it is tolerated. Once it begins to manifest itself publicly and show an ambition to exist as an equal culture, however, it becomes subject to all kinds of censure on the part of the authorities. Examples of this censure include: In the Gabès municipality, in the south-east of Tunisia, a local pharmacy shop sign written in Tamazight was removed at the order of the Regional Governor.

The municipality of Sfax situated by the Mediterranean coast refused to register the Amazigh first name “Massin”, quoting a circular from the Ministry of Justice dating back to 1965, which bans the registration of non-Arab first names in the civil registry. The baby’s parents had to resort to the courts, which ruled in their favour. The judge was immediately moved to another region. Such a transfer would appear to be a disciplinary measure against a judge who dared order Sfax municipality to record the birth of a child with an Amazigh first name.

Lack of concern for Amazigh heritage

During its 13th session held in Port Louis, Mauritius, from 26 November to 1 December 2018, UNESCO’s Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage decided to register the know-how of women potters from the village of Sejnane in Tunisia on the list of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.2 In order to preserve the authenticity of this pottery and prevent it from being falsified, the committee alerted the Tunisian government to the “high risks of excessive commercialisation” of this heritage and strongly “encouraged it to focus on these social and cultural aspects”. The government, however, declared that it had no plans for measures to “limit in any way access to the knowledge and know-how related to women’s pottery in Sejnane”. In other words, Sejnane3 pottery can be freely copied, and this represents a plundering of these women’s “intellectual property” and an attack on the historical and cultural value of their work. Moreover, the file4 that the government submitted to UNESCO was hazy as to the origin of this work and made no mention of the fact that similar heritage is also found in other Amazigh regions of North Africa. It is also important to note that while some 20 people and associations were consulted in drafting this file, none of them were Amazigh or specialists in Amazigh culture.

Despite warnings from associations for the protection of Amazigh heritage and from municipal councils, historic Amazigh sites remain abandoned, with no protection, exposed to the elements and open to looting. The “Berber caves” in Sened, are particularly vulnerable, as are other sites, including the Chenini cave dwellers’ village, etc.

It is also worth noting that none of the recommendations on the Amazigh made to the Tunisian government in 2016 by CESCR have been implemented. The discrimination being suffered by the Amazigh is therefore ongoing.

Notes and references

  1. OJ of Tunisian republic, No 86 of 26 October 2018, at https://bit.ly/2Ir1cMk
  2. Unesco, Patrimoine culturel immatériel, ITH/18/13.COM/10.b.38, 27 November 2018 – at https://ich.unesco.org
  3. Village in the north of Tunisia where the potters
  4. The file submitted to UNESCO by the Tunisian government to obtain the registration of the know-how of Sejnane’s potters to the intangible heritage of humanity.

Belkacem Lounes holds a doctorate in economics, and is a university teacher (Grenoble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights.



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