The Indigenous World 2021: Tunisia
As elsewhere in North Africa, the Indigenous population of Tunisia is formed of the Amazighs. There are no official statistics on their number in the country but Amazigh associations estimate there to be around 1 million Tamazight speakers, accounting for some 10% of the total population. Tunisia is the country in which the Amazighs have suffered the greatest forced Arabisation. This explains the low proportion of Tamazight speakers in the country. There are, however, increasing numbers of Tunisians who, despite no longer being able to speak Tamazight, still consider themselves Amazighs rather than Arabs.
The Amazighs 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, Matmata, Tozeur, Djerba... 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 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 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. The Constitution refers only 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 commits 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, and are not applied in domestic courts.
Amazigh denial ever present
The primary and most striking expression of Amazigh denial can be seen in the 2014 Tunisian Constitution, which contains no reference whatsoever to the existence of the Indigenous Amazigh community and makes no mention of this people’s history, culture or language. Unfortunately, there is no indication that this is likely to change in the near future. Quite the opposite, many political, academic and media actors publicly state that “there is no Amazigh issue in Tunisia” and that “almost no-one claims to be Amazigh” or that “the Amazigh issue is external to Tunisia”.
Organic Law No. 2018-50 of 23 October 2018 on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination was interpreted by government and non-government actors alike as a law intended primarily to protect migrants from other African lands and not the Amazigh. These latter are seen as Tunisians like the rest of the population, i.e., “Arabs and Muslims” who cannot therefore suffer any discrimination based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or indeed any other form of racial discrimination.
Amazigh citizens and associations are not only afraid to contradict this dominant discourse but also face great difficulties in getting their voices heard. The mass media, both public and private, are closed to them and they fear stigmatisation, insults and threats on social media, along with reprisals in their daily lives.
Even when suffering the denial of their identity and discrimination, the Amazigh of Tunisia consequently do not dare to publicly raise their grievances and suffering. And the dominant Arab-Islamic society (both state and civil society) relies on this “forced silence” to assert that there is no “Amazigh problem” in Tunisia, or even Amazigh in the country.
Nonetheless, against a general backdrop of hostility to the fundamental rights of the Amazigh, the government did finally agree to the Amazigh associations’ request to abolish Circular No. 85 of 12/12/1965 banning parents from giving non-Arabic first names to their new-borns. On 16 July 2020, the Minister for Local Affairs sent an official letter to all mayors justifying the government’s decision by the fact that they were obliged to respect Tunisia's international commitments to freedoms and human rights. In fact, the Tunisian government has previously been called to order on this subject, most notably in 2009 by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and in 2016 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In addition, Tunisia was due to submit its periodic report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2020 and it is likely the government was hoping to be able to announce this good news at that time. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the committee’s session was postponed to May 2021.
This government letter does not solve everything, however. Many Islamist and Arab nationalist mayors have publicly stated that they will continue to refuse to register non-Arab names. Parents wishing to choose an Amazigh first name for their child will therefore have to resort to the courts. But how many will? For Mohsen Esseket, President of the Tamagit Association for Amazigh Rights, Freedoms and Culture, “It is difficult to take such a step, it is discouraging for parents.”
Amazigh who, despite the above, do dare to show or promote their language or culture are subject to intimidation and threats. The owner of a store in Nabeul who displayed his shop sign in three languages: Arabic, French and Tamazight was ordered by the police and the governor to remove the Amazigh script under threat of prosecution and a tax audit.
The Anti-Discrimination Points (PAD) report that: “High school students have been transferred to different schools far from their homes for talking to each other in Tamazight in the school yard”.
In March 2020, the Central Bank of Tunisia issued a new banknote paying tribute to the Amazigh potters and pottery of Sejnane, listed by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2018. However, the banknote uses the term “Berber” instead of “Amazigh”, which translates into Arabic as “barbaria”, clearly implying the word "barbarian" in its Arabic pronunciation. The Amazigh associations protested at this stigmatisation and offence and demanded (unsuccessfully) that the bank note be withdrawn and replaced with another correctly phrased.
Amazigh cultural activities
For the first time, the Amazigh New Year or Yennayer, which falls on 12 January each year, was celebrated by Amazigh associations, in some areas with the support of the local authorities. Programmes involving lectures on Amazigh history and heritage, musical performances, and exhibitions of Amazigh arts and crafts were organised in Tunis, Gabès, Tamezret, Azemour, Sidi-Daoud, Azoghrane and Kélibia.
Several newspapers also took the opportunity to publish articles on the Amazigh, lifting a veil on this hitherto hidden Indigenous culture.
The resurgence of Amazigh culture in Tunisia echoes the Amazigh cultural revival that is taking place in other countries of Tamazgha (North Africa) and meets a real need of the Amazigh to live and bring to life their ancestral culture, making it visible and sharing it. And yet the government and some Tunisians from the national Arabist and Islamist movement reject any expression of the Amazigh identity, accusing it of being the bearer of “division” of the Tunisian nation, founded – they say - solely on an Arab-Islamic identity.
Tunisia’s Amazigh in the context of COVID-19
From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, several international bodies (FAO, WHO, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) called on states to ensure that Indigenous Peoples and their territories were protected and to provide them with timely and accurate information on all aspects of the pandemic, in their own languages and in culturally appropriate forms.
No specific measures were taken to protect Amazigh populations in Tunisia. On the contrary, it was during the pandemic that water stoppages became more frequent, especially in the southern territories inhabited by the Amazigh. Nor was information on the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures implemented to combat the coronavirus translated into or disseminated in the Amazigh language. And protective equipment (masks, sanitisers, etc.) arrived very late in the Amazigh territories of the hinterland. The communities had to fend for themselves to obtain information and introduce a lockdown in order to limit the spread of the virus.
The absence of public services in the Amazigh territories is a consequence of the State’s abandonment of these territories, as it considers them of no economic interest and therefore “useless”. This marginalisation of the Amazigh regions was noted in the Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at its 59th session in September 2016 (E/C.12/TUN/CO/3).
Belkacem Lounes holds a PhD in Economics, is a university lecturer (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.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 UN Treaty Body Database. “CRC - Convention on the Rights of the Child.” 87th committee session, 17 May to 4 June 2021. OHCHR. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=2446&Lang=en
 Raynal, Matthias. “En Tunisie, la fin des prénoms interdits.”Slate, 31 August, 2020. http://www.slate.fr/story/194313/tunisie-etat-civil-choix-prenom-enfant-parents-bizerte-fin-circulaire-1965-lotfi-zitoun
 These are associations designated as discrimination watchdogs created by the Minority Rights Group in the context of its project ‘For the Capacity Building of Tunisian Civil Society in the Fight Against Discrimination’.
 Jelassi, Mohamed Amine. “Rapport d'analyse des données sur les cas de discriminations récoltées par les Points Anti-Discrimination.” Points Anti-Discriminations (PAD). Tunisia, May, 2020. https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/rapport-PAD-discrimination-2019-FR.pdf
 Amazigh World Congress. “Letter from the CMA to the Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia.” 22 September, 2020. https://www.congres-mondial-amazigh.org/2020/09/22/lette-du-cma-au-gouverneur-de-la-banque-centrale-de-tunisie/
 Kapitalis. “Les 5 Journées Tunisiennes de la Culture Amazigh se Tiendront du 10 au 14 janvier 2020 à tunis[The 5 Tunisian Days of Amazigh Culture will be held from January 10 to 14, 2020 in Tunis].” , 9 January, 2020. http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2020/01/09/les-5e-journees-tunisiennes-de-la-culture-amazighe-se-tiendront-du-10-au-14-janvier-2020-a-tunis/
 Tunisie.co Tourisme Culture. “Le Nouvel An Amazigh, ça se fête aussi en Tunisie [Amazigh New Year also celebrated in Tunisia].” 10 January, 2020. https://tunisie.co/article/13019/sortir/calendrier/le-nouvel-an-amazigh-tunisie-550610
 Metallaoui, Mohamed, and Neila Rhouma. “Discovering the Amazigh architectural heritage of Tunisia.” HAL Open Archives, 19 April, 2020. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02547360/document
 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “Indigenous peoples' health and safety at risk due to Coronavirus (COVID-19).” 27 March, 2020. http://www.fao.org/indigenous-peoples/news-article/en/c/1268353/