• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Tunisia

As elsewhere in North Africa, the Indigenous population of Tunisia is formed of the Amazigh. 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 Amazigh 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 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, Matmata, Tozeur and 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.

The rights of Amazigh women in Tunisia

The Tunisian Constitution, adopted in 2014, does make some democratic advances.[1] Article 21 stipulates with regard to women that: “Citizens are equal in rights and duties. They are equal before the law without any discrimination.” However, given that both government and Parliament have been dominated by conservative Islamist parties since the 2011 “revolution”, no new laws have been passed to abolish the old laws that still discriminate against women, especially in the areas of marriage and inheritance. Moreover, under the influence of Islamist movements, Tunisian society has become more Islamised, and this has weakened the democratic and women’s rights movements.

With regard to the specific situation of Amazigh women, the Amazigh culture and its traditions of freedom and secularism have always been opposed by Arab-Muslim governments and Amazigh women are therefore subject solely to the rules of the dominant society. Worse, they are among the most marginalised of women. Living in poor areas, they have little access to education and their jobs are limited to manual work such as handicrafts or agriculture, activities that are not highly valued in Tunisia. Official recognition of and respect for the Amazigh component of Tunisian society and consideration of Amazigh customary law as one of the sources of the country’s legislation would be the solution to ensure progress in the rights of Amazigh women in Tunisia.

General political situation

Tunisia has not known political stability since the 2011 “revolution”. The Constitutional Court has not yet been established because of deep differences within Parliament. 2021 was marked largely by the fact that the President of the Republic, Kais Saied, elected in 2019, decided on 25 July 2021 to suspend Parliament and dissolve the government, dominated by the Islamist party Ennahda and its allies. The Head of State justified this decision by invoking Article 80 of the Constitution, which authorises him to take “all necessary measures” in case of “imminent danger threatening the nation or the security and independence of the country”. And, according to him, the mismanagement of the health crisis, the political blockage and corruption represent imminent danger. The President of the Republic’s opponents, as well as some analysts, see this as a “coup d'état”, enabling the Head of State to seize power.[2] On 13 December 2021, the President of the Republic announced that a referendum would be held on 25 July 2022 to adopt the draft reform to the Constitution, and that new legislative elections would take place on 17 December 2022.[3]

Article 128 of the 2014 Constitution also created the National Human Rights Institution but, to date, this institution has not been established due to political differences within the Tunisian Parliament.

This chaotic backdrop prevented any significant legislative progress from being made in Tunisia in 2021. There was even a regression, albeit symbolic, with the disappearance of the Ministry of Human Rights during a ministerial reshuffle in January 2021.

Amazigh of Tunisia still the victims of forced assimilation and discrimination

Organic Law No. 2018-50 of 23 October 2018 on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination was intended to protect the Amazigh from racism and discrimination and promote respect for their rights as an Indigenous community distinct from the dominant Arab society. And yet the Amazigh are not legally recognised as an Indigenous community and nor are they protected by any law or regulation. The Amazigh of Tunisia are hidden, they have no visibility in public spaces, it is as if they did not exist. The Tunisian Constitution defines the country as an ethnically homogeneous, one and indivisible Republic whose identity is “Arab-Muslim”, formed of a single category of citizens: Arab and Muslim Tunisians.[4] The Amazigh of Tunisia are thus considered to be like any other Tunisian citizen, i.e. Arab-Muslim citizens and thus with no right to claim their own identity. Their historical, social, linguistic and cultural differences are not legally recognised and cannot be used to claim specific rights or to denounce any discriminatory treatment based on race, ancestry, ethnic origin, language or culture. This official denial of the existence of Amazigh in Tunisia allows the Tunisian authorities to claim that there is no discrimination against this Indigenous community in the country.

And the voice of Amazigh citizens and associations has no public space in which to express itself. Amazigh are rarely invited to speak in the public or private media (TV and newspapers), nor even to use their right of reply when they are insulted.[5] They censor themselves on social media for fear of stigmatisation, threats, insults and serious difficulties in their family and professional life.

For similar reasons, but also because of the cost of legal proceedings and a lack of confidence in the process, no complaints have been filed against perpetrators of racist or discriminatory acts against Amazigh. This is enough for the Tunisian government to be able to claim that the Amazigh are not discriminated against and that they are treated equally alongside other Tunisians.

In its periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of  Racial Discrimination, the Tunisian government stated that “there is no ‘Berber issue’ in Tunisia. Tunisia is a homogeneous country in terms of language, religion and culture. In Tunisia, the Berbers are completely integrated and do not suffer any form of discrimination.”[6]

In fact, many mayors and municipal officials continue to refuse to register Amazigh first names in the civil registry because they are not Arabic, despite the repeal in July 2020 of Circular No. 85 of 12/12/1965, which prohibited the registration of non-Arabic first names for new-borns. This situation was denounced in 2021 by the NGO Minority Rights Group and a group of Tunisian associations,[7] who noted in their report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that:

On 16 July 2020, the Ministry of Local Affairs announced the abrogation of Circular No. 85 from 1965 prohibiting the registration of new-borns under an Amazigh name or other any non-Arabic name in civil registration books. Several cases of refusal were documented [...] where decisions were being made on an ad hoc basis, at the discretion of the public servant in charge of the registration.

During the session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child devoted to examining Tunisia’s periodic report in May 2021, the head of the Tunisian delegation stated that his government’s report “was produced with the participation of civil society organisations.” However, according to the NGO World Amazigh Congress, “no Amazigh organisation was invited to participate in the preparation of Tunisia’s report.” There is therefore clear discrimination and exclusion of Amazigh organisations in Tunisia.

Violation of international refugee law

Slimane Bouhafs, a citizen of Algerian origin living in Tunisia since 2018 and holding political refugee status, disappeared from his home on 25 August 2021. He reappeared on 1 September 2021 before the judge of the court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers, who ordered his detention. The Tunisian authorities had therefore extradited Slimane Bouhafs to his country of origin where he has been persecuted, in violation of the Convention Relating  to the Status of Refugees. Amnesty International and some 40 Tunisian associations expressed their indignation at this serious breach of human rights. On 3 September 2021, the Tunisian Head of State announced the opening of an investigation to determine “the circumstances” of Slimane Bouhafs’ “departure from Tunisian territory.”[8] To date, the results of this investigation are unknown.

Treaty body recommendations not followed up with action

2021 saw no significant decision or action from government or the public institutions aimed at favourably following up the recommendations of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 2016 (E/C.12/TUN/CO/3) with regard to Tunisia’s Amazigh, nor those of the Human Rights Committee of 2020 (CCPR/C/TUN/CO/6). However, during the sessions of the Committee on the Rights of the Child devoted to Tunisia on 26, 27, 28 May 2021, Ms Sana Bouzaouache, representative of the Ministry for Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights said that: “The Tunisian Ministry of Education plans to implement the teaching of the Amazigh language as an optional language in the coming years.”[9] And yet no consultation with stakeholders nor any project has been implemented to date aimed at teaching the Amazigh language in Tunisia.

As for the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, adopted in June 2021 (CRC/C/TUN/CO/4-6), these are too recent to have been implemented. The main ones concerning Amazigh children are the following:

In the area of civil rights and freedoms, the Committee:

welcomes the repeal in 2020 of Circular No. 85 of 1965, which had prohibited the civil registration of new-borns with an Amazigh or other non-Arabic name, but it is concerned about the administrative and judicial barriers faced by parents who do not register their children within 10 days of birth. […] The Committee recommends that the State party: (a) remove all administrative and financial barriers faced by children in gaining access to birth registration and receiving birth certificates; and (b) ensure that all children, including migrant children, children with non-Arabic names and children who were born prior to the repeal of Circular No. 85 of 1965 have access to birth registration and identity documents.

In the area of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the Committee “recommends that the State party continue its efforts to promote religious tolerance and ensure the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” In terms of child health and welfare, the Committee recommends the government address “regional disparities in access to health care and services and increase its allocation of resources for primary health care to make it both accessible and affordable, especially in rural areas.” With regard to special protection measures for Amazigh children, the Committee on the Rights of the Child “recommends that the State party: (a) ensure the right of Amazigh children to intercultural and bilingual education that respects their culture and traditions, including by integrating Amazigh as a second language in schools; and (b) develop initiatives, in cooperation with Amazigh cultural associations, to reconnect Amazigh children with their cultural practices.”

Finally, the Committee asked the Tunisian government to take all measures to ensure that the recommendations made are fully implemented and that a child-friendly version is disseminated to children. It also recommended that these concluding observations be widely disseminated in the languages of the country.

Belkacem Lounes holds a PhD in Economics and Social Sciences, is a university professor (Grenoble Alpes University), expert member of the Working Group on  Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, member of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Charrier, Liliane. “La Tunisie adopte la Constitution la plus progressiste du monde arabe.” [Tunisia adopts the most progressive constitution in the Arab world], , TV5 Monde, January 26, 2014. https://information.tv5monde.com/afrique/la-tunisie-adopte-la-constitution-la-plus-progressiste-du-monde-arabe-4867

[2] Ben Hedi, Raouf. “Tunisie -  Coup d’Etat ou pas, les islamistes l’ont bien cherché !” [Tunisia - Coup or not, the Islamists had it coming!]. Business News, July 26, 2021. https://www.businessnews.com.tn/tunisie--coup-detat-ou-pas-les-islamistes-lont-bien-ere,520,110498,3

[3] Kapitalis. “Présidence-Tunisie : Législatives anticipées le 17 décembre 2022,” [Presidency-Tunisia: Legislative elections expected for 17 December 2022]. Kapitalis, December 13,2021. http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2021/12/13/presidence-tunisie-legislatives-anticipees-le-17-decembre-2022/

[4] Tunisian Constitution, Preamble and Articles 1, 5, 6, 9 in particular. Al Bawsala. “Constitution de La République Tunisienne. Tunis le 26 Janvier 2014.” Marsad Majles. https://anc.majles.marsad.tn/uploads/documents/Constitution_Tunisienne_VF_Traduction_Non_Officielle_Al_Bawsala.pdf

[5] Responding to a question from the host of the program “Littarikh” on the Tunisian channel Attessia TV as to the reasons for “the vulgarity and sexual perversity of Tunisians,” Mr. Temoumi, guest of the day, replied that: “The origin of this vulgarity and sexual perversion dates back to the time of the Berbers.” He added: “It’s called Berber repression.” He went on to say that: “These Berbers or Amazigh (...) are known for these practices.” See letter from the World Amazigh Congress (CMA) to the director of the Tunisian television Attessia TV, March 10, 2021:. “Lettre du CMA au directeur de TV9.” Congrès Mondial Amazigh, March 10, 2021. https://www.congres-mondial-amazigh.org/2021/03/10/tunisie-lettre-du-cma-au-directeur-de-tv9/

[6] GlobalNet: Gnetnews. “Les Berbères de Tunisie sont-ils discriminés ?” [Are the Berbers of Tunisia discriminated against?] GlobalNet: Gnetnews, March 4, 2009. https://news.gnet.tn/archives/temps-fort/les-berberes-de-tunisie-sont-ils-discrimines/id-menu-325.html

[7] Minority Rights Group International. In partnership with the Anti-Discrimination Points Network: Association pour la Promotion du Droit à la Différence, Association Tunisienne de Prevention Positive, By Lhwem, Damj,

Danseurs Citoyens Sud, Mnemty, Terre d’Asile Tunisie.  “Review of the combined 4th to 6th Periodic Report of Tunisia.” Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, 85th session, Geneva, 7 – 25 September 2020 , https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CRC-MRG-shadow-report-2020.pdf

[8] Lounis, Meriem Nait. “Affaire Slimane Bouhafs : Kaïs Saïed annonce l’ouverture d’une enquête.”  [Slimane Bouhafs case: Kais Saied announces opening of investigation], Inter-Lignes, September 4, . https://www.inter-lignes.com/affaire-slimane-bouhafs-kais-saied-annonce-louverture-dune-enquete/

[9] Tunisie Amazigh. "La Tunisie se prépare à enseigner la langue amazighe.” [Tunisia prepares to teach the Amazigh language], Tunisie Amazigh, June 12, 2021. https://www.tunisie-amazigh.com/la-tunisie-se-prepare-a-enseigner-la-langue-amazighe



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