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One year on, Tunisia's #MeToo movement grapples with race

by Ban Barkawi | @banbarkawi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 October 2020 10:29 GMT

Tunisian activist Khawla Ksiksi (right) holding a poster during an #EnaZeda protest outside parliament on Nov. 14, 2019. Courtesyof Khawla Ksiksi

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In Tunisia, Black women continue to face unequal job prospects and are often subjected to sexual harassment

By Ban Barkawi

AMMAN, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Feminist activist Khawla Ksiksi did not expect a backlash from supporters of her country's #MeToo movement when she used the campaign to highlight the double discrimination faced by Black women in Tunisia.

Inspired by the global movement to expose sexual abuse and harassment, Tunisian women's campaigners launched their own version #EnaZeda in 2019, sparking street protests and a long-overdue debate about sexual violence and gender inequality

But 28-year-old Ksiksi, who is Black, said that while EnaZeda had been instrumental in helping women speak up against sexual abuse, awareness about racism in the North African country was still in short supply.

"The second you address the issue of racism alongside these movements, there is resistance," she said.

"Racism for Tunisians means beating or killing a Black person - anything else is not considered racism."

She said being at the "bottom of the social and economic pyramid" has made it difficult for Black Tunisians to advocate for their cause, even within social movements like EnaZeda.

Global anti-racism rallies triggered by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May, have led to a push for greater inclusiveness within the #MeToo movement, which on Wednesday marked its three-year anniversary.

Activists in France's #BalanceTonPorc, meaning "expose your pig", and in Chile's "a rapist in your path" movement, have called each other out for failing to recognize the unique forms of harassment faced by women of colour.

The internal reckonings have been uncomfortable, and at times hostile.

When a Black activist friend of Ksiksi's posted about sexual harassment faced by Black Tunisian women in a EnaZeda Facebook group, she was attacked and accused of exaggerating.

"We started to receive lots of comments accusing us of playing the role of the victim. We tried to explain that as women who are not Black it's hard for them to feel what we go through everyday," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Racism does not exist here," one activist wrote.

Tunisian activist Khawla Ksiksi, co-founder of Voices of Black Tunisian Women collective. Courtesy of Khawla Ksiksi

Tunisia became the first Arab country to criminalize racial discrimination, with the first conviction under the law taking place in February 2019.

But Black Arabs in Tunisia, who descend from sub-Saharan Africans, still suffer unequal job prospects and are often subjected to sexual harassment and derogatory portrayals in the media.

In addition to its Black population, Tunisia hosts thousands of sub-Saharan students who attend its universities and is a transit hub for many Europe-bound migrants.

Ksiksi was 16 when she first heard the age-old North African saying which translates to 'a Black woman purifies the blood' - an expression that suggests sex with them cures illness.

"Drivers stop in the street and wave their money out the window because for (harassers), in their minds, getting a Black woman is the easiest thing," she said, describing an experience that is common among Black Tunisian women.

"This makes the sexual harassment that we face completely different from the harassment that non-Black women experience."

Inspired by the work of American political activist and philosopher Angela Davis, Ksiksi who trained as a lawyer, co-founded the Voices of Black Tunisian Women.

The feminist collective provides a safe space for Black women to share their experiences of everyday harassment and to discuss beauty standards and the country's legacy of slavery.

The EnaZeda movement itself has been instrumental in helping women to speak up against sexual abuse, and Black women have been a key part of it, Ksiksi said.

The EnaZeda Facebook page today features a logo with the Black Lives Matter slogan, a nod to Black Arabs who have used the pivotal moment to draw attention to an often-neglected conversation in Middle Eastern society.

"We see huge progress," Ksiksi said. "But this progress is only relative compared to our goals." 

    Related links:

    FACTBOX-Five ways women protested against sexual violence this year

    Could Egypt's #MeToo movement be the tinder for a 'feminist revolution'?

    'Treated like crap' - Black women march for equality in U.S. protests

(Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Tom Finn and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)