On 23 January this year – the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Tunisia – seven women launched Voices of Tunisian Black Women, a Facebook group for Black women to discuss issues of abuse and discrimination. It’s the first organisation of its kind in the country.
Khawla Ksiksi, Maha Abdelhamid and Huda Mzioudet were the first three who decided to form the collective after they encountered negative reactions to a post on the #EnaZeda (#MeToo) Facebook page about sexual harassment faced by Black Tunisian women.
The women gathered to reflect on the backlash they had experienced and discussed the idea of creating an all-Black female safe space where women could express themselves without being judged or criticised.
“We shared this unease of talking in mixed movements where we couldn’t be free to say what we want,” said Abdelhamid, a PhD researcher in sociology based in France. “We agreed that local feminist circles could never represent us nor understand what we go through,” adding that Black women are often accused by fellow feminists of exaggerating and victimising themselves.
They explain that discussion of racism was taboo under former president Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship, which ended after an uprising in 2011. Since the early days of the anti-racism movement, Black women have been on the front line amid growing awareness of their greater invisibility in comparison to Black men.
Ksiksi, a 28-year-old anti-racist feminist activist who works at the Tunis branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a transnational political education institution, said Black women are victims of double discrimination – on account of their colour and their gender.
She added that they not only struggle with social, economic and professional discrimination, but also sexual harassment. Black women are often the target of particular forms of sexual harassment, because they are commonly perceived to be ‘sex machines’ and even miracle healers of all sickness.
“We are stigmatised, hyper-sexualised, and objectified,” she said. “Harassers take the liberty of doing anything against your will because they know Black people are marginalised.”
'We are stigmatised, hyper-sexualised, and objectified'
Voices started out by collecting testimonies from Black women about their experiences of racism, then coordinating group discussions around daily issues of concern to Black women. It also has a very active, private Facebook group with at least 400 members. Fortnightly webinars cover topics ranging from beauty standards to slavery, racism in the workplace and institutional racism.
“The whole idea is to shift Black women from the fringes to the centre, to enable us to claim our rights as a category of people who’ve been treated as if we never existed,” said Ksiksi.
“It’s no longer about debating whether racism exists or not. We need to talk about the situation of Black women, the multiple discriminations they suffer and try to find solutions,” argues 26-year-old Ghofrane Binous, an active member of the collective and former vice-president of the anti-racist association, Mnemty.
Binous insists that other group members should be encouraged to use the platform more to make their voices heard – as many women are alienated and afraid to speak up.
Binous herself once lacked the confidence to speak in public. She remembers how, when she was just five, children in her neighbourhood told her she was “dirty” because her skin was Black. Later, she started using bleach on her face in the hope her skin would turn lighter.
At primary school, one of her teachers would regularly slap her and kick her out of class without reason.
When she worked as a flight attendant with national carrier Tunisair, she endured racist slurs from one passenger. She said that management was unhappy with how vocal she was in speaking out about the incident and made her job increasingly difficult until she decided to quit. Her activism was a consequence of this racist experience.
Abdelhamid explained that Voices intends to restore a positive self-image and self-esteem for Black women in a society where they are made to believe they are “ugly” and need to use skin-whitening and hair-straightening products.
The aim is “to gain worthy visibility and emancipate, countering the biased portrayal that society has imposed on us through history”, she said.
Voices of Tunisian Black Women plans to launch a website in Tunisian Arabic, modern standard Arabic (Tunisia’s official language) and French. Lawyers are helping the collective, offering free legal support to victims of racist attacks, and filing suits against aggressors based on Tunisia’s anti-racial discrimination law.