North Africa, West Asia

Black Tunisian women: ceaseless erasure and post-racial illusion

Four black women from all walks of life speak up about their experiences. They can no longer be silenced.

Chouaib ElHajjaji
17 April 2018
Tunisia 2.jpg

Rania, in a protest against racism. All rights reserved

“I was six years old when I came running to my mother complaining about a grade that a teacher gave me and I still remember the look she gave me and then said: little girl, you have to study hard and work twice as hard as your peers, life is hard for people with our skin. If you fall, no one will be there for you.” 

This memory still resonates with Houda, a 27 year old civil engineer. Supported by her friend Sabrine, she tells her story with excitement and a bitter sadness. Both girls grew up in the deep south of Tunisia and both emphasized the role of the black woman in their community. A role that requires a lot of sacrifices but little reward in exchange.

tunisia 1 .jpg

Sabrine and Houda, the faces of “the strong black woman.” All rights reserved.

“Because you have a whole community on your back , your whole family” says Houda with a confident tone, “as a black woman, I am always thinking of how to improve the situation of my family and only with education and work are we able to do that. My mom was always my source of inspiration, she was the driving force of the whole family”

The black body experience: sexualization, exotification, and myths

Rania and Maha, even though both of them come from different backgrounds, have chosen to be a walking manifestation of activism. Maha, a social geography researcher and Ph.D student, reveals “I don’t straighten my hair anymore, I keep it natural, I feel authentic”. The pride in her voice can’t go unnoticed and for her it was a long battle, “all these products, all these chemicals, they damage your hair and they damage you on the inside”, she continues “I believe that black women’s natural hair is a statement, an identity, an act of resistance against the eurocentric beauty standards”.

Rania who is in her mid 20s, studying International Relations and has a part time job at a local bakery, confirms this with a twist in her story: “I like to wear braids, they make me feel authentic.” But her tone shifts to a more rigid one, “do you believe that there’s only one beauty shop that caters to our needs, and it does not offer the complete services, so as a result I may end up asking my friends to bring me products from abroad, the situation is really frustrating.”

Some cases, can be worse. Houda remembers the struggle of “straightening my hair each day”before wearing the hijab. She continues with a fading smile, “I would cry and cry and beg my mom to stop, every night before going to school.” She stops to gather her thoughts and continues: “as young as 8 years old, the teachers would tell me to “calm it down!”

Passionately she exclaims, "calm it down! What is that supposed to mean? Our identities have been attacked over and over by being obliged to conform to the majority standards.”

The bitterness becomes overwhelming and her voice cracks, “I started hating my hair, internalizing all of that racism inside of me and I would ask my mom, why can’t I have pretty hair like my friends.”

Black hair politics can take a darker tone, as it is often associated with being unprofessional and “too radical”, according to Maha who stated that “it can become another obstacle in the face of black Tunisian women trying to make it in the Tunisian society and around the world.” 

“I used to run but I grew a thicker skin”

Maha confesses over the phone, “when I first came to Tunis, I was overwhelmed by the sexual harassment that I had to go through.” Maha is interrupted by flashbacks. She declares with a clearer and stronger tone, “black women are seen as an object, a tool to achieve sexual satisfaction and these women would be lying to you if they said the opposite.” Her vivid tone intensifies, 

“I used to run and jump into the first Taxi I saw and I would go to my apartment and cry the whole day.” She gathers her thoughts, her tone is more straightforward: “but I grew a thicker skin.” 

Tunsia 3.jpg

Maha, in a protest against racism. All rights reservedBeing exotified as pleasuring partners is not the only myth that black women suffer from in this country, as revealed by the four women and better explained by Sabrine, “black people are either sex tools, magic spell breakers or soul healers.” She reveals with a sour tone: “Oh yes! The shame, non-blacks bring you in their weddings to protect them from the evil eye and black magic; and non-black men marry you to get rid of bad luck and heal their souls, so dehumanizing, so repulsive.” The atmosphere grows intense but the sadness can’t be ignored: “I have become weary of non blacks, how do they see me, it is really heartbreaking.” 

“That Woman is not me”

Maha insists that “while the Tunisian government and segments of society pride themselves in theirrecord regarding women’s rights, Tunisia’s feminism is selective and is pushing black women's narratives as they suffer from systematic oppression instead of giving them more space.”


No time to breathe, she effortlessly continues, “while we are only called when it is a public holiday related to slavery or racism, we are excluded from seminars and conferences related to feminism. I watch them and I just say that woman is not me.” Maha says this with anger building up in her voice, or perhaps it is the frustration that wore these women out. She then recalls repeated incidents that confirmed her doubts: “none would interact with me when I post something about the marginalization of black women on social media groups dedicated to feminism, but when it is your ‘mainstream feminism’, everyone is debating and interacting with one another and I am ignored or ridiculed by fellow feminists who don’t believe our stories.” 

Where do we go from here? 

“But where do we go from here? How do we move forward ?” All these women wonder. Even if they are strangers to one another, they are united by the stories of their identities .

But Maha is done with questions and wants a radical movement based on proactive actions. She declares: “salvation, for black women, is black feminism” which defines as “feminism that can only be done by black women for black women in order to attain socio-economic and political justice. Indeed, as the backbone of their community, black Tunisian women’s bodies and contributions must be celebrated and cared for instead of being alienated, excluded and minimized to a mere object and I stand firmly by these words” she loudly declares.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData