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Dismantling the legacy of slavery in Tunisia through legal work 

26 September 2023

By Achref Medini, previous Advocacy Officer, and Silvia Quattrini, North Africa Associate

In 2020, a court in Tunisia‘s southern town of Medenine issued a historic judgement in favour of Hamden Dali, an 81-year-old man from Djerba, allowing him to remove the prefix ‘Atig’ from his surname. The word means ‘liberated by’ and is a clear mark of the history of slavery in the country. This decision allowed Dali’s family to cast aside the stigma and humiliation of the connotations borne by the prefix. ‘It reminds us of the history of slavery and it makes the new generations suffer, our children and our grandchildren’ says Kerim, Hamden’s son.

Although slavery was abolished in the country in 1846, many Black Tunisians, especially in the south, still carry this legacy through their names and in their daily lives. Hedia Dali, Hamden’s daughter, reflected that ‘this expression makes you feel that you have been enslaved.’ Minority Rights Group International and our partner Mnemty, the main Tunisian civil society organization fighting against racial discrimination, provided legal support in Dali’s case.

In August 2020, with support of Hanen Ben Hassana, a lawyer from MRG’s legal support network, Dali’s family filed a request to remove the humiliating word from their name. After the historic decision was announced by the court in October 2020, Ben Hassena supported the entire Dali family – his children and grandchildren – to have their names changed in all their identification papers, including national IDs, and certifications of birth and marriage. The action was a necessary step to avoid any legal issue in the future, but importantly, it also relieved them of the fear and intimidation felt when having to submit documents for any reason.

Ben Hassena’s argument referred to article 2 of the organic law 2018-50 of 23 October 2018 on eliminating all forms of racial discrimination. This definition of racial discrimination relies on the one provided by article 2 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This historic decision paved the way for other families to change their names and finally move forward from this discriminatory relic of slavery.

Since 2020, members of three families have succeeded in changing their names, from ‘Atig’ Dali, ‘Atig’ Ben Salah, ‘Atig’ Ziri to simply Dali, Ben Salah and Ziri. One family was assisted by lawyer Alaa Khemiri with their case positively adjudicated by the court of First Instance of Tunis in January 2022. Another was also positively adjudicated by the court of Medenine in May 2022, and followed by lawyer Rim Abdeljaoued with the support of Ben Hassena. MRG has continued providing its support to these families through the organization’s network of lawyers, who were part of the legal clinic originally set up by its Anti-discrimination Points and All4All programmes.

In this video, lawyer Alaa Khemiri gives his testimony about a case he worked on regarding the removal of ‘Atig’.

MRG continues its efforts with its partners to end the legacy of slavery in Tunisia through legal action. As part of our programme, MRG has joined forces with Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), a leading organization in the field of access to justice, to provide a strengthened legal action against all forms of discrimination, including but not limited to that on the basis of race. The project also facilitates continual capacity building and mentoring of Tunisian lawyers, who are key actors in the country’s transitional justice process, and can provide accessible, high-quality legal aid services. Their role makes it possible to hold decision-makers and the society as a whole accountable against the legal standards to which Tunisia has committed. We are still available to offer legal services to families that want to remove the discriminatory marker from their name.

Image: Still from the video interview.