Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Amazigh are indigenous to North Africa. In Tamazight, the language spoken by Amazigh, Imazighen is the plural form, meaning ‘free people’. They are also known as Berbers, deriving from Greek for ‘foreigner, non-Greek speaking, barbaric’, though this term – used widely by invading forces and colonial authorities – is largely rejected by Amazigh themselves due to its negative connotations.
Compared to Morocco and Algeria, Tunisia nowadays has a very small community of speakers of Tamazight. However, taking language as the only index of belonging has a significant impact on figures. For instance, shilha, a variant mostly spoken in Tunisia, is classified as a threatened language and is nowadays spoken by only around 50,000 people in the governorates of Medenine, Gabes, Tataouine and Tunis. Other languages have undergone a similar decline. A study conducted in 1911 on the language of Sened (Tamazirt), in Gasfa governorate, reported that the whole town spoke the language; today, however, this regional variety of shilha is practically extinguished. There are of course many similarities between the Tamazight spoken in Tunisia and the variants spoken in other North African countries. Some can communicate more easily with each other using Tamazight than through the different varieties of Arabic spoken in their respective countries.
As a result, after centuries of assimilation, many Tunisians may identify themselves as ethnically and culturally Amazigh, although they do not speak the language, thus raising the figure for the total population identifying as Amazigh. In Sened today, for instance, there are no official figures available on the proportion of the more than 20,000 inhabitants who are Amazigh. However, if one uses family names as a means of identifying their origins, it would seem likely that the large majority of the population have Amazigh roots. Most of these families, having moved from mountain villages to Sened, no longer speak shilha themselves. However, their speech may still carry traces of the language, such as in the pronunciation and in the use of some shilha words among the otherwise dominant Tunisian Arabic.
The indigenous lands of Amazigh, also called Tamazgha, encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, Mauritania, the Canary Islands and parts of Egypt, Mali and Niger. This region is believed to have been inhabited by Amazigh since 10,000 BCE. Their territories were subsequently occupied during the Arab conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries CE and the population converted to Islam.
Tens of thousands of Arabs settled in Ifriqiya and intermarried with the local population. Most Amazigh, since they are an indigenous people, do not wish to be labelled as a minority and some instead use the French expression groupe minorisé, meaning a group that has been ‘minoritized’.
It was forbidden to speak shilha during the Bourguiba era. Nowadays, while these restrictions are not enforced so strictly, the language is still under threat. One issue is that most of those with a knowledge of shilha are just able to speak it: only a small number also know how to write it, employing the system used in Morocco or Algeria. This poses significant challenges to the integration of shilha instruction into the school system. It remains the case that, under the terms of Decree Law no. 59-53 of 1959, the use of non-Arabic names is prohibited and so in principle Amazigh are obliged to register using Arab names.
There have been several cases in recent years of people who wished to register their children with Amazigh names and were prevented from doing so because of Decree Law no. 59-53 of 1959. This decree was legally abolished in 2020, allowing the Amazigh community to legally use their names, though at the time of writing it is too early to assess whether this is being implemented: municipalities seem to assess these cases on an ad hoc basis and may not have been informed of the abolition of the decree. Though the situation has improved since the 2011 revolution, it is still the case that many Amazigh in southern Tunisia face considerable pressure to conceal not only their language but other aspects of their culture, such as traditional clothing, to secure employment and social acceptance. In this context, aspects of their heritage are now under threat, including the traditional Amazigh style of house design. While better suited to the local environment and temperature, their value is not widely recognized and many are opting instead for modern housing. In the 1960s, the Tunisian government started building new villages down in the valley as a strategy to encourage members of mountain communities to resettle there. Many started to leave villages such as Zraoua (a small village in the governate of Gabès) due because there was no access to water, electricity and other services. This has resulted in many Amazigh villages becoming abandoned and the deterioration of the remaining traditional architecture. Only a few popular tourist destinations are being preserved, such as Houmt Souk on the island of Djerba.
The Tamazight language is also under threat, with UNESCO classifying it as severely endangered, with only approximately 10,000 speakers left. There are currently six varieties of the language spoken in six areas of southern Tunisia: Sened (disappeared), Tamazretm Taoujout, Djerba, Zraoua, Douiret and Chenini/Tataouine. Many children in these regions have only ever spoken Tamazight at home. This means that when they are of age to go to school, where Arabic is the main language of education, many are confronted with a language that they do not even understand. In many cases, teachers do not speak Tamazight themselves as they are often sent from other regions to teach.
Nevertheless, in other ways there have been encouraging developments in recent years. Amazigh community representatives have highlighted how, though many issues had yet to be resolved, the available space for activists to express themselves freely in public has expanded considerably. As a result, a number of Amazigh movements have emerged in the wake of the revolution, energized in particular by young activists with an interest in revitalizing their Amazigh culture. Places where Amazigh movements are strongest are those where the language is still spoken, such as Djerba and Douiret. Some also try to encourage the revitalization of the Amazigh heritage for economic reasons, seeing it as a potential opportunity for supporting the general development of the community through tourism, handicrafts and clothing.
There are now some 13 Amazigh associations in Tunisia, all of them founded after the revolution, and their activity is increasingly prominent at an international level. In October 2018, for instance, the World Amazigh Congress (CMA) hosted its eighth meeting in Tunis, the second time the congress has taken place in Tunisia (the first time was in Djerba in 2011).
One underlying obstacle for Amazigh is their lack of political representation. There was no Amazigh representative in the Constituent Assembly when the new Constitution was being drafted, for instance, and their call at the time to institutionalize Amazigh cultural rights was supported by just two of the 217 deputies. As a result, there is no mention of Amazigh or their issues in the Constitution. To date, the main pressure for greater Amazigh rights has come from civil society rather than from policy makers or officials. Concerning the teaching of the Amazigh language, some associations in Matmata and elsewhere have launched private courses. Teaching Amazigh is therefore not prohibited, but the lack of public funding means that sustained action is a challenge. Activists are currently focusing on revitalizing awareness within the community of their rights to mobilize them. These movements are generally conducted within a framework of national unity and draw on Tunisian heritage. Some complain about a relative lack of female participation, however, as well as a lack of coordination among different movements.
Updated October 2020
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