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Man can drop part of name denoting slave ancestry, Tunisian court rules

A court in Tunisia has allowed an 81-year-old man to remove a word from his name that marked him out as descended from slaves, in the country’s first ruling of its kind, his lawyer has said.

Tunisia abolished slavery in 1846, but critics say it has not done enough to address racism against black Tunisians, who make up 10-15% of the population and are mostly descended from slaves.

Campaigners said the case brought by Hamden Dali would open the door for others who wanted to drop the word “atig”, or “liberated by”, which originally denoted a freed slave and forms part of the names of many Tunisian families.

Dali’s lawyer, Hanen Ben Hassena, said the association with slavery was an assault on human dignity and the man’s adult children had faced discrimination because of the family name, which had made it harder to get jobs.

“In ‘Atig Dali’, there is a certain humiliation because it is as if the person is not free – there is a discomfort for the family to live with this name,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after the ruling on Wednesday.

Black Tunisians are descended from sub-Saharan Africans brought to Tunisia by slave traders. Activists say they face unequal job prospects and high levels of poverty and are often portrayed negatively in the media.

Jamila Ksiksi, a member of parliament who played a role in passing an anti-discrimination law called law 50, said the court’s ruling was “extraordinary”. “Civil society started this battle after the revolution [in 2011] and now we are seeing the fruits of this and of the law 50, which facilitated this achievement,” she said.

Black Tunisians have historically been underrepresented in government and the country appointed its first black minister, Kamel Deguiche, this year.

The president of the Tunisian anti-racism association Mnemty, which has campaigned for anyone with a slave name to be allowed to change it, welcomed the ruling. “Every person born in Tunisia is born free, so I don’t see why we keep that on paper,” said Saadia Mosbah. “In history books, OK, but not on our identity.”

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