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Alessandra Bajec

Tunisia rocks taboo on LGBTQ+ rights

Activists in Tunisia continue to break taboos on LGBTQ+ rights [Getty]

Date of publication: 31 March, 2018

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Post-revolutionary Tunisia continues to push the debate about gay rights into the public sphere, braving a repressive law, gender-based discrimination and homophobic violence, writes Alessandra Bajec.
Tunisian activists have taken increasingly bold steps in the last three years to open up real, public debate on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) issues. Recent moves in 2017 and at the start of this year, in particular, offer a glimmer of hope in the conservative Muslim country where same-sex relations have long been taboo.

"The 2011 revolution unlocked a certain degree of freedom of expression for the gay community, alongside other minorities and subjects who were oppressed under Ben Ali’s dictatorship," said Mounir Baatour, lawyer and president of Tunisian LGBT association Shams (Sun in Arabic). "It was clearly a gain from the revolution," he added.

Ever since the beginnings of the Jasmine Revolution, rights organisations and activist groups have been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia. Under Article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code, homosexuality is punishable with up to three years in prison and young men are regularly detained and prosecuted, some of them simply for acting feminine.

Under Article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code, homosexuality is punishable with up to three years in prison and young men are regularly detained and prosecuted, some of them simply for acting feminine

As countless associations surfaced in the post-revolutionary years, local groups that openly support the cause such as Shams, Damj, Mawjoudin or Chouf made their appearance and soon became part of the Tunisian Association for the Defence of Individual Liberties (ADLI).

Gay rights groups gained an unprecedented space at the heart of Tunisia’s civil society, taking the discussion in public and in the media. The subject of LGBT rights has attracted more and more attention in the recent period as multiple actions have been initiated by organisations campaigning for sexual minority rights and human rights groups.

The Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival took place in January of this year, making it the first LGBT+ film festival in Tunisia and the Maghreb. Organised by Tunisian NGO Mawjoudin (We Exist in Arabic), the four-day festival showcased 12 films from North Africa and the Middle East raising awareness on queer issues.

Nada Mezni Hafaiedh’s documentary Under the Shadow, featuring the intimate lives of gay Tunisians, was screened on the opening day. The Tunisian film debuted at last year’s Carthage Film Festival in November and was generally well-received. The event also included panel discussions about art and queer resistance.

According to the organisers, the first edition of the festival was aimed at promoting queer culture and focusing "on the issue of non-normative gender identities and sexual orientations".

Gay rights groups gained an unprecedented space at the heart of Tunisia’s civil society, taking the discussion in public and in the media

"We didn’t imagine such an event would get that good response from the public. We didn’t expect such large turnout," Mawjoudin co-founder Ali Bousselmi uttered in disbelief.

With an attendance of over 700 LGBTQI individuals and supporters, the event went smoothly without any police intimidation or threats. For security reasons, the opening was held in the premises of the French Institute of Tunisia, and locations for the festival's cultural activities were revealed only by word of mouth. The precautionary measures were deemed necessary in the absence of police officers to provide security.

"The festival exceeded our expectations. We were so happy with the outcome," Bousselmi rejoiced. "We can’t wait for the second edition!"

The organisers plan to show more selected films from the Maghreb region and Africa that better represent the audience in next year’s edition.

The festival was a remarkable move for the queer community in the North African country where homosexuality is still criminalised legally and socially.

Mawjoudin was founded by Tunisian young activists, feminists and LGBT persons in 2014, and formally established in 2015, with the aim to fight discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Counting 192 members driven by an inclusive, feminist vision, the association adopts a decentralised, participatory approach in order to encompass LGBT+ individuals from outside Tunis, notably from the internal regions, and meet the specific needs of the different communities across the country.

Mawjoudin serves the queer community through providing medical, legal and psycho-social support, creating safe spaces and support networks, running workshops, documenting violations against LGBTQI individuals, cultural activities, media campaigns, advocacy and lobbying to change the anti-LGBT legal framework.

The festival was a remarkable move for the queer community in the North African country where homosexuality is still criminalised legally and socially

Just a month before Mawjoudin’s film festival success, Shams Rad, believed to be the first LGBT+ oriented radio station in the Arab world, started broadcasting in Tunisia despite threats and opposition from the most conservative sections of the society.

"Homosexuality is taboo in a Muslim state. It touches our religion and threatens our values. The Tunisian society totally rejects it," commented Abdel Wahab Hamza, coordinator of Zitouna party hinting at small protests staged by Islamic charitable associations after launch of the radio.

Launched by the LGBT rights group Shams under the slogan of "dignity, equality", Radio Shams came after Shams Mag, the country’s first LGBT magazine. Bouhdid Belhedi, executive director of Shams association, said the magazine appeared in March 2017 in response to "the need for objective media coverage of the LGBT cause in Tunisia." 

After going live on December 15 as a pilot project with support from the Dutch embassy, the online radio station made its official start on March 5.

While much of its programming is dedicated to LGBT issues, Radio Shams also covers political, economic, social and cultural news. Special programmes include The Law is Your Law addressing LGBT rights, Terrorism 230 concerning the penalisation of homosexuality and A Voice From Across The Borders related to the situation of LGBT communities in MENA and other countries where homosexuality is penalised.

Staffed with eight radio presenters, the station recorded 2,500 listeners during almost three months in its pilot phase, and it hit a new high since the March 5 launch.

Promoting gay rights in country where homosexuality is illegal means facing oppression, daily harassment, open attacks and hate crimes from the conservative society.

"I was the first person who appeared publicly in the media to discuss homosexuality in Tunisia," said Belhedi. "That’s when I started getting death threats. I was physically attacked twice."

The director and members of Shams have been either aggressed in the street, insulted or threatened on social media by religious figures and conservative political groups in the country.

Promoting gay rights in country where homosexuality is illegal means facing oppression, daily harassment, open attacks and hate crimes from the conservative society

"We are activists with a cause to defend. We are ready to pay the price for it," Shams' president stressed. "We are here to resist". 

The gay rights group works actively to create a societal debate around LGBTQI issues in Tunisia through its media and advocacy work.

It offers legal assistance and defence in court to queer individuals who are detained or persecuted, gives medical help to victims of hate crimes and shelters those who have been either attacked in the public, rejected by their families or evicted from their homes because of their sexuality.

Shams association was set up in 2015 becoming the first LGBT group to receive official authorisation in Tunisia and the Arab region.

Soon afterwards, the organisation was subjected to a smear campaign which human rights groups believed was linked to its outspoken support for repealing article 230 of the penal code, and its criticism of prior arrests and prosecutions of men on sodomy charges.

It was suspended by the Tunisian government in January 2016 following allegations that the association had not registered as required by the NGO Law, and had changed its statute which did not include its support of homosexual rights.

Yet, Shams had evidence that it had completed the steps for its legal registration, and it pointed to its statute which clearly reads that its aim is to defend "sexual minorities" meaning LGBTQI persons whose definition includes homosexuals. The group finally won in court as the government’s decision to suspend its activities was revoked.

The decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia remains the frontier to breach which could in turn effect a long-term change in the society’s mentality in years to come.

In a move to defy the country’s anti-LGBT laws, a rally organised by the Association of Free Thinkers – banned for "safety" reasons – was held by activists in Tunis demanding the elimination of the section 230 of the penal code criminalising same-sex practices. Police broke up the demonstration removing some protesters from the scene with violence.

"We submitted a draft law to parliament calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, yet no response to date," human rights defender Baatour noted.

"We're hoping to demand before the constitutional court – once it is set up – that Article 230 is declared unconstitutional."

The article violates two key rights guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution – the right to a private life and non-discrimination.

A coalition of Tunisian organisations working on LGBT+ rights compiled a first report in May 2017 on the situation of individual liberties and gender equality in Tunisia, with Article 230 among the legal reforms proposed.

In another milestone in LGBT rights in Tunisia, last September human rights minister Mehdi Ben Gharbia announced the country’s commitment to end forced anal examinations of suspected homosexuals. The unlawful practice has been slammed by rights groups as "inhuman" and defined as "torture" by several international organisations.

Ben Gharbia said that Tunisia is "committed to protecting the sexual minority," although he did not give a timeline for when the test will be officially scrapped, and he cautioned that the wider conservative Muslim society must first be prepared before the law changes.

Such recent positive developments concerning LBGT rights give hope for growing awareness and acceptance of the community in Tunisia. Despite the debate within Tunisian society, the government does not show political will to deal with the issue claiming that it is not a priority.


Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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