We are here to resist’: Tunisia’s LGBT community demand change
Tunisian activists have taken increasingly bold steps in the last three years to open up real and 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), which in 2015 became the first LGBT group in the Arab World to receive official authorisation.
“It was clearly a gain from the revolution,” he added.
Since the start of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, rights organisations and activist groups have been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the country. 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 the law.
As countless associations surfaced in the post-revolutionary years, local groups that openly support the cause – including 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, 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”.
|We didn’t imagine such an event would get that good response from the public. We didn’t expect such large turnout.|
“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, while 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 providing security.
“The festival exceeded our expectations. We were so happy with the outcome,” Bousselmi rejoiced. “We can’t wait for the second edition!”
Organisers plan to show in next year’s edition more selected films from the Maghreb region and Africa that better represent the audience.
The festival was a remarkable move for the queer community in the North African country where homosexuality is still criminalised legally and a social taboo.
Mawjoudin was founded by young Tunisian 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 the capital Tunis – notably from the interior areas – 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.
Just a month before Mawjoudin’s film festival success, Shams Rad – believed to be the first LGBT+ oriented radio station in the Arab world – hit the airwaves in Tunisia despite threats and opposition from more conservative sections of society.
“Homosexuality is taboo in a Muslim state. It touches our religion and threatens our values. Tunisian society totally rejects it,” commented Abdel Wahab Hamza, coordinator of the Islamist Zitouna Party and hinted at small protests staged by Islamic charities against the station.
Radio Shams was launched by the Shams under the slogan “dignity, equality”, months after Shams Mag was first published in March 2017, the country’s first LGBT magazine.
It launch was in response to “the need for objective media coverage of the LGBT cause in Tunisia”, said Bouhdid Belhedi, executive director of Shams association.
After going live on 15 December – as a pilot project with support from the Dutch embassy – the online radio station made its official start on 5 March.
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”, relating to the situation of LGBT communities in MENA countries, and others where homosexuality is penalised.
With eight radio presenters, Shams Rad soon recorded 2,500 listeners in the three months following a pilot phase, and hit a new high with around 2,000 listeners in March.
Promoting gay rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal means facing oppression, daily harassment, attacks and hate crimes.
“I was the first person who appeared publicly in the media to discuss homosexuality in Tunisia,” uttered Belhedi, the head of Shams Rad. “That’s when I started getting death threats,” he went on, “I was physically attacked twice.”
The director and members of Shams have been harassed on the street and insulted or threatened on social media by religious figures and conservative political groups.
|We are activists with a cause to defend. We are ready to pay the price for it. We are here to resist|
“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 also offers legal assistance and defence lawyers in court for queer individuals who are detained or persecuted.
Shams also provides medical assistance to victims of hate crimes, sheltering people who have been attacked, rejected by their families or evicted from their homes because of their sexuality.
After its 2015 launch, it soon was the subject of a smear campaign with human rights groups believing this was linked to its outspoken support for repealing Article 230 – which criminalises homosexuality, and highlighting previous arrests of men on sodomy charges.
It was suspended by the Tunisian government in January 2016 after it was accused of not registering according to the country’s NGO law and changed its statute editing out its support for homosexual rights.
Shams says it had evidence that it had completed the necessary steps for legal registration, and it pointed to its statute which clearly states that its aim is to defend “sexual minorities” – meaning LGBTQI persons whose definition includes homosexuals. The group finally won its battle in court and the government’s legal suspension of Shams’ activities was revoked.
Decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia remains the first frontier for Shams to breach, which could in turn effect a long-term change societal attitudes for 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. 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 on the situation of individual liberties and gender equality in Tunisia in May 2017, with Article 230 among the legal reforms proposed.
In another milestone in LGBT rights in Tunisia, Human Rights Minister Mehdi Ben Gharbia announced in September the country’s commitment to end forced anal examinations of suspected homosexuals. The unlawful practice has been slammed by rights groups as “inhumane” and defined by several international organisations as “torture”.
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.
He also cautioned that the wider, conservative Muslim society must first be prepared before the law changes.
Such recent positive developments concerning LGBT rights give hope for growing awareness and acceptance of the community in Tunisia. Despite the debate within Tunisian society, the government does not yet show the political will to deal with the issue.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.