The fight against homophobia in Tunisia

Ahmed Farah, 18 Tunisia Young Arab and Med Voices
February 2017

The criminalisation of homosexuality is being used to violently oppress queer men and women in Tunisia. Though there are allies fighting for the recognition and acceptance of the LGBT community, public opinion is still one of indignation. Ahmed Farah argues that the fight for LGBT rights in Tunisia should focus fundamentally on the people, whose efforts to rehumanize the LGBT community, can be used to combat the violent extremism against it.

For the rest of the world, 230 might not mean anything aside from being a three digit number. For the Tunisian LGBT community, however, it is much more than that.

230 is the number of the Article of the Tunisian Penal Code that criminalizes sodomy, which has been used for decades now to oppress, torture and incarcerate queer men and women in Tunisia. Every other week or so, you’d hear of a new arrest, usually of one or multiple gay men, in one of the country’s urban canter’s. Typically, these men are caught in public spaces by cops who may suspect they may be gay just based on their behaviour. They are then taken into custody only to be verbally and physically abused by Tunisia’s notoriously violent police force. Suspects have to endure anal tests; an archaic and medically invalid procedure that allegedly identified if a person has been penetrated or not. Not only are such tests mostly useless and complete guesswork, but they infringe on the basic human right to dignity and freedom from torture. Refusing to be tested by a medical doctor – although legally possible – is considered by the court as evidence supporting allegations of sodomy. When the Tunisian people revolted in 2010 and 2011, it did so in the pursuit of freedom, dignity, and equality. To a certain extent, the revolution succeeded at affording to Tunisians, yet minorities such as the LGBT community remain disenfranchised by their government. What’s even graver, however, is that this community remains excluded by the vast majority of Tunisian. According to a Pew study in 2013, 94% of Tunisians answered no to the question “should society accept homosexuality?”. When many of these arrests and trials against gay men happen, the public opinion is one of support, not one of indignation. This is why change to the laws has proven to be very tough in Tunisia. Support does exist among politicians and lawmakers, such as the former minister of justice who publicly declared that article 230 of the penal code should be abolished. However, the public’s uninformed categorical refusal for acknowledging the LGBT community and affording its members with the rights that everyone in Tunisia should have is making it very hard for any real change to happen.

Nevertheless, there is hope for Tunisia. In 2013, the first organization fighting for the rights of LGBT individuals in Tunisia was approved to be active within the country. Ever since, the numbers of such associations have rapidly multiplied. In addition, many actors, singers, and artists have come out as allies to the LGBT community.

Moreover, many groups of independent creators and bloggers are trying to re-humanize LGBT people and spread knowledge about what it means to be gay and how it is completely normal. These campaigns gained significant momentum on social media and had reached hundreds of thousands of Tunisians. Even though they might not have changed the opinions of the masses towards homosexuality, they’ve gotten people to achieve some basic understanding for gay people and the fact that their identity is valid.

Although the fight for LGBT rights in Tunisia might seem on the surface to be one about laws, court cases and medical practices, it’s really about something more fundamental: people. It’s people and their outspoken and actionable support or opposition which shapes a nation and the rights and freedoms it affords to its citizens. By humanizing the LGBT community, activists are not only drawing support for it but also combating the emerging violent extremism against it.

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