OPINION Sifa 16 September 2022
Beginning of Queer visibility
In 2011, the Tunisian people overthrew the regime of the despotic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his familial clan through popular uprising. In addition to this macro-level change, the revolution opened opportunities and spaces for challenging multiple oppressions in everyday life. For example, the experience of this historical event is very important in the public emergence of the Queer movement in Tunisia. While during the revolution, many activists took part in the demonstrations in the street, after the fall of the authoritarian regime, they established many organizations advocating for Queer rights like Mawjoudin. I visited Tunisia in May and June 2022, and what follows is my reflection based on some of my observations as part of a research on sexualities and revolutions in Africa.
In post-revolutionary Tunisia, the debates about homosexuality have become a topic in the public sphere, even among political leaders who wanted to keep heterosexuality as the only norm. The first Queer initiatives like the Gay Day magazine in 2011, or the establishment of one of the first organizations openly advocating for Queer rights transformed the understanding of the revolution and the idea of freedom significantly. It brought the realization that the question of justice and equality cannot be limited to only heterosexual bodies. Queer activism alerted the society and members of the ruling class, especially members of the “Islamist” al-Nahḍa party, politicians who were in power since the first elections after the revolution. The Islamists tried to put red lines and limits on freedom and the revolutionary spirit based on what they called Tunisian civilization and their interpretation of religion. However, in addition to local advocacy for their rights, Queer organizations joined hands with the rest of the Tunisian civil society in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary times to challenge these dominant positions. As a result of these collaborations, Queer organizations participated for the first time in the Universal Periodic Review in 2017 and put pressure on the state to revoke the infamous article 230 of the Tunisian penal code. In fact, this law criminalizes same-sex relations and homosexuality after an anal examination, a practice that is used as a proof to imprison homosexual people for up to three years. The state accepted the recommendation and promised to stop practicing the anal test. Nevertheless, we should not forget that we are still in a country that prohibits homosexuality and people still go to prison because of their sexual orientation. In addition, the police still refer to the article 230, and sometimes even other “moralist” laws, like the law 226 for “indecent assault”, to arrest Queer people. Furthermore, since a huge part of the society does not respect and accept differences, a Queer person faces multilayered oppressions driven not only by state institutions, but also by religious institutions, and ordinary members of society. In these scenarios, law enforcement bodies are reluctant to support and protect non-normative sexual and gender groups.
Necessity of wide-ranging activism: more than laws
This realization calls for a wide-ranging form of activism. For instance, one thing I learned during my short visit is that the fight for Queer rights is not only about changing laws but also about changing the mentalities of the people towards queerness. There is an acute understanding that, if it is not accompanied by societal change, changing the laws alone is not enough, although it is a major step in bettering the life of non-normative gender and sexual groups. Thus, certain organizations continue their advocacy work for the rights of Queer persons in other areas too on top of fighting for decriminalization. For example, the Mawjoudin association, which in Arabic means “we exist”, chooses to organize cultural events like festivals and performances in order to empower the community and humanize the debate about non-normative sexualities in Tunisian society. This is very important also when it comes to the production of content and discourse by community members who are aware that the laws are not enough to fight against homophobia. Thus, being active and visible might be costly – even if there might be legal protection – and thus violence and uncertainty mark the context of the post-revolution. Queer activists who are visible are still victims of threats, especially on social media. Therefore, the aforementioned believe that there is a need to change mentalities, not only laws, remains also a very fundamental step. During some of my discussions, some activists told me that they personally prefer to focus their energy working on projects that will help educate people and empower members of the community about non-normative sexualities instead of sticking to a sort of activism that prioritizes state-centred change. This is because homophobic people do not think about laws criminalizing same-sex relations – most of them never even heard about them – when they commit their hateful acts. That is why activists believe that the abolition of laws alone, even while it is an important step, is not effective if you do not change the mentalities of the people. In conclusion, although state-centered activism and top-down policies are important, education and understanding to respect differences in general and non-binary sexualities in particular, is a constant necessity to fight homophobia.
 Kréfa Abir, ‘Le mouvement LGBT tunisien: un effet de la révolution?’ (2019) Vol. 49(2) Ethnologie française 243
 Abrougui Afef, ‘Gayday Magazine: Tunisia’s first LGBT magazine’ <https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2012/03/gayday-magazine-tunisias-first-lgbt-magazine/> accessed 13 September 2022
 Human rights organizations document this targeting of Queer people and the use of violence like in this report: HRW, ‘Tunisia: Police Arrest, Use Violence Against LGBTI Activists’ <https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/23/tunisia-police-arrest-use-violence-against-lgbti-activists> accessed 14 September 2022