Tunisia: a rare moment of LGBTQI+ visibility
Tunisia’s recent Queer Film Festival offered some hope to the country’s LGBTQI+ people, who have come under increased attack during the pandemic. President Kais Saied’s concentration of power under his new constitution is further restricting the ability of LGBTQI+ civil society to organise to assert visibility and confront homophobic social attitudes. Saied has also encouraged homophobia through hate speech. In this context, self-organised events like the film festival, where people can come together, be visible and develop solidarity and support structures are more vital than ever.
Following a two-year pandemic hiatus, Tunisia’s Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival made a comeback this September. This was its third edition, offering an occasion for celebration – of togetherness, visibility and resilience. But it was also an opportunity for remembrance and a moment to gather forces for the battles ahead. For Tunisia’s LGBTQI+ people, the pandemic meant a return to isolation, mental stress and increased risk of violence.
The festival came during a time of political upheaval following President Kais Saied’s seizure of power in July 2021. Having dissolved parliament and dismissed the prime minister, in July 2022 Saied pushed through a referendum to introduce a new constitution that greatly expanded his powers.
Under the new constitution, LGBTQI+ people are twice denied their rights – as citizens subjected to arbitrary rule, and as people whose gender identity and sexual orientation will potentially come under heightened attack, since the constitution is now framed with reference to religious objectives.
A space for expression
Given the unpromising context, the fact that the festival happened at all was a victory for Tunisia’s LGBTQI+ activists. Held between 22 and 25 September in the capital, Tunis, it was organised by Mawjoudin (‘we exist’ in Arabic), a Tunisian LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) that had recently premiered Tunisia’s first-ever LGBTQI+ play, Flagranti (‘in the act’), showcasing the societal and legal issues that make the lives of LGBTQI+ Tunisians difficult.
When political leaders embrace anti-rights discourse for their advantage, and rights and the space to advocate for rights are restricted, people can craft their own narratives of empowerment and develop safe spaces where they can recognise each other and realise they are not alone.
The festival included screenings, workshops, art performances and panel discussions that allowed LGBTQI+ people to forge connections, share experiences, gain visibility and build solidarity. It also emphasised intersectional issues, promoting films created by artists from the global south and who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of colour.
A risky place for LGBTQI+ people
The Middle East and North Africa region is one of the world’s worst places to be gay or transgender. In most countries consensual same-sex acts between adults are criminalised, and in some laws impose harsh prison sentences or even the death penalty for men found guilty of engaging in same-sex acts.
Although it is by no means the region’s most hostile country for LGBTQI+ people, in Tunisia same-sex acts are criminalised and can be punished with a maximum of three years in prison. No protections are in place against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The country places 169 out of 198 on Equaldex’s Equality Index, which ranks countries according to their LGBTQI+-friendliness. Tunisia scores a meagre 18 out of 100 points, and revealingly, it scores even worse for its assessment of public opinion than for legal rights, even though virtually no legal rights are recognised. This points to deep social homophobia. Hatred finds support at the highest level: during his presidential campaign in 2019, Saied called LGBTQI+ people ‘deviants’.
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nations’ Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, visited Tunisia in 2021. He found that as well as being criminalised, LGBTQI+ people face ‘widespread violence, including death threats and rape’ and that being a visible LGBTQI+ person was seen by many as challenging the social order and traditional gender roles.
In recent years, as the authorities have moved to restrict civic space, Tunisian security forces have targeted LGBTQI+ people not just for their identities, but also for their activism.
When Tunisians took to the streets in January 2021 to mark the 10th anniversary of the revolution and protest against unemployment, corruption and the government’s handling of the pandemic, LGBTQI+ protesters were singled out for arrest. The police used drones to put protesters under surveillance and posted aerial shots on social media platforms. Protesters were the victims of doxxing – the publication of personal information – and some LGBTQI+ protesters were outed, potentially exposing them to danger. When arrested at protests, many were physically assaulted, threatened with rape and refused access to legal counsel.
Among the protesters who were closely monitored and targeted by security forces was LGBTQI+ activist Rania Amdouni, a member of the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality (Damj). Rania was arrested on 27 February 2021 when she went to a police station with her lawyer to file a complaint against security force officers who bullied her online. Barely a week later, she was tried and sentenced to six months in prison for ‘violating the general morals’, ‘insulting a governmental employee’ and ‘being drunk in public places’. After having been freed on appeal, she sought asylum in France.
As protests subsided, violence continued against LGBTQI+ activists. In October 2021, Damj president Badr Baabou was brutally assaulted by two police officers. It was far from his first experience of this kind of attack.
Visibility against hate
Online harassment of LGBTQI+ people was already commonplace before the pandemic but increased under lockdown, in Tunisia as elsewhere in the region. Cases abounded of gay men being targeted through same-sex dating apps and outed on social media. Homophobic content mushroomed on social media platforms and messaging apps.
Online hate has often translated into violence. But since state institutions replicate social prejudice, the authorities have offered no protection to those attacked. The only action has come in other countries: a vocal anti-LGBTQI+ UK-based Tunisian influencer was arrested by UK police on charges of disseminating hate speech and inciting violence against LGBTQI+ Tunisians on social media.
That lack of official help makes the existence of self-organised initiatives such as the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival all the more vital. When political leaders embrace anti-rights discourse for their advantage, and when rights and the space to advocate for rights are restricted, people can craft their own narratives of empowerment and develop safe spaces where they can recognise each other and realise they are not alone. Solidarity helps develop power to reclaim public space and assert rights.
A decade ago, a political revolution enabled LGBTQI+ Tunisians to organise, speak up and take action for their rights. That revolution has now been betrayed by President Saied. But even as the tide has turned, LGBTQI+ people have continued to push forward by any means possible, art included, to try to make sure their demands remain on the agenda.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Kais Saied should commit to ensuring the protection of fundamental LGBTQI+ rights.
International civil society should support Tunisian LGBTQI+ CSOs, particularly by helping them to ensure the safety of LGBTQI+ people
International donors should support local initiatives such as the film festival to highlight the realities of LGBTQI+ life.
Cover photo by @Mawjoudin/Twitter