Saturday 11 February 2017

Feminism and LGBTQIA+ in Tunisia

Guest post by Hella Grichi

“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law. Understand that we are you. Understand that if we decide to have sex whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking.”
― Derek Jarman

Yet, post-revolution Tunisia, despite its leap forward in 2011, is still a nation where religious fundamentalism and obsolete colonial articles inhibit both society and law. Morality is still law. The private lives of consenting adults are still at stake. Our personal views and beliefs are—despite the constitution's clear statement on liberty of conscience―still seen as a threat to decency and morality.

It is true that Tunisian women have reached a respectable degree of women's liberation: women are able to have abortions, they receive the same salaries as their male co-workers, they can get divorced and demand child support, and education is mandatory. However, underneath this post-colonial progress lies another side of Tunisian society: the side where cisgender Tunisian men who don't pertain to any minority have the upper hand in the country. Women and minorities are still subject to discrimination, ranging from subtle misogynistic comments to outward violence and oppression. Bigotry and misogyny are so deeply rooted into the minds and language of Tunisians that they themselves are often unable to even recognize the harm they are inflicting. Gender roles are enforced, LGBTQIA topics are taboo, and breaking the vicious cycle of obligatory traditional "values" and morality turns out to be a harder task than expected. It is even more complicated and dangerous for women and minorities in rural areas. The problem is with the underlying hegemonic structure that dominates Tunisian society; laws can be amended but their implementation will only succeed when the average Tunisian will finally understand that the devotion to a dominant set of beliefs should not dictate the life of others.

Women in Tunisia are still widely expected to succumb to the daughter – wife – mother cycle. They are treated like an expired product once they near their thirties unmarried. They are expected to protect the "honor" of their families and not dance too far out of line. It is true that it is common to find women whose families encourage their daughters' professional path but the patriarchal expectations usually accompany them far into adulthood and also often overshadow their career or dreams.

From my own humble viewpoint, feminism is not intersectional enough. We need to work more on including black, LGBTQIA and disabled women. Unfortunately, sex workers are as good as unrepresented in the movement.

LGBTQIA rights are the most difficult rights to address in Tunisia. Not only because of the colonial article 230 of the Penal Code of 1913 (modified in 1964) which decrees imprisonment of up to three years for private acts of sodomy between consenting adults but also due to Tunisian society's deeply rooted hatred towards LGBTQIA. The stigma surrounding them is astonishing and the violence and inhuman treatment they are subject to is heartbreaking. They are still forced to undergo illegal and inhuman anal tests to "verify" their homosexuality (a test with no medical basis of course). This test is only there to humiliate the victim.

Human Rights Watch reports state:
"The police arrested six students in the city of Kairouan, 166 kilometers from Tunis, in their student housing apartment in December, on sodomy charges, and subjected them to anal testing. On December 10, the first instance tribunal in Kairouan sentenced them to three years in prison and ordered them banished from Kairouan for an additional three years. In both cases, the Sousse Court of Appeal reduced the sentence – to two months in the first case, and one month in the second. But the men retain criminal convictions on their records and had already served their time in jail."
What is promising though is that Tunisia has LGBTQIA associations pushing for more rights and providing a safe space for the community and victims of hate crimes and discrimination. Two famous associations are Shams ("Sun") and Mawjoudin ("We exist"). In order to paint a more tangible picture of today's LGBTQIA struggle in Tunisia, I had the honor to interview Khalil, a Tunisian who is not only a rebellious genderqueer person but also a brave activist who staunchly believes in the LGBTQIA movement in Tunisia.

Do you think the situation for LGBTQA tunisians is getting better or not? How do you think the situation can be improved?

Khalil: The persecution of LGBTQIA+ is highly increasing, mainly due to the fact that we are more visible now. The current context is not totally favorable for the emancipation of this movement although global pressure induced by the progressive forces and their interest for minorities is growing and growing. Unfortunately, the rise of conservatism and political Islamism are hindering the establishment of coexistence.

Do you think the West should interfere in this or should this matter be resolved without interference?

Khalil: In my opinion, I think that the pressure that foreign elements are applying can be but beneficial especially when it comes to the decriminalization of homosexuality. The LGBTQIA+ movement as well as the Feminist movement are universal movements. These movements are not restricted to a certain minority or territory but are instead present all over the world and need to be connected and united in collaboration and cooperation to collectively further the cause. Some activists come from very different backgrounds and often bring universal values with them which can render the movement skeptical towards the interventions of certain elements or particular ideologies and behaviors.

Cross-dressing is not illegal, but transgender people and gay people, are often accused of violating Article 226 of the national penal code which prohibits "outrages against public decency." [Huffington Post. "Tunisia's New Gay Rights Fight" 2014]

Morality. Public decency. Vague, undefined, subjective constructs reign over Tunisia's youth that is ringing for breath, dreaming of tolerance, dreaming of a better Tunisia. If we could only replace "public decency" with "human decency", our country would be so much better off. If we could finally understand that what others do with their lives (as long as they do not harm anyone) is none of our business, we would be able to achieve so much. If only mutual respect for each other was the norm, I wouldn't have to fear for thousands of innocent people—many of them friends—who live every day in fear of this medieval witch hunt.

Problem Daughters is thus the ideal space for writers facing these problems. It is an anthology that provides a platform where others might fear to tread. It will "amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these."

"How can I help?" you might ask?

Here are some useful links:
Tunisian LGBTQIA+ associations:


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