Tunisia’s LGBT+ community is pioneering in midst of political unrest

The first queer film festival in the Maghreb was launched last week.

As the people streamed into the Institut français in downtown Tunis to attend to the first queer film festival in Tunisia and the Maghreb their faces reflected everyone’s excitement and emotional turmoil.

To have such an event take place in a country where homosexuality is still criminalized legally and socially is a symbolic move for the queer community in Tunisia.

Both Tunisian and international LGBT+ activists were moved. Ali Bousselmi, the co-founder of the young Tunisian NGO  Mawjoudin, “We Exist”, who organized the festival, told WIB he was still in disbelief that this was actually happening.

The 4-day-long Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival that took place in the third week of January is extremely audacious, as homosexuality is still legally a crime in Tunisia and punishable with up to three years in prison.

Tunisian activists strive to enhance their legal, societal and socio-political activism through art, shining a light on the struggles the community faces with the aim of contributing to changing the status quo.

Tunisia’s ‘month of protests’

January has become the “month of protests” in Tunisia, as it marks the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, as well as the bread riots in 1984, which unsettled the Bourguiba government, the first government after the French protectorate.

The country is in political unrest with escalating demonstrations against a new financial law, mostly affecting the poor.  Following the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economic reform of the Tunisian government geared towards cutting government expenditure and devaluing its currency, putting additional pressure on the living costs.

The newly introduced policy has caused a dramatic increase in prices, causing uproar. While the majority of the protests went peacefully, some escalated and resulted in violent clashes with police forces with over 200 people arrested, and one dead.

An experiment amongst political turmoil

On the way to the festival, some attendees had to navigate through the violent demonstrations.

“They were football fans protesting against the rise of ticket prices, and the police used tear gas against them. It was my first time to experience that.”, explained an attendee to the festival, who prefers to stay anonymous. “We had to hide in a doorway.”

The audience at the festival in January 2018.

We Exist

Regarding the current political situation and security issues involved, the activists had to proceed with utmost cautiousness. 12 short and mid-long films from the Middle East and North Africa were screened which focused on the difficulties the queer community in these countries face.

Ali Bousselmi recounted that they only had problems with a printing company, who refused to print programs and flyers for an LGBT+ event.

“We are here, we exist. We are in desperate need of access to the cultural sector, and of solidarity.”

As the first in the Maghreb region, the festival puts the Tunisian queer community in a position to be heard internationally and to raise awareness of the difficulties the community faces.

“We are here, we exist. We are in desperate need of the cultural sector, and of solidarity.” said Bousselmi emotionally, “Mawjoudin (“we exist”), it always comes back to that.”

Living under the shadow

Queer communities in the Middle East and North Africa face a variety of struggles, such as oppression, exclusion, daily harassment, open attacks, death threats, hate crimes and discriminatory laws.

The Tunisian LGBT+ organization Shams was suspended by the government in January 2016 due to its outspoken support of repealing article 230, which criminalizes sodomy, and its criticism of previous recent arrests and prosecutions of men accused of homosexuality.

They criticised the conviction and unlawful anal examination of a 22-year-old known as Marwen in the city of Sousse in the North-East of Tunisia in September. The group also condemned a case from December 2015 of six male students convicted and banned from their city on sodomy charges.

These struggles were powerfully illustrated in the film “Fi Dhill” (Upon the Shadow) by Nada Mezni Hafaiedh, screened at the opening in front of a packed audience. Nada is a Tunisian film director, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and has made herself known for tearing down stereotypes through her work.

ex-Femen takes the front seat

The documentary features Amina Sboui, the famous outspoken Tunisian feminist and LGBT+ activist and former Femen, and her gay and trans* friends living in a house in Sidi Boo Said, the famous and picturesque town just outside of Tunis, rejected by their families and society.

Amina, who had previously spent nearly three months in prison for her activism with Femen and a topless photo, left the radical feminist group in 2013 accusing them of Islamophobia, as France24 reported.

Support across the Mediterranean

WIB also spoke to Guido Schäfer at the festival,  representant of the Hirschfeld Eddy Stiftung, an NGO working with LGBT+ rights nationally and internationally.He told WIB that the foundation wants to support the recent positive development concerning LBGT+ rights in Tunisia, in order to protect the few achievements that have already been made and to further fuel the movement.

In supporting organizations, such as Mawjoudin and an event like this is crucial, he continued. “It motivates and feeds the self-esteem of the attendees, and also influences – through positive media coverage – the Tunisian society.”

“We are proud of Mawjoudin and what they have accomplished,” he concluded.

Tunisian LGBT+ activism paying off

The positive development pointed out by Schäfer refers to several events in the past year, such as a report written in May 2017 by a coalition of a number of Tunisian organizations working on LGBT+ rights, which was a first for Tunisia. The coalition was the first time these organizations came together and joined forces, which provided a platform through this report to have their voices heard internationally.

In another milestone in LGBT rights in Tunisia last September, the Tunisian Minister for Human Rights Mehdi Ben Gharbia announced the country’s commitment to cease forced anal examinations of LGBT+ people, which counts as a major achievement.

Just two months later, the first LGBT+ radio in Tunisia and the MENA region, ShamsRad, was launched by the Tunisian NGO Shams despite death threats and made international news. Its slogan is “dignity, equality” and Amina Sboui regularly presents a show.

Despite incredible obstacles and risks that queer activists face, their work is showing results, and this, just as the visibility and recognition achieved through this film festival, gives hope for future achievements and a growing awareness and acceptance of the community in Tunisian society.

A Phenomenal Finish

The festival found its phenomenal finish in a glamorous drag show performed and led by the artist Khoukha McQueer. Known for glamour, style and making awe-inspiring appearances, this artist was a well chosen ambassador of the festival.

This show exemplified the audacity and risks taken by those who organized this film festival, and its success bringing a certain shine to the eyes of the team and the participants.

“We are looking forward to planning the next edition, and to inviting even more participants and activists.” – Ali Bousselmi

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FeaturesHuman Rights
Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently working in as a Trainee at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tunis, a German foundation linked to the Green Party with a focus on ecology, democracy, gender equality and peace. For the past 3 years, she has focused her work and studies on the Maghreb. Based in Tunis, she has been working in a gender research project, as a Freelance Researcher, Translator, and for NGO projects focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. As a polyglot, she has previously spent time living and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. In her free time, she experiments with music, and mixing of sounds.
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